Ashesh Ambasta is executive vice- president and head of social investments at ITC Ltd, Kolkata. He was previously ITC’s vice-president of social investments, and senior programme analyst at Action Aid (India). Ambasta, who has done his PhD from the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, believes that the energy of the youth must be channelized if India is to thrive economically and keep its social fabric intact. “The creation of large-scale sustainable livelihoods and replenishment of natural resources should be at the core of all sustainability strategies," he says. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Learnings over four years:

ITC was pursuing its 360-degree sustainability initiatives and social investment programmes long before corporate social responsibility (CSR) rules were notified. Our programmes have always followed the most robust processes and methodologies. However, I would like to point out that more than financial outlays, it is sustainable outcomes that matter most in CSR. The biggest differentiator of ITC’s sustainability objective is that it is focused on outcomes and its programmes have achieved significant scale and impact.

Any need for course correction?

We take intensive feedback from different stakeholders on the challenges at various stages of CSR initiatives. We also carry out an assessment exercise every five years. The last one was in 2015. Such an approach not only has the merit of addressing people’s needs, but also provides a long-term perspective and consistency to our sustainability initiatives.

Social vs sustainable:

Social responsibility is an integral part of the wider sustainability agenda of any company. At a fundamental level, sustainability requires companies to run businesses responsibly and ethically. An integral part of this responsibility is to create larger societal value. That is where CSR comes into play. We do not believe that there is any contradiction or conflict between the two.

The big picture:

Our initiatives are determined by mapping stakeholder needs to larger national priorities. We would like to continue with this approach. Given the company’s pan-India presence, its stakeholders form a sizeable community in different locations. To ensure transformational impact, core stakeholder clusters have been identified that today form the nucleus of our social investment interventions. Comprehensive stakeholder engagements have shown that our stakeholders are confronted with multiple, but interrelated, issues, at the core of which is the challenge of securing a sustainable livelihood. The responses comprise an integrated approach to development, rooted in a two-horizon perspective—strengthening today’s dominant sources of livelihoods and creating capabilities for tomorrow. Through this approach, we aim to create a green and inclusive agri-value chain through interventions focused on sustainable agriculture, soil and moisture conservation, social forestry and animal husbandry, while promoting education, skilling, sanitation and solid waste management.

Collaboration is the way ahead:

Going forward, if India has to prosper economically and prevent its social fabric from unravelling, every effort has to be made to harness the energy of our young and growing population. In partnership with the government and other sectors, the CSR programmes of companies must align their interventions to address this challenge.

Mapping CSR and sustainable development goals:

Recognizing that global concerns on sustainability require concerted local action, our initiatives in environmental preservation and replenishment address several of the objectives set out in India’s nationally determined contribution (NDC) commitments to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Likewise, the company’s sustainability programme also contributes meaningfully to the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs). At present, our projects are directly aligned to 10 of the 17 SDGs.

Stakeholder feedback:

Any development programme must address the needs and challenges of stakeholders, as articulated by them. We have put in place strong processes for participatory appraisals and planning which elicit responses on the challenges faced by the grass-roots constituency and accordingly design programmes and interventions. The locations of our sustainability initiatives are also defined by stakeholders. As part of the company’s triple bottom line philosophy (people, planet and profit), we have identified two distinct stakeholder groups for the social sector interventions— rural households linked to our agri-businesses and communities around our production facilities.

We have chosen to work in these areas because our deep understanding of the socio-economic situation in these areas help us customize solutions to address local concerns with a far-reaching impact.

Focus CSR speaks to CSR heads to find out how the space has evolved and what the next big steps could be.

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