- Pearl Tiwari, Director and CEO, Ambuja Cement Foundation
What are the activities you are involved under CSR commitment and how the government mandate is prescribing various benchmarks?
Ambuja Cements (ACL) undertakes community development activities through its CSR Foundation, Ambuja Cement Foundation (ACF) where it completely focuses on the prosperity of the rural communities. Being a manufacturing company with sites all around rural areas, CSR has been an integral part of Ambuja Cements since inception. The company emphasised that the host communities holds a vulnerable population and there is a need to co-exist collaboratively in order to earn its license to operate. The founders believed that as the company prospers, so should the community. Thus to integrate business and community needs, community engagement plans are prepared in close engagement with the community and the business unit. This helps in stakeholder engagement and benefit from our CSR, which is an important part of a sustainable business.
Conducting a needs assessment in the areas and finalising on six thrust areas is based on community participation with the help of tools like participatory rural appraisals, which ensure a better understanding of the local nuances and helps in efficiently implementing programmes in various geographies. These thrust areas include water resource management, livelihood like agro-based and skill and entrepreneurship development, women empowerment, healthcare and education. Here is a small brief about each programme:
Water resource management: The water programme works to enhance water and land resources in the communities around the manufacturing plants. The programme promotes rainwater harvesting through indigenous and new technologies, promotes micro irrigation methods and constructs check dams, percolation wells and rooftop rain water harvesting structures.
Agro-based livelihoods: Agro-based livelihood generation is one of our key programmes, in which, we supports farmers through scientific inputs, promotion of sustainable farming practices, as well as through capacity building programmes.
Skill and entrepreneurship development (SEDI): The skill programme offers short and intensive courses in different trades that prepares youth to enter the occupational world through our skilling centres (SEDI). SEDI aims to achieve sustainable livelihood by strengthening their vocational skills through quality training. Basic computer skills, knowledge of functional English and soft skills are compulsory components of all training programmes conducted at SEDIs.
Women empowerment: The closest indicator of an empowered woman is her social status as a decision making authority. Gaining financial independence is seen to have a great impact in boosting woman's confidence and decision making ability. We supports SHGs and their entrepreneurial activities across locations through regular trainings, skill building and promotion of income generation activities.
Comprehensive healthcare: The comprehensive health intervention addresses clinical, preventive and promotive aspects of health across communities.The programme is led by a cadre of ACF-trained, village-based health workers called Sakhis, ensuring basic health care at the village level, and refer patients for timely medical intervention whenever needed.
Quality education: Through the education programme, ACF seeks to raise the quality of education imparted in village-level government schools. We also run many non-formal education centres for out-of-school children. This process empowers children with quality education and helps them move into a mainstream education system.
We also try and integrate our programmes with each other like building skills and providing basic health and sanitation or encourage agro-based activities across our women groups bringing about gender equality. This whole model that we have developed is implemented by ACF, which holds a community of managerial and professional experts who make the beneficiaries the centre point as the project cycle moves thus for the programme to stay sustained and ensure long term impacts. While our geographies remain consistent, once our projects are fully matured and all support provided we exit from stakeholder engagement and handover the project to the community who take full ownership.
How are the actual and prescribed budgets for the last three years? Please give details of allocations for various activities. How long will it take for you to complete the mission you have undertaken in that particular region?
In regard to CSR we have had a consistent growth in the last three years with a large focus on water, agro-based livelihood, skill and health. As you see in the below graph we have been steadily growing in actual funds but we are also matching funds from external sources both government and other funds available helping us expand our outreach substantially. Our programmes are on an on-going basis and are frequently modified, rectified and changed based on the needs of the communities. Ambuja Cements is always known to be involved in community development even before the CSR law was implemented. As the CSR law mandates companies to spend 2 per cent of their profits for CSR activities, Ambuja Cements has been dedicating 3 to 4 per cent of their profits for the last many years.
What has been the impact of various CSR activities in various geographies? What is the criterion adopted in choosing the target group or community for CSR initiatives?
We have seen large impacts through our water programme working in different terrains like addressing salinity ingress and pushing back more than 10-11 km in coastal Saurashtra, which is one of the most difficult areas because of salinity and drought. Or working with the community in our health programme to increase institutional deliveries which is now far lower than the national average, improve the conditions of malnutrition and even turn villages open-defecation free. We have had some improvements in our agro-based programme as well where the farmers are now able to use water efficiently, see an increase in the number of women farmers and also being able to increase the farmers income by two times. Some of the major impacts are given below.
We select our target communities based on the areas surrounding our manufacturing site. We believe in the idea of as the company prosperous so should the community and try replicating the programme models in all our 11 States along with the help of our partners. We have been in the development sector for the last 27 years and so while we have conducted frequent impact assessments, we have a full-fledged monitoring and evaluation team who looks after data monitoring on the ground and some of the studies goes through publications and external audiences.
Can you give us the best case study that has yielded highest/ best results?
We work in water starved areas where focus on water in core for domestic use, drinking water or agriculture. This programme has given us the experience to work in different terrains like the desert areas, mountainous regions or where the salinity in water is very high. The company took water sustainability as its target since the last ten years and measured the water taken as compared to the water given back which has worked in our advantage as we are the only cement company in the industry to be 7.99 times water positive.
One of our best stories is on our salinity pushback in Kodinar, Gujarat which lies in coastal Saurashtra and the water comes from the Arabian sea. The salinity had seeped inland up to 15 kms and the Total dissolved solids were more than 2000 mg/litre leading to all that the communities were receiving was salty water.
