Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was the theme of the 4th annual Ideal Village Conference attended by academicians, researchers, social entrepreneurs, investors, and representatives of non-governmental organizations, many based in India.
The conference highlighted the importance of CSR and featured discussions on how inclusive empowerment for scaling Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could help and the need for more funding and resources in developing and scaling social-impact efforts to improve underserved communities in rural India and other places.
Kanwaljeet J. S. Anand, one of the co-hosts and a man behind the Ideal Village Conference held last month at Stanford University, says other universities such as U C Berkeley run Smart Village and Columbia University has the Millennium Village concept, but the objective of the Ideal Village is to make villages beautiful places to live, so that young people don’t have to move away from their families to find employment while maintaining their culture, values and traditions by staying in the village.
“We have to learn their values, we have to learn their culture, challenges and opportunities only then we can co-create solutions,” said Anand, who also is a professor of Pediatrics, Anesthesiology, Perioperative & Pain Medicine at Stanford.
Anand lauded the Indian government’s efforts, saying “India is the only country in the world which has legislatively mandated CSR.”
And CSR certainly has come to the forefront because of the mandated legislation in India, and it’s having an impact, he said, adding that CSR used to be an afterthought, and that it used to work as an ad hoc for corporations, but now what has happened is companies are realizing they have to keep doing this year after year.
Enacted in 2013, the CSR law requires businesses to spend on CSR in the area of their operation.
Others also believe in the value of CSR, including Managing Director of The Nature Conservancy India Seema Paul, Anshu Gupta, founder of Goonj, an India based a non-profit that focuses on clothing as a basic but unaddressed need, and Dr Richard Dasher, director of the US-Asia Technology Management Center at Stanford.
Gupta agrees, saying he sees infrastructure changing in India but added, “ I always say that by changing infrastructure you don’t change the nation. You have to change the lives of the people if you want to change the nation.”
“We are at a point where we need to put in more resources, more thought in the rural communities, “ he said. “Cities are under distress because we are not taking care of our people in villages. So, it’s a forced migration which is bothering everyone.”
He told indica that there is the notion that people who are staying in the slums are the ones forced to migrate from the village.” So, this entire notion that the slums are the extension of the city is actually wrong. Slums are the extension of the villages.”
There are so many programs, schemes, and digital technology even in rural India run by the government, but Gupta said there is no dearth of schemes in India in any case. And he is pro-technology, but farmers need basic food, clothes and shelter.
“We need to be more focused on farmers, water for agriculture more than the drinking water in the villages because if you see our work in the last 20 years, we know one of the biggest reasons for forced migration from the villages actually is the water,” he said.
“If you just work on the [water] – water means employment, water means agriculture, water means less migration, so even if you want to solve the problem of the cities in India and across the globe, which is common, and I don’t say that is the only solution, but the basics,” said Gupta, who is a 2015 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee and is popularly known as the “clothing man.”
Gupta humbly says he is learning every day. “There is nothing called developed mind, and I am very fortunate I got direction in my life; and I ‘m really fortunate I can interact with thousands of people in the village. So, for me my universities have been the villages of India, and the teachers are the village people. Goonj is like a movement, and all the movement will be successful when the ordinary citizen becomes part of it.
Sharing his thoughts on CSR he said that CSR has to be more focused and reach out farther than 50 miles. And listen to the people what they need.
The reason behind unemployment is the powerful government needs to be more focused, he said. “In a country like India where farming is called an unskilled professional, even if they grow 200 kinds of rice and do innovations and still they are called unskilled and someone who has Ph.D. on that is called skilled, that is fundamentally wrong,” said Gupta.
Dasher, also a member of the panel, told indica on the sidelines of the conference that he thinks one good thing about Silicon Valley is that people there see good challenges as opportunities, and that is one reason these conferences happen in the Northern California locale.
“But a lot of the problems are really hard problems to solve,” he said.
The question is how corporates can help build Ideal Villages, how can technology help, and that every company does have a responsibility to society, he said.
“I think that again, the conferences are happening here because people are very concerned with improving this side of world, the world with innovation and this is the place where people from different backgrounds come to gather and talk about possible ideas and that is a very powerful sort of environment for coming out with new solutions,” Dasher said.
Further adding his thoughts about India, he said, “My own impression, social entrepreneurship developed earlier in India than it did here (in the U.S.). I have seen a strong commitment all across India.”
An example is the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in India, that over the past 20 years has seen IIT doing work, trying to reach the bottom of the pyramid, he said.
“Well, I think there may be the problems in India are obvious, but India is closer to being earlier stage development economy that has an unusual pattern of development,” he said.
Another speaker at the conference, Paul, who was based in the San Francisco Bay Area and helped set up and run the India office of The Nature Conservancy in 2016, agrees that the present government with public-private partnerships using technology and working and trying to resolve big issues like water, pollution but needs more focus, more collaboration and a bigger vision on how India can make changes.
“If CSR money joins hands to collaboratively tackle one or two major challenges that can be very powerful,” she said. “They can do their own things in their community, but they should have a bigger vision to bring changes in India.”
Citing the example of Mumbai-based Wadhwani