Bala Vikasa: A Pioneer in Community-Driven CSR for Sustainable Impact

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Shoury Reddy

Over the past 32 years, Bala Vikasa has grown to be one of the biggest NGOs in India, pioneering several innovative and successful community-driven sustainable development programmes in the areas of women empowerment, water, education, agriculture, environment and model villages, impacting over eight million people, especially from rural poor communities. Bala Vikasa has, to its name, over 23,000+ women self-help groups, 1500+ community water purification plants, 450+ overhead tanks, and 6000+ borewells spread over 7000+ villages of seven Indian States. 

We are also widely recognised for desilting and restoring over 800 minor irrigation tanks, inspiring the much-touted Mission Kakatiya scheme of the Government of Telangana, and for building Gangadevipalli as a model village, which was mentioned in the Prime Minister’s address while launching the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana in the Parliament. 

Expanding the scope of our programmes, we have been working extensively with several businesses, including reputed Multinational Corporations (MNCs), in conceptualising, designing, and implementing high-impact Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives in education, safe water, water conservation, environment, women empowerment, and livelihoods since the CSR Act came into force in India in 2014. The CSR models we developed are built on the proven results of our community-driven sustainable development approaches and continue to integrate community participation and contribution at various stages of the CSR project cycle.  

But much of our reputation among diverse development stakeholders is around our community-centric approach to development – making most of our initiatives highly participatory and sustainable. 

Ideas like community participation and contribution, grassroots capacity-building (building communities before building projects approach), community ownership, and collective responsibility, which are accorded the highest regard and integrated compulsorily into the project cycle, have ensured the widespread success of all our interventions.

Whether it is the community water purification plant in Atmakuru established in 2004, or the overhead tank set up in 1978 in Reddypalem village, or the self-help group formed in the village of Padamatigudem in 1994, all continue to be operational to this day and tell the story of delivering sustainable impact.

Delivering Community-Driven, Results-Based CSR Programmes

Expanding the scope of our programmes, we have been working extensively with several businesses, including reputed Multinational Corporations (MNCs), in conceptualising, designing, and implementing high-impact Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives in education, safe water, water conservation, environment, women empowerment, and livelihoods since the CSR Act came into force in India in 2014.  

The CSR models we developed are built on the proven results of our community-driven sustainable development approaches and continue to integrate community participation and contribution at various stages of the CSR project cycle.  

For example, one of our most successful CSR projects is the establishment of Sustainable Community Water Purification Plants (CWPPs) in villages affected by fluoride contamination across five States. While many others have also established community water purification, including Governments, many closed down or are struggling to deliver due to a lack of mechanisms (community-driven) for plant management and maintenance. 

Since 2014, we have partnered with 13 CSR partners to set up 598 CWPPs with a total CSR fund of Rs 20.06 Crores. Over 11 lakh people, especially from rural poor communities, access safe drinking water every day from these plants at Rs 3-5 per 20 litres. However, in all these projects, the CSR contribution was only 40 per cent of the total cost. 

There was a 40 per cent contribution (~Rs 20 Crores) by the Gram Panchayat to the project cost (in the form of land, room, and borewell allocation) and 20 per cent of the costs (~ Rs 10 Crores) were met through beneficiary contribution (in the form of a one-time membership fee, purchase of jerry cans, etc). Sustained efforts were made by a locally elected water plant committee to ensure that 70 to 80 per cent of the households in the village paid membership fees, ensuring that the ownership of the CWPPs and the responsibility to maintain and sustain them was with the communities.

While CSR opened a new avenue for partnerships and funding for NGOs like ours, and along with it, access to the Corporations’ resources in terms of capital, technology, and expertise to radically change the effectiveness, quality, and scale of social impact programmes, our founder André Gingras, a seasoned community development expert, saw beyond that. He saw how emerging corporate frameworks such as the triple bottom line, ESG, and CSR directly impact communities and how these could powerfully drive their development and empowerment. He saw an opportunity for an organisation like ours to inform businesses of community-driven sustainable development approaches where the communities, the beneficiaries at the last mile, are involved in the process and benefit the most by the end of it all.  

By conducting regular monthly meetings, identifying and addressing any challenges in CWPP maintenance and operation, reviewing the water purchase and distribution records, motivating people and ensuring maximum consumption of safe water, water plant committee members are ensuring that the CWPPs are always in service, said Nagaraju, the Sarpanch of Annasagar of Kamareddy District in Telangana.

Savitha, a homemaker from Nagireddypet, highlights that when an individual donates, it significantly impacts the overall community contribution to the CWPP. This dynamic creates a scenario in which those benefiting from it might perceive themselves as dependent on the generosity of others. However, Savitha notes that by paying a Rs 300 membership fee, she obtained equal rights and a sense of ownership over the CWPP. She can question the management committee when there are operational issues or mismanagement. If contributing a modest one-time sum of money can potentially safeguard her family from illnesses and the associated medical expenses for an extended period, Savitha is more than willing to make that payment.

The effectiveness of this model led a CSR partner to choose our NGO to revive 93 defunct community water purification plants established by the Government of Karnataka in the district of Kalaburagi. With active community participation and contribution, 28,500 families are now accessing safe water from these plants.

Another successful CSR project in the water conservation sector was also implemented. Since 2020, 1705 farm ponds have been constructed with a fund of approximately Rs 3.58 Crore from six CSR partners. Every farmer with a constructed farm pond paid for the costs of transferring the excavated silt (Rs 6-7k per farmer, adding up to a total community contribution of Rs 1.03 Crore) and allocating a short parcel of his arable farmland for the farm pond. While onboarding, the farmer required intensive motivation and awareness creation from the field teams. Their active participation ensured that 785 million litres of water potential was created annually for their agriculture, and for environmental sustainability.

 

This collaborative approach where we, along with the CSR partner, beneficiary communities, PRI institutions, and local committees, all work together to collectively plan, implement, monitor, manage, and own not just the project but its results, has been greatly appreciated by Corporates who are looking for sustainable impact from their projects. 

Two of the models we developed are adjudged as the best models for CSR by the Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs (IICA). So far, we have worked with over 40 CSR partners in implementing diverse projects with a total CSR funding outlay of Rs 80 Crores. The key driver for these partnerships is the crucial role we play in entrusting the communities with our CSR projects. 

Bala Vikasa CSRB, located in Hyderabad, Telangana, drives a community-first approach to CSR, leveraging the experience and expertise of our community-driven development programmes. It offers advisory services to corporates in designing and implementing innovative, community-driven CSR programmes and in assessing their social impact. Backed by an experienced and active grassroots development organisation with feet on the ground, CSRB is well-positioned to articulate the communities’ needs, priorities, aspirations, assets, and socio-cultural contexts for effective CSR planning and design through participatory approaches, where trust, mutual respect and cooperation between the stakeholders leads to successful, high-impact programmes. 

Going Beyond CSR Project Implementation: A Beautiful Exchange

While CSR opened a new avenue for partnerships and funding for NGOs like ours, and along with it, access to the Corporations’ resources in terms of capital, technology, and expertise to radically change the effectiveness, quality, and scale of social impact programmes, our founder André Gingras, a seasoned community development expert, saw beyond that. He saw how emerging corporate frameworks such as the triple bottom line, ESG, and CSR directly impact communities and how these could powerfully drive their development and empowerment. He saw an opportunity for an organisation like ours to inform businesses of community-driven sustainable development approaches where the communities, the beneficiaries at the last mile, are involved in the process and benefit the most by the end of it all.  

The ultimate aims and objectives of meaningful and results-based CSR drive development. In a fast-changing society, development challenges keep changing. And so do the solutions and approaches to them. It is organisations like ours that are exposed to this changing landscape; are quick to innovate, and let their day-to-day learnings guide their development practice. This is something that holds great value for CSR implementers looking for real-time insights to drive impactful programmes. 

At the same time, André Gingras also foresaw the limitations and challenges that corporates would face in meeting the intended goals and objectives of CSR, which an NGO like ours could help with.

The first challenge is the corporations’ capacities to drive development programmes. Corporations would need to equip themselves with the knowledge and skills to understand and address complex social challenges and to monitor and measure the impact and sustainability of their initiatives effectively. Building internal capacities on these is extremely important to design and deliver optimal results for the communities, even through competent implementing partners. 

The second one is community involvement. Holding effective interactions with communities and securing their participation in the projects is going to pose a big challenge for corporates with a significant impact on CSR results and impact assessments.

The third is that CSR implementation runs the risk of being solely compliance-driven, top-down, duplicative and ineffective due to the reasons mentioned earlier. This would result in losing a golden opportunity to drive large-scale, sustainable impact for the communities at the grassroots.

This led him to the idea of establishing a flagship institution that leverages our broad-ranging expertise in driving high-impact community-driven sustainable development and rich experience in delivering multi-stakeholder capacity-building programmes to motivate and transform businesses into potent catalysts of social change and sustainable impact through vehicles such as CSR and beyond. That is how the Bala Vikasa Center for Social and Responsible Business (CSRB) was born in 2014.

Bala Vikasa Center for Social and Responsible Business: For Businesses that Care

Bala Vikasa CSRB, located in Hyderabad, Telangana, drives a community-first approach to CSR, leveraging the experience and expertise of our community-driven development programmes. It offers advisory services to corporates in designing and implementing innovative, community-driven CSR programmes and in assessing their social impact. 

Backed by an experienced and active grassroots development organisation with feet on the ground, CSRB is well-positioned to articulate the communities’ needs, priorities, aspirations, assets, and socio-cultural contexts for effective CSR planning and design through participatory approaches, where trust, mutual respect and cooperation between the stakeholders leads to successful, high-impact programmes. 

The experience of delivering effective capacity-building programmes to over 16,500 development professionals from 86 countries for the past two decades through Bala Vikasa’s People Development Training Center (PDTC) has created the impetus for extending the same to CSR implementers. Capacity-building programmes on community-driven development design and best practices, community mobilisation, motivation and engagement approaches, social impact monitoring and assessment frameworks are delivered regularly to strengthen CSR practice. 

CSR implementing partners are incubated in multiple areas covering programmatic development and organisational development, and tailor-made capacity-building programmes are delivered to help them improve their capacities in meeting the expectations of the CSR donors. 

Shoury Reddy Singareddy is the Executive Director of Bala Vikasa.