Kodinar's main occupation is agriculture however while farmers modernised and gained better access to pumping technology, water levels began to drop as water was pumped to the surface for irrigation continuously. This worsened the situation as the water tables dropped drastically and salinity crept inwards. Once in, salinity affects everything in its path. Plants won't grow, livestock won't drink and families remain thirsty.
As a practice of Ambuja Cements, to bring about solutions, we listened to the traditional wisdom of the community and mobilised them into action. By partnering with the government and other development agencies we could achieve large scale projects like building 376 check dams and over 5700 rainwater harvesting structures which when full could supply 52 mcm of water back to the communities. While structures were built, educating the people on the right usage of precious resource was the key. Thus we launched a large scale programme to encourage willing farmers to adopt drip irrigation systems.
This helped us manage the demand and supply of water, have plenty of water even in days of drought, push salinity back by 8 km towards the sea and 100 villages now having sweet water thus solving drinking water woes and having a thriving agricultural produce.
What are the crushing challenges the country is facing in the socio-economic sphere and CSR activities can contribute towards fulfilling these needs?
India is an emerging economy and while we stand 2nd with the largest population, the lower income group don't even have decent or dignified living conditions sometimes scrapping through life with no basic facilities like healthcare and infrastructure. In India there is huge gap between the rich and the poor where basic services are also unavailable and issues like these needs to be addressed and fulfilled.
Like Ambuja Cements, most of the manufacturing companies have their plant locations in territories likes ours and developing those territories needs to be set up as a priority for such companies. In this way the communities are developed, reap the benefits and also provide the companies with a license to operate. In this way the functioning of companies in such areas become easier and community looks at such companies positively and as preferred neighbours. This becomes meaningful CSR.
What are the CSR activities you have undertaken on outbreak of Covid-19 and what are the challenges did you face?
In order to spread awareness and protect rural India from the outbreak of coronavirus, we launched interventions as per the guidelines by WHO and the Ministry of Healthcare. The health team has been at the forefront during this critical time in creating awareness about Covid-19 in its core villages.
Due to our poor public health system especially in our geographies there was a need to focus on educating and creating awareness amongst our beneficiaries. We had to see behaviour change like (social distancing, hand washing etc) practiced in our communities to curb the virus. Some of our interventions are mentioned below.
Initial phase: At the initial phase, we distributed pamphlets, posters, set up banners all across the villages to spread awareness about the virus. Our community volunteers conducted demonstration of hand washing and social distancing for the communities. In association with the health authorities and panchayats, our women health workers also known as Sakhis were identifying migrant workers returning home and conducting health check-ups. They were also conducting daily follow ups to check for any symptoms. We provided temperature measuring meters at each block level health care centre for the screening of suspected cases. Community areas like wells, open spaces, shops were also drawn with white boxes to follow social distancing.
Lockdown announcement: Once lockdown was announced, the staff was unable to visit the beneficiaries leading to a challenge of sharing information. The team turned to digital mechanisms and developed audio notes, video messages in different languages and formedcommunity WhatsApp groups to disseminate communication materials. Single Point of Contact (SPOCS) volunteers residing in the same village were also appointed as a link between the beneficiaries and us. A database of all helpline numbers, testing centres, isolation words, treatment centres was all mapped and sent to the beneficiaries. A list of vulnerable groups like elderly, children and expecting mothers was also developed and the right kind of messages was also disseminated with SPOCs following up on a daily basis. As the country's progress started deteriorating, we developed targeted messages for stakeholders like farmers and truckers.
Extended lockdown: With the extension of the lockdown, many communities especially the low income groups suffered from limited income generation. We initiated livelihood opportunities for women to develop face masks and sell them in the market. Ambuja Cements also procured some from the women. A total of two lakh face masks has been developed till date. Women holding a small piece of land have also converted it into a kitchen garden under the guidance of ACF and now selling their produce in the market. During the initial phase of lockdown when the stress was felt by the casual and daily labour workers, Ambuja Cements collaborated with a few NGOs to distribute ration kits supporting a population of over 85,000 in Mumbai and Delhi and in some of our geographies for a period of 15 days.
The virus is going to stick around with us for a while now and we are seeing a lot of initiatives especially in the health system being less prioritized and left behind like Vaccination or the Tuberculosis programme. We have tried to integrate Covid into our already existing programmes. We have got back to our activities and projects and made modifications like changing our skill programme to an online based training or conducting farmer or community meetings through digital mechanisms.
How do you think the CSR scenario will pan out in general in the next two to three years, in the wake of Covid-19 impact on business revenues and profitability?
Currently businesses are extensively affected due to the pandemic and the amount of money for CSR is going to be less.. With the MoCA announcing Covid relief funds eligible for CSR activities, most of the companies have directed their funds to Covid relief but what about rehabilitation and infrastructure. Also with the Covid fund, many have transferred funds directed to the government central fund and the budgets for other initiatives is going to be far more reduced. The concentration on Covid is so high that basic programmes of vaccination and tuberculosis which were moving in the right direction and able to reach their targets have all been stalled due to inadequate support.
When lockdown was announced in early march, we lost the months of March and April which are crucial to develop water projects so that we are ready for monsoon. But due to norms and social distancing these projects have also been delayed.
Apart from the growing concern for Covid, India still needs to focus on water, health, vaccination which will all crumble if not taken care of immediately. We as CSR spenders need to now integrate Covid with our current programmes to maintain balance. As previously mentioned in the last four months through our foundation we have worked in collaboration with local health department, panchayats, etc. and integrated Covid support into all our programmes be in water, livelihoods or the others. We are restarted our regular programmes but now have also included Covid interventions into them.