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  Social Responsibility

Social Inclusion
Published on: Feb. 13, 2020, 9:05 p.m.
Dare to care? Or first be punched in the gut?
  • When it is worth the effort

By Ajit Jhangiani. The author is Alumnus, Harvard Business School

During my daily wanderings into the Coop in Harvard Square, I was so punched. A book by an Indian expat, a Wall Street banker turned human trafficking expert and Fellow at Harvard, included hardcore research detailing price, where, and how, children are trafficked in India and how fabulous an RoI this provides. Appalled, stunned, with bile rising, I tracked the Fellow down and asked ‘how did you find all this information’? His simply chilling answer, ‘I went there and asked!’

Years later, similar numbers were corroborated by a leading Management Consultant and philanthropic NGO in Mumbai. I chased down an activist, an ED of a leading anti-trafficking NGO, caught her just as she was flying out of JFK, who kindly granted me time for one question. I asked, ‘Why is it that, if such accurate info is readily available, we are not doing something about it?’ Her cryptic answer still haunts me: ‘Because such behaviour is now normalised in India, got to go, bye’. What? Solid gut punch, KO, out for the count!

Pataa hai, hota hai, it is just like that’. REALLY? And we continue with our everyday lives uncaringly and unscathed?

The emotional portion of my brain still reels painfully from that KO punch. Do I dare imagine what went on in the trafficked child’s mind at the time of separation from her parent? How did the parent, first advocate of the child, and the community, second advocate, all forming a protective and supporting cocoon within which to nurture the child, so seriously fail this poor helpless child? Children silently, though sometimes noisily, simply ask ‘do you see me, do you hear me, do I matter?’

But do I even have the right to judge? As a healthy and (almost too) well-nourished adult of a privileged sector, and unaffected by poverty, do I have a right to judge this parent? To counter my limited emotional capacity to handle such pain, can’t I just kick in with my MBA analytical mind: ‘Start, ask the right questions, collect data, analyse, what are the alternatives, cost/benefit of each, M&E of outcomes… etc’? Or, ought I to first peel things back, let empathy kick in, and then start with asking the ‘other right’ questions like ‘What does it mean to grow up in a poor low caste rural area or urban slum? What do these children actually experience? In addition to the usual concerns of income, health, education, how hostile an environment is piled up on such children?

Equally haunting for me is imagining what goes on in the mind of a farmer, who (one every half hour), hangs himself on that lone tree on his meagre plot, leaving a loving wife and children behind to face the creditors.

Is it me, or we, or them?

Does Anand Giridharidas’ in Winners Take All have a valid point in severely condemning the wealthy, privileged, and powerful, as the creators of inequality, social injustice, and poverty, and suggesting that, instead of philanthropy, we first stop doing harm, such as polluting, paying low wages, avoiding taxes, rent-seeking, trying to circumvent government regulations, which were set up to bring more justice and equality rather than for the rich getting richer? For, if such inequality and injustice deepen the rifts, shall we not be hiding behind more barricades and security personnel on each floor of our high rises? Would we even give much needed systemic change a chance of emerging? ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,’ said Andre Lorde.

Locally, when I asked my street vendor, a paani poori wallah: Can you not get a permit and therefore not be subjected to so many branches of the government taking hafta daily? ‘Not available,’ he answered. ‘Aur agar permit deyngey to phir sub kaa peyt kaisey bharega?

Social issues are too complex and messy and not my (corporate) fault …

Toh main kya karoon? Why take on someone else’s headache? Don’t I already face enough challenges in my business where I create employment?

So, should I not just write that 2 per cent CSR law-compliant cheque? Why ought I to move along this messy continuum of complexity and dig into my chosen social cause more deeply, even utilise my competitive strengths to innovate (including fail, iterate, persist) and create new inclusive ecosystems that, in all their aspects, include ‘them’?

