Firms are now getting their CSR act together: Pratham’s Madhav Chavan

What CSR does is bring money into areas that the corporates prefer, says Pratham CEO Madhav Chavan


Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Education is a priority area for companies spending on corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. One non-governmental organization that set out early to make a change in the way children learn was Pratham. Set up by Madhav Chavan in 1995, it works in 21 states reaching almost 7.7 million children. Chavan, the CEO of Pratham, quit his teaching job at The Institute of Chemical Technology to provide pre-school education to children in Mumbai’s slums in the mid-1990s.

Pratham also developed the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) to quantify the enrolment rate and level of learning among school children. An early recipient of CSR funds, the number of companies Pratham works with has risen from 25 to 60 in the past two years. In 2015-16, it received Rs165 crore of which close to 30% came from CSR. In an interview, Chavan, 62, talks about Pratham’s experience with CSR. Edited excerpts: 

How has Pratham benefited from CSR?

Right from the time we started in 1995, the idea was to not rely on government funds but to raise money from businesses. In those days, we didn’t have any access to overseas money and in India there weren’t too many foundations, so we relied on businesses and among them, ICICI (before it became ICICI Bank) was the first to support us. But it was not called CSR then. 

After CSR became mandated, what were some of the biggest changes you noticed?

We didn’t see any major change with the corporates we were working with earlier. The change is with the new corporates coming in. A few companies want to do CSR with greater involvement while others want a hands-off approach. A large number of companies are asking us to work in their backyard or in areas of interest to them. But doing CSR somewhere near your office is not really that useful. Corporates are working in different ways and I suspect it is still early days. This whole sector will grow and mature over a period of time. Earlier it was a rush for compliance and getting the money out somehow. Now everyone is getting their processes together. 

Has it been difficult to comply with the processes that companies have tried to bring in?

We were working with processes and outcome orientation from the very beginning. That is one of the reasons why those corporates worked with us even at the beginning. Now we can give regular updates online to the donors, which they can check independently.

Has CSR funding had an impact?

What CSR does is bring money into areas that the corporates prefer. And these may not necessarily be the most important ones. The problem is with the interpretation of CSR. Pratham is known for its ASER report; it is probably one of the most important things we have done. But no company is willing to support that because it’s not a service and is seen as a research program. Our mainstream thrust where we want to impact, which is that all children should be reading, is not getting the funds that it should have. The budgets have gone up where company has its interest, like in vocational training or using digital technology.

What would be your advice to corporates?

The recommendation (by lawmakers on what is CSR) is being taken as a directive. Everyone should relax a bit and see how it can best be used. The danger with what companies are doing now is everyone will work only in their backyards. But India is not uniformly industrialised or financially equal. Also, if you spend Rs.700 crore over 700 locations, it won’t help make a very big difference. I think corporates should get together and start looking at what development is. 

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