COVID-19 – A Defining Moment for Corporate Social Responsibility

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Alka Talwar

The current global pandemic triggered by COIVD-19 is a crisis on hand no one expected, let alone prepare for it.  In the coming weeks and months, when the dust finally settles on this, we can expect a lot to be said and written about its origins and what we could have done to avoid it.  However, in doing so, we can achieve very little in real terms if we only focus on this specific challenge and do not dig deeper and reflect on challenges lying ahead.

Let us first look at what happened in the last few weeks in India and how our collective responses have been. Based on official information available, for a country of nearly 1.4 billion people, India has been doing fairly ok. The two-phased lockdown declared by the Government of India, despite the expected impact it will have on the economy in the coming months, has so far helped in containing the spread of the virus. We are far from declaring a total victory, but as a country, we seem to be managing it in the best of our capacities by coming together to come out of it.

The responses from across the country have been admirable, to say the least.  For starters, many large Indian corporate houses have made generous financial contributions including the Rs 1500 Crore committed by Tata Trusts and Tata Sons towards building the war chest to fight COVID-19.  Further, several Tata Group companies, including Tata Chemicals, have also stepped up their efforts to help local communities by providing food rations, personal protection equipment and using their official communication channels to spread awareness around this disease. Common citizens, several volunteer organisations along with corporates across the country have proactively stepped up to help in this hour of need.

As dark and gloomy the situation may seem today, we believe that this too shall pass and India will hopefully be stronger, more mature and resilient by the time the last COVID-19 patient is discharged from the hospital.

Perhaps now is also a good time to reflect and ask ourselves some important questions – What did we miss? What more can we do?

Thinking long-term when we have a crisis on hand is not easy.  But that is also precisely why we should be doing it.

By and large, India is a compassionate society and history has shown that as individual citizens, we do not hesitate to run that extra mile to help someone in need.  So we must look at how we open our arms wide enough to help those who are going to be so deeply impacted by this that it may drag them down to poverty levels from where they may find it difficult to emerge. While the government needs to play its part, it is also essential that larger institutions, whether for or not for profit, take on higher responsibilities to do things individuals cannot. What you will read in the next few paragraphs is not an attempt at providing a comprehensive list or a magic wand to solve all our problems, but just a peek into what more we can do.

As a young country, we have failed on two fronts – ensuring a geographically-balanced economic growth and empowering people living outside large urban circles with the right skills to ensure they live well in their home towns and villages.

Let us, for a moment, consider the challenges posed by the movement of the migrant workforce across the country. While food and temporary shelter provide some relief, it is not a long-term solution. Today’s youth living in small villages, thanks to mobile phones and access to information, have the same aspirations as any child in a big city.  Ensuring a good quality of life in their home towns or villages will to a large extent arrest the movement of the workforce that today travels several hundred miles, seeking work in big cities, just to make ends meet. As a young country, we have failed on two fronts – ensuring a geographically-balanced economic growth and empowering people living outside large urban circles with the right skills to ensure they live well in their home towns and villages. The private sector must step up its effort toward correcting this. The key here, according to me, are innovative social enterprise business models that lean towards distributed manufacturing versus big centralised factories. These fulfil two important criteria: Firstly, people work close to their home, giving large scale migration to cities a miss and secondly it leads to sustainable living as the delivery of the products is also closer to people who want to use the products.

We saw some spontaneous examples such as self-help groups stepping in to make thousands of face masks to address the need during this stressful time. Tata Chemicals’ own social enterprise “Okhai” stepped in to link a large number of NGOs and their Self Help Groups to nearby customers ensuring easy availability of these face masks. There is an urgent need to find many more such opportunities, as when the migrant worker reaches home, they should have opportunities for a livelihood that was not there earlier. Spending a larger portion of the CSR budget towards understanding this ecosystem, ensuring education and skill development for distributed manufacturing, and ensuring we draft the best professional help to understand this new concept of innovative ‘work from home’ so as to do this impactfully must top our agenda.

Along with healthcare, one of the most essential needs is of basic nutrition. Here again, we must look at traditional knowledge of local superfoods that were earlier consumed by everyone and restart including them in our daily diet and not just market them as exotics in high-end stores.

The second vital area that large corporates can contribute to immensely is healthcare.  Building a clinic here and a hospital there are important but inadequate. In the current situation, many corporates are providing funds to manufacture and make available critical care equipment and are helping upgrade hospitals to manage the outbreak. The government, the private sector and the non-government sector have all come together to address this.  It’s time to build on this model, to leverage the strength that each one brings on the table and use it to extend healthcare support to the remotest part of the country. Linking this with an economic model that provides the required healthcare skills to grassroots workers and thereby a source of livelihood is equally important. Dr Devi Shetty, the Chairman and Founder of Narayana Health has mentioned a number of times that India needs a huge number of healthcare workers who can help provide basic healthcare support and guide communities on health and hygiene. Along with healthcare, one of the most essential needs is of basic nutrition. Here again, we must look at traditional knowledge of local superfoods that were earlier consumed by everyone and restart including them in our daily diet and not just market them as exotics in high-end stores. These could be grains like ragi (finger millet) from the Southern States or buckwheat (kuttu atta) from the mountain regions or even moringa (drumsticks); each of these has many nutritional properties which can provide a better-balanced diet to the masses. We must invest in raising generations of healthy citizens and not only treat them when they get sick. It is time that we facilitate and ramp up this requirement.

The third area that large corporates must focus on is to build a small and medium business (SMB) ecosystem in the country.  Further, we often do not fully comprehend the impact of economic downturns on small and medium businesses. Today, SMBs account for a third of India’s GDP and half our exports.  Building a robust and strong SMB sector will prove to be money well-invested to face challenging times like the one we are facing today. This has to be beyond the outsourcing of work and involve more in terms of technological investment.  The auto industry, for example, has done some work on this front, but this needs to extend across all major sectors. Supporting all efforts towards building a strong SMB ecosystem can fetch outcomes that go beyond economics. We will not only be building a stronger economic backbone for the country but also create a structure that helps us rebound from slumps faster.

The 2013 legislation that brought in mandatory CSR spending in India has also brought in newer resources and expertise. Over the last few weeks, when faced with a pandemic, we have seen what collective resolve and action can achieve. It may still be too early in the day to rest on the success we have tasted so far, but what would be a bigger mistake is not to carry forward the lessons we have learned during this crisis. When COVID-19 is well behind us, we should get ready to roll up our sleeves and start moving towards building a stronger India.

Alka Talwar is Chief – CSR and Sustainability, Tata Chemicals.