Some examples:

• As an IT CEO taking on the upgrading of educational initiatives by bringing in relevant technology and, rightfully, insisting all it be child-centric, do I also mess with the relevant issues such as nutrition and health, a supportive family and community, cleaner environment, etc, all seriously affecting the learning capacity of the child? Do I zoom in at granular level as in closely watching a teacher’s methodology, which might include striking a child if the child does not recite a poem correctly or do a carryover in multiplication? Do I go house to house, pleading and making my case? Or to manage it all properly, do I take responsibility for performing all necessary functions myself, if the government allows and, with enrolling strategic and cross-sector partners, bring in teachers to rural areas, etc. What if I have a wonderful new way to teach and slant learning activity toward everyday observed activities such as mummy cooking, and then relate that to chemistry? Though with leading world chefs and professors, doesn’t one of MIT’s most popular MOOC course ‘Cooking and Chemistry’ do exactly that?

But what if papa says ‘my daughter stays home, unsafe outside, and what use is this education since she will be married at puberty anyway?’ Mummy tears up but says nothing? The list just goes on mercilessly. Or do I zoom out and argue my good points, on comfortable panels, that education needs a more systemic change, that government ought to do it rightly, and if asked I shall be happy to show the government my superb new methodology? Even simpler, I write a couple of cheques and let someone else implement, ‘Not my job, aisey hi hota hai, normal’.

• As CEO of a construction company, ought I to build much-needed toilets, anganwadis, nursing homes, check dams, or low-income housing? And, once decided, do I go and build these rapidly and get back to my profitable ‘other’ business? Or do I go the lengthy, appropriate but troublesome, route – that is, sit with targeted beneficiaries, listen to their dreams and complaints, build their trust, engage them in the design process, overcome the community’s internal conflicts, start building only after they take ownership of the project and stay engaged until completion and for maintenance after, convince subcontractors to come to rural areas, etc? How do I respond to the patriarch’s question: ‘How can I and my daughter-in-law use the same toilet facilities?’ and to the villager who asks: ‘Which political party gave this money and why don’t I just give them that money and let them self-determine how to spend it’?

Even if all this goes really well and if the government blessedly does continue participating as in ensuring continuous utility supply, how do I handle the nouveau, seductive, and in vogue, social thinking like M&E, sustainable, impactful scaling, etc? How long will I be chained to this ball around my ankle? Is it really worth the effort, can little me even make a difference in such complexities and messiness? Were they all not happy defecating naturally in the open before and children playing around together with their mothers watching? Why should I destabilise such normalised behaviour anyway, why corrupt the noble savage?

Once again, ought I not to just zoom out completely, look at the big picture, do significant and righteous analyses of course, then choose a relevant NGO and write a cheque? Maybe, minimally, I could build to completion, have an opening ceremony, make a speech, turn over the keys, and then exit, never mind final impact? Maybe in the future, if and when all the other players get together and come ask me, only then shall I happily do more? Am I the leader, must I listen to all for so many hours, generate an agreed-upon vision, build consensus, insist on congruent action by all? Yeh hamaara kaam hai?

• As CEO of an agricultural corporation, say I develop an innovative new way to grow better crops, which would enhance the profits of my vendors and of the clusters of farmers who supply them. Now how do I spread the word to farmers, get them to accept my new fabulous methodology, how do I de-risk it for the prime movers by assisting them with getting loans, distribute produce, even buy their extra production when necessary, etc? If I convince one farmer and make a showcase of her, would the other farmers follow? Don’t opinions on this vary greatly? Could I have cell-phone technology developed to spread the teachings including real-time news on when to plant, etc?

Wait, why am I the leader here, especially when thousands graduate from the government agricultural colleges each year but few, if any, go into agriculture in spite of the great need for these fine young folks? Are my unique new innovations going to make a difference anyway, or once again am I going to hear the farmer and vendor remarks like ‘Meyhree baat alag hai, hum aisey nahin kartey. Aap samajhtey nahin’. Why dare to take on the bucking of these ‘norms’? Maybe I can just do a proof of concept and then give it to an NGO and/or the government, and walk away free? Whew?

One idea did work! Then what happened?

