In the business of making a difference from above

Mrs. Rajashree Birla
The Financial Express
23 November 2004

Mrs. Rajashree Birla, Chairperson of The Aditya Birla Centre for Community Initiatives and Rural DevelopmentThe will and the money aren''t enough; institutionalised listening and involvement can help the poor live a better life
Over three decades ago, Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winner, said: "There is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits." Prior to him, in the early 1920s, John Keynes had said: "The business of business is to do better business and transfer its benefits to its consumers and stockholders."

Both Keynes and Friedman were talking in the context of western nations. These never had to face societal issues such as extreme poverty and deprivation we as a nation have been witness to. A high sense of business ethics, corporate social responsibility (CSR), inclusive of accountability to multiple stakeholders — such as shareholders, customers, employees and the community — is on top of every progressive management''s agenda. Social and economic policies are becoming inextricably intertwined. Economic debates are increasingly influenced by societal issues, such as health, education, and livelihood.

For us in the Aditya Birla Group, CSR is very much a part of the overall business portfolio. All our group''s community work is carried out under the banner of The Aditya Birla Centre for Community Initiatives and Rural Development, which I am privileged to lead. It is anchored by our corporate communications team and we have 150 people working exclusively for our social projects. We work in around 3,700 villages and reach out to approximately two million people every year. Of these, more than 60% live below the poverty line.

Their first need is to have access to water. Second, agriculture and other means of sustainable livelihood. Third, health, and then, education. These have, therefore, become the areas of our focus. Though I must confess we are giving education an enormous thrust, because we feel it is only through education that we can help them surmount their problems. Annually, as a group, we spend approximately Rs 65 crore on our social projects. This includes the running of 33 schools in the interiors and 16 hospitals.

Let me share with you what we have learnt.
First, in all our teams, we have inculcated a strong commitment to listening to the communities. So, all projects are planned in a participatory manner, in consultation with the community, assessing their basic needs, prioritising these and then working on the project plan. Implementation becomes the responsibility of the community and the team. The projects are constantly monitored and village meetings are held to get feedback.

While in the beginning we have to do a lot of hand-holding, eventually, these projects become self-sustainable. The important insight is that institutionalised listening and involvement help build a culture of self-reliance.

Design real solutions for real people — this has been our second insight. Sometimes we have found projects are designed for the ''feel-good factor,'' which is really of little benefit to the people. The ground realities are very different. For instance, when polio immunisation camps were conducted in the villages, people from the deep interiors could not bring their children, because they simply could not walk 15 km to the camp. So we have begun arranging for vans and even bullock carts to bring the children to the medical camps. This year, out of the five lakh children we helped immunise against polio, nearly three lakh had to be brought from their huts to the camp. Likewise in the mother-and-child care project, where we are espousing planned families. At our unit in Jagdishpur, we have set up 24 outreach clinics. These clinics are serviced by lady doctors who provide ante-natal, post-natal and child care. Because we offer a bouquet of real solutions, our team has been able to convince 18,000 women, belonging to four blocks, to go in for planned families.

Our third learning is that willingness to correct mid-course is critical as well. Nine years ago, when we first set up our centre and collectively measured what our 60 units were engaged in, we found there was no cohesiveness. Each unit did a project in an ad hoc manner. Through the centre, we knit all the units and spelt out clear focus areas. As a consequence today, all our units work in five key areas. First, healthcare, inclusive of mother and child care. Second, education. Third, self-reliance through the engine of sustainable livelihood, including agriculture and women empowerment. Fourth, infrastructure support. And fifth, espousing social causes.

Our fourth insight is that creating an inclusive feeling is extremely essential. When we began our project with Habitat For Humanity, which aims basically to build houses for the rural poor, we ensured that villagers contributed significantly to their own houses. In the houses built by Habitat For Humanity with us, the villagers provide their land and their sweat equity — another term for labour — and get an interest-free loan of Rs 15,000. This has to be repaid in 15 years. Through this inclusiveness, we are building more than 100 houses for villagers at our different units. They are pucca houses with a room and a kitchen, an attached wash-room and a portico. We began this project at Hindalco. It is now moving on to Indo Gulf, Indian Rayon and Grasim as well. Interestingly, many self-help groups (SHGs) have staked a claim to build such houses. Today, we have more than 700 women SHGs with a membership of over 8,050.

Networking, our fifth lesson, is an important point, too. Working across institutions, with the government and with NGOs, has helped us pull together people with different kinds of experience and expertise. Their wholesome experience has proved beneficial to our projects. We see our work as a social alchemist. So, we have tied up with Sewa, Unicef, Sifsa, Nabard, Rotary International, the Smile Train, Care International and BBC World Service Trust, apart from the government and district authorities and many others.

We have also found working for underprivileged communities requires a different mindset. Thus, taking on board people who have a lot of humane qualities has been our sixth bit of learning. Those who wish to opt for social projects need a lot of empathy, adaptability and strong moral fibre. These are people not money-minded, yet believe in the concept of intrapreneurship. Of our team of 150, the majority have these qualities. They are people who believe they can make a difference and are constantly innovating to bring benefits to the communities in which they work.

When Mohammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank gave his first free loans to 42 villagers in Bangladesh, several naysayers warned him this money would go down the drain. However, none of his 42 loanees defaulted and his philosophy that people are bankable came true. We do know the poor have a sense of self-respect and that, by and large, they keep their word.

On the business front, having a one-year plan and a three-year rolling plan on community projects with milestones and measurable targets, is yet another learning. It has helped us factor accountability and performance management into our projects.

Another forward-looking step has been to get our projects audited by reputed external agencies. They look at our projects and evaluate these on qualitative and quantitative parameters. They get in touch with the beneficiaries and all project partners. Often, the measurement provides us with additional insights.

India''s gross domestic product has been growing at nearly a 6% real rate. This affords great opportunities in lifting our people out of poverty. With commitment and a sense of urgency, together we can make this happen.

The writer is chairperson of The Aditya Birla Centre for Community Initiatives and Rural Development

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