New Delhi: State-owned NTPC Ltd, India’s largest power producer, says it has been undertaking corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities for close to two decades now. NTPC is expanding its CSR initiatives in skill development, women’s empowerment and rural infrastructure. S.K. Jain, executive director, CSR, an engineer and financial manager by qualification, has been associated with NTPC’s social projects for four years. According to him, this is the best job he has had so far. “It helps you understand other dimensions of business," he said. Edited excerpts from an interview:

As a public sector undertaking, was aligning your CSR activities with government schemes the main focus in the first year since the rules came into force?

We emphasize activities selected by the company because the need of the (local) communities is the first priority. If we focus only on what government wants, then we will not be able to satisfy the local needs. The local communities are like our permanent neighbours—you can’t change you neighbours and you need happy neighbours. Thus their needs have to be the first priority and these have to be then dovetailed with the national priority.

Plus, if government of India (GOI) is pushing for Swachh Bharat or Swachh Vidayalaya, it is bound to be a requirement of the people as well.

Was it hard to find good implementation partners?

We work with two kinds of partners—contractors and non-government organisations (NGOs). Over the past one year we engaged four to five NGOs for very select activities. Contractors are hired mostly for infrastructure work and are selected through a tendering process while NGOs are nominated after internal selection. We involve external agencies for execution/implementation but as far as supervision and monitoring is concerned, that is all done by in-house staff. For instance, the toilets were built by contractors, but (construction was) supervised and monitored by NTPC.

However, I believe that there needs to be a move from partnering with only NGOs to partnering with social entrepreneurs. If social entrepreneurs come into the sector, the implementation will become easier as they bring special skills such as management and innovation.

Any changes since the new CSR rules came in play?

We have been conducting CSR initiatives for a long time, therefore there were no major challenges, just a few hiccups (arose). Before the CSR rules, public sector units such as NTPC were following the 2010 Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) guidelines. Under those the amount to be spent was limited to 1%, now this is 2% of the average profit of the previous three years. So we faced a little challenge to recast the entire CSR activities portfolio to meet the enhanced budget.

Fortunately the job was made easier with Swachh Bharat.

In what way can CSR at NTPC change?

Rather than taking up too many activities, we would like to focus on a critical few, which will have larger impact.

Personally, I feel it will be better if infrastructure development is taken up by the state/government authorities. In certain aspects where the government cannot directly come in or probably has some limitations—for instance work on behavioural change, women empowerment—those are areas companies like us should focus on.

Should companies have a role to play in building a good society?

Companies are using resources, at times impacting society through operations (industrial processes) and are not insulated from society. That is why CSR as an obligation or as a responsibility is something a company cannot avoid. But it has to be a part of the business process rather than a compulsion because of the Act.

As for companies helping in development/social issues, I am of the opinion that the government cannot get away by saying that CSR is a panacea for everything. The government has to play its role and CSR, in a limited way, can help to increase the outreach.

What parts of the CSR law do you think require changes?

It is too early to comment on that... However, I feel that the reporting requirement has been made very onerous. Especially for a PSU and Maharatna company such as NTPC, which has a large budget, around 40 locations to be served and a number of activities being taken up at each location. Plus another issue for us—being a PSU—is that it is not easy for us to just pick partners. The rules say that you can engage NGOs and charitable organisations, but it does not say what process should be used to engage such entities.

Credible NGOs with which PSUs can work with could be identified.