Why are our crop-yields a fraction of California crop yields? F.C. Kohli says: ‘We too have the necessary ingredients: sun, soil, water, and labour’. As an experiment, he brought in a sympathetic Indian expat professor from U.C. Davis agricultural college and was granted a piece of land from a well-meaning HNI. After the usual soil sampling, etc, the professor concluded: ‘dig the soil deeper, make a small well at the base of each plant that can hold the drip irrigation water and the prescribed minerals and subsidised fertiliser instead of wasting it by broadly spreading it’. He left. A friendly call to the good Mahindras and they had engineers develop a tiller that digs deeper. The fabulous results were all handed to the government. Then, we were back to ‘normal’? Enough done yaar?

• If as CEO of a cement company, caring for the necessary water conservation in a dry location, ought I to deepen an existing pond and build a few simple check dams since this would make water available for a longer period and help restore the depleted water table underground? But, to do it right, and sustainably, how do I form a community of affected villages to work together with me, be a part of the design and decision making, carry off the dredged silt, form a committee and utility (generally of women) to oversee maintenance? Or have the current water shortage woes been accepted and normalised? Yahaan hamaraa aisey hi hotah hai. Maybe easier that I just show them how to capture some rainwater?

• If as CEO of an FMCG, and caring for women empowerment, I address feminine hygiene as in the making and distribution of affordable and bio-degradable sanitary pads, or in developing more efficient, less polluting, safer, and healthier cooking stoves, as compared to the normal three-stone, lung-polluting (for mother and infant) method, using wood that is hard to get? Again, how do I get the customers to participate in the design, implementation, and distribution? Tempting to let the norm prevail or write a cheque? No one is complaining anyway, aisey hi hota hai. What to do?

• If as CEO of a financial services business, who wants a profitable opportunity serving the underserved, do I first zoom out and look at the big picture that includes such hazy aspects as mobility and equality of opportunity, or do I only develop Fintech tools such as easier digital identity verification, collaborative customer due diligence, data sharing and payment schemes, all of which can catalyse a host of low-cost but profitable value-creating financial services for underserved customers? Or, wait for others to do the development and then come in with improving customer experience and accelerating use and engagement? Or, do I simply ‘collaborate’ with Nick Hughes and Vodafone and MPesa and MKopa, and James Mwangi of Equity Bank of Kenya, and adapt their successful initiatives to India? As James Mwangi once said to me, ‘not a week goes by when I am not hosting a bank CEO or governor and yet few, if any, implement’.

Build new necessary new ecosystems vs maintaining older possibly corrupted ones?

Aren’t linkages, connections, access to all relevant resources the main reason that IITians, Cathedralites, Harvard and MIT alum all succeed? More than just financial resources, how do we create similar large or small customised connections for the disadvantaged?

• How vast is the potential out there embedded within millions of our beautiful children?

Didn’t Saina Nehwal and Hima Das proudly show us what they can do despite scant resources? So, why do a disproportionately small amount of CSR monies go into sports? Didn’t Marico Foundation’s finding, and thoroughly supporting, non-advantaged entrepreneurs also confirm this by their winners developing edible cutlery thereby reducing plastic waste and a 15-year-old developing a simple drone that can detect land mines? Wasn’t one of the winners in Harvard’s Social Enterprise competition, a farmer at one time, address farmer suicide by creating a digitised ecosystem with relevant partners? Does not a suspicion haunt us that out there amongst our millions of bright but disadvantaged children, there exists a lady Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs? So, why is she currently malnourished and sickly, silently collecting cow dung for a polluting fire, and going to be married off soon to live a life of servitude, because we were too non-inclusive to give her fresh innovative ecosystems; alternatives and avenues to emerge and flourish? Can we, Corporate India, along with the government and NGOs, dare to look for her, find her, make peace with her parents and community, gain her trust, caringly put an arm around her compassionately, and say: ‘Chalo, mayn terey saath chalta hoon. Do your best, we shall do the rest. Agar girogey toh main uthaunga. Kuchh fikar mat karoh, mayn kub nahin saath chhodoonga. Chalo, aagal badoh’.

Then we shall create champions.

Do these stories show that the Indian Corporate dragon, asleep to social issues, has now awoken? At Business India, we say ‘yes’ and it shall make us proud. ‘Dekh lo!’

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