The business of corporate social responsibility
Corporate social responsibility often masks corporate irresponsibility
Readers of this column will know me as a fan of the idea of corporate social responsibility or CSR, and often cynical about its pretensions and execution that masks corporate irresponsibility. A prompt about an imminent CSR gathering, the India CSR Summit 2017 to be held this September in Gurugram, to which numerous businesses will flock, triggered a recent memory.
It is not a happy memory.
I attended an event, CSR Leadership Summit 2017 not long ago in Mumbai, in May. It was organized by India CSR News Network, a Raigarh, Chhattisgarh-based organization that runs indiacsr.in, an industry portal, where, over time I learnt, among other things, that the favourite colour of a senior CSR and sustainability executive at Vedanta Resources is red. I term it “industry” because that is exactly what CSR appears to have become.
It was an unabashed lovefest.
Held at a hotel near Mumbai airport’s Terminal 1, it quickly became clear that the day-long event was less about “Celebrating Innovation and Leadership” and more about “Conference, Awards, Exhibition” with great emphasis on awards, and greatly extended timings for refreshments and lunch. (Disclosure: I personally paid for all travel expenses, though it was delightful to eat, gratis, excellent hummus and ras malai at lunch to which all delegates and invitees were welcome.)
The main sponsors of the event included Benetton Group; Vedanta Resources and its subsidiaries Bharat Aluminium Co. Ltd (Balco) and Cairn India Ltd; Gujarat Narmada Valley Fertilizers and Chemicals Ltd (GNFC); and Hindalco Industries Ltd. They all won awards, as did several sponsors in other categories. Representatives of some key businesses which did not win an award were represented in panel discussions.
Rajiv Gupta, managing director of GNFC, delivered a sprawling address on his company’s “visionary leadership”, its excellent initiatives with neem, and even admonished the audience for not paying attention. Balco’s chief executive Vikas Sharma invoked the saint-poet-philosopher Tulsidas and his philosophy of the art of giving, quoted his contemporary and poet Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana, and invoked “our chairman” Anil Agarwal and his commitment to “social good”. At one point the former actor Akbar Khan presented a rambling speech about his movies, Mother Teresa, giving, his movies, and his love of Changez (Genghis) Khan and the Khan’s intent of fighting a war to end all wars being essentially driven by humanitarian outlook.
By late afternoon, sated with lunch, scant food for thought, and the afterglow of several key awards awarded to key sponsors, we all went our separate ways.
As I have maintained here and elsewhere, cynical practice has always been the root weakness of CSR, which grew into a form of enlightened behaviour not because most businesses or business leaders discovered themselves to be saintly or one with the planet after acquiring success, but quite apart from personal or corporate philanthropy, as a legitimate extension of the art of public relations.
Now organizations like indiacsr.in, New Delhi-based industry magazine SPO India—which hosted a “CSO Summit and Awards: Marching towards Sustainable Economy through CSR” in New Delhi on 25 May, a day earlier than the event I describe here—and September’s India CSR Summit organized by NGOBOX (Renalysis Consultants Pvt. Ltd), provide precisely that opportunity to dress up and show off.
The indiacsr.in website, which lists two operations, India CSR News Network and CSR India Corporate Social Services Pvt. Ltd, announces its intent quite clearly in its “Partner with us” field:
“Whether it’s through our B2B or CSR partnership programs, partnering with India CSR can help you to increase business network, build your brand, and expand your reach worldwide. India CSR has always believed in the advancement of information technology and communication, learning, and education, playing a key role within those knowledge communities for generations.”
At indiacsrsummit.in, when I last checked on 5 July for the schedule and programme, a prompt requested me to check back by 15 July. But it already had detailed schematics in place for three large exhibition halls for its event at the Hyatt Regency in Gurugram; several major and minor sponsors in place, including Coca-Cola; and a list of speakers and delegates that it claimed would span 1,400 organizations, 2,100 delegates, 120 exhibitors, 300 CSR heads, various master-classes (“Design thinking for CSR Heads,” “Incubating Social Enterprises through CSR”) and “Mega-panel sessions”—an euphemism for stuffing a panel with speakers—on solving hunger, sanitation, and “Tech for Good”.
I hope a lot of good gets done. It’s the least that CSR, by all indications a good business all round, can do.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.
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