Interview | Ashesh Ambasta, Executive Vice-President and Head (social investments), ITC
The vision to put 'India First', articulated by chairman YC Deveshwar, has found expression in ITC's resolve to create enduring value for the society by crafting innovative models that synergistically build economic, environmental and social value for the nation and that's called the 'triple bottomline' contribution towards enhancing societal sustainability, said Ashesh Ambasta, executive vice-president and head (social investments), ITC in an interview with Ritwik Mukherjee. Excerpts:
What's the basic motto of ITC's social initiatives?
ITC's largescale corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme, called Mission Sunehra Kal, aims to transform lives of even the most marginalised amongst its stakeholder groups to live a life of dignity. Our way of grassroots empowerment, based on knowledge and technology transfer, confronts livelihood challenges of today and tomorrow through a holistic approach to create a healthy, educated and skilled community that looks to the future with confidence and determination.
What are the guiding principles that drive you?
After two decades of strategic CSR, ITC believes more than financial resources, businesses can create transformational and innovative social models because of their entrepreneurial and innovative skills, which are imperative to run a successful business. Such models can have a multiplier impact on sustainable livelihood creation and environmental regeneration.
This core belief is backed by certain key tenets that drive our operations. One, the pursuit for scale and to remain contemporary by leveraging multi-stakeholder partnerships and accessing the most contemporary knowledge/technical know-how. Two, strengthen the community-based organisations for participatory planning, ownership and long-term sustainability of interventions. Three, specially target poor and marginalised communities in our catchments to drive inclusive development and impact human development indices significantly. Four, aim at behaviour change through focus on demand generation for all interventions to ensure ownership, participation and contribution.
ITC believes that such an approach can unleash strong drivers to make growth more inclusive and equitable, given the country's massive challenges of multi-dimensional poverty, social inequity, gross underdevelopment and widespread environmental degradation.
What kind of activities are you engaged in, currently?
ITC's Mission Sunehra Kal focuses on the core challenge of securing livelihoods for economically marginalised communities not just for today but also for the future through a two-horizon perspective:
Horizon 1: Making today's dominant sources of income sustainable by empowering communities to conserve, augment and manage their social and environmental capital to secure and strengthen their current sources of livelihood. This includes programmes like afforestation, which has created over 112 million mandays of employment and a green cover over 600,000 acres, integrated watershed development programme covering over 700,000 acres that has generated over 5 million mandays of employment, improved agriculture practices that has benefited nearly 170,000 farmers, ITC e-Choupal that has empowered over 4 million farmers, women's economic empowerment that has empowered over 53,000 women and livestock development that has enabled over 500,000 farmers to upgrade their low yielding milch animals through integrated animal husbandry services.
Horizon 2: Creating capabilities for wealth generation and employment for tomorrow by assisting communities to be healthy, educated and skilled to take advantage of emerging economic opportunities. This includes primary education that has covered over 4,60,000 children, skill training that has covered over 40,000 youths, public health, and solid waste management programmes under which over 20,000 family-owned toilets have been constructed and 268 schools benefited from sanitation infrastructure.
How does it happen? Do you identify some initiatives and then take it forward? Or, you are being approached by various projects?
It requires complete clarity on two fronts: who are our strategic stakeholders in the social sector and what are the development challenges they face. Our CSR programme focuses on two key stakeholder groups: rural communities, across India where ITC has agri-sourcing operations, and communities residing in close proximity to ITC's production units. The most powerful driving force for the Mission Sunehra Kal is that it is anchored in direct community participation and rooted in choices made and shaped by them.
The identification and demarcation of stakeholder groups is followed by exhaustive stakeholder engagement processes to elicit their felt needs and aspirations. For instance, last year 483 participatory rural appraisals (PRA) were conducted covering more than half of the total core villages. Care was also taken to ensure that separate PRAs were conducted with women and SC/ST households.
These periodic exercises help us gauge the extent to which the current set of interventions are valued by the communities and evaluate if any course correction is required, apart from giving us invaluable insights into the socio-economic dynamics in our project areas. As a result of these ground-up efforts, effective programmes have been designed and implemented in close collaboration with local communities ensuring more meaningful outcomes.
The substantial progress made by our social investment programme has been possible in significant measure, due to its partnerships with globally renowned NGOs such as BAIF, DB Tech, DSC, FES, MYRADA, Pratham, SEWA Bharat, Outreach and Water for People amongst others. These partnerships, which bring together the best-in-class management practices of ITC and the development experience and mobilisation skills of NGOs, will continue to provide innovative grassroots solutions to some of India's most challenging problems of development in the years to come.
How much do you spend every year?
ITC's total CSR expenditure for FY16 stood at Rs 247.50 crore.
What are the most significant changes in attitude and approach of the government and the private sector business towards the social sector and social development organisation?
The gravity and scale of development challenges in India require largescale efforts for livelihoods creation and conservation and replenishment of natural resource. In this context, the most significant development has been the growing realisation for concerted and collaborative effort by all parties concerned. This is becoming evident in the increase in multi-stakeholder partnerships between communities, specialist NGOs, corporate and the government at all levels to ensure maximal impact by leveraging the strengths of each of these players.
Such partnerships align financial and technical strengths of the government, the project management capabilities of businesses and the mobilisation skills of NGOs towards a common goal, which is a welcome development and something that should grow in the coming years. ITC is committed to such a model, evident from its largescale partnerships with various state governments and other agencies for watershed development or sanitation, among others.
Has mandatory CSR clause for listed companies been effective and is proving to be a right move in the right direction?
The mandatory CSR clause is focused on outlays rather than on outcomes. A focus on outcomes would ensure the leveraging of the transformational capacity of business to innovate unique models that can synergistically deliver economic and social value simultaneously.
Strategic CSR activities that deliver societal value through integrated business-linked models are more appropriate. It's also delivered more efficiently and lends itself to replicability and scalability. CSR activities also foster innovation in business models to make strategies more inclusive resulting in enhanced competitiveness, economic stability and wider social equity.