Future of CSR in India

The Future of CSR in India

India both leads the world in some areas of CSR and trails a long way behind in others. Part 5 (in a 5 part series) explores the future of CSR in India following the CSR rules of India’s Companies Act 2013.

The Future of CSR in India

If I am totally honest, I am now only becoming aware of the things I don’t know about India. I didn’t know about the scale of illiteracy, infant mortality, lack of basic services to a big chunk of the population and wealth inequality.

Rumsfeld and the Johari Window

I am in a Rumsfeldian world of Known Unknowns. But perhaps unlike our friend Donald, I’m not using that as an excuse for ignorance. I’m actively aware of my ignorance on India, and hope that you will help enlighten me.

There is loads of room for comments (below). But even in my ignorance (arrogance), I have a few parting thoughts.

Sustainability Nomenclature

Ordinarily, when someone at a conference starts to talk about defining CSR/Sustainability/Corporate Responsibility/etc…* , I start planning what I am going to do on the weekend, or begin to compose my next novel or engage in some form of self-harm, which is usually more productive.

Usually it is a waste of time and more about positioning whoever is trying to define CSR as being more personally powerful under their favoured definition than other definitions. So tedious, and reminds me of a certain lack of intolerance.

But I found myself engaging with the definition discussion in new ways in India. That’s because companies now have to understand CSR as meaning corporate philanthropy, at least when it comes to meeting their 2% rule obligations.

So I listened with some sympathy to a consultant at the conference who was (protesting too much) that Indians will need to have a clearer and broader definition of Sustainability if companies are to move beyond philanthropy. I don’t know if Sustainability means anything beyond environment in India, nor very much about other wider definitions of CSR, but one thing seems clear – CSR in India among business Executives means only one thing – corporate philanthropy.

So India will need to have some hard discussions about how business can be more responsible in its core operations, and what language it will use to get to that outcome.

Business Culture

CultureI can’t tell tell you about some of conversations I had with Executives in India, because they will too easily lead to identification of the people and companies involved. Suffice to say that they told me things that made my toes curl – stories of corruption at the highest levels, stories of nepotism of the worst kind and stories of injustice visited upon those least able to defend themselves.

None of those things are good for business. They all serve to increase costs, hide injustice, preserve the interests of the powerful and stifle innovation and productivity improvements. India isn’t a land of equal opportunity and while business culture perpetuates that, it misses out on India’s greatest resource – its incredible people.

Sustainability Growing Pains

bone inflammationIt strikes me that CSR is in a very big growth phase in India. In addition to the talk of CSR and its attendant corporate philanthropy, there is excitement about the reinvention of capitalism in India.

In some ways it is a little like Sustainability Maternity (although that is more like an unnecessary plug than an actual connection). That’s especially the case when Indians rate companies higher than the rest of the world on ability to have a positive impact on social and environmental issues, at least if you believe Cone’s 2013 Global CSR Study.

If Indians are to continue to believe that companies are more able than government or NGOs to bring about social and environmental change, then CSR must expand into ever-widening circles of influence. I only hope that the increasingly strategic use of corporate philanthropy is the sign of greater things to come.

I’ll leave almost the last words to Ratan Tata, the former chairman of Tata Sons, and one of the most respected business people in India:

“NGO evaluation portals and the pooling of resources by SMEs

could help to streamline the CSR investments,

and questions will continue to be asked

about the government’s role in mandating such investments.”

Even as this debate continues, the more important question that the Indian businesses need to answer is, “How do we align these government mandated CSR activities to handle India’s socio-environmental challenges while enabling better long term profits for the business?”

I look forward to how India answers that question in its own context.


This is the last in a five part series.

* My approach is very different when talking within companies – understanding how those things are defined is very important in terms of getting them to see the broader implications of CSR. For me, it is merely about connecting organisations to the consequences of their operations and behaviour, that is, connecting real-world relationships.

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