Mumbai: Paresh Sukthankar, deputy managing director of HDFC Bank, has a lot on his plate— one of the key items being corporate social responsibility (CSR) claiming its share of equal importance alongside other revenue-driven functions.

Sukthankar, a Harvard Business School alumnus, tells us how the bank’s years of spend on sustainable communities only just got formalized and scaled up after the Companies Act, 2013. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What was the biggest learning in the first year of implementation of new CSR rules?

We certainly took a certain amount of time in sharpening our pencils. When we started off (in early 2000) it was on the back of voluntarism from our employees. Fast forward to when the formal structure of the current guidelines were enforced, and it was in some ways building on the foundation of what we were already doing.

With the new guidelines there is much more formal element to it with active involvement of the board. Along the way we recognized the need to define a few ideas and identify certain areas that the bank wanted to focus on.

The learning is that you can’t spread yourself too thin. Also, we didn’t want to rush (to) just meet the numbers.

Any part of the CSR law that you think needs modification?

It is still early. Right now a certain number of areas have been defined. They seem to be wide and there is a reasonable amount of flexibility.

The Act also says that you need a liberal interpretation. I can’t think of some obvious lacuna which needs to be plugged to make it more effective.

And it is not very prescriptive. It just guides you along in certain areas and of course defines the 2%.

Any activities that you think should be added to Schedule VII (list of activities allowed under CSR)?

The intent seems to be that these are areas that logically could be more meaningful towards society. By allowing a more liberal interpretation of those I think that unless someone had a very niche area which is not included, for most organizations this is reasonably broad enough.

What are the things you would like to change in your company in the way you do CSR?

More than change it is about trying to build and take our activities to a higher level. We are building up on the number of partners that we are involved with and we have beefed up the team.

There is a much more formalized approach to executing some of our projects.

Did HDFC prefer to pick up government-led initiatives or will the focus be on activities that the company believed in?

Some of our projects are aligned to what the government’s initiatives are. For instance we were doing stuff in schools but we weren’t focused on sanitation in schools.

Yet we felt that both sanitation and drinking water made logical sense to be together—one fitted in with Swachh Bharat campaign and the government-led initiatives in this area also resonated in an area of intervention we were keen on.

Do you believe companies can usher in social change?

You cannot have a business that can prosper if the communities which they operate in fail. CSR is intrinsic to good sustainable business.

Companies have the financial and managerial resources and if they have the right intention and focus (towards CSR) they absolutely can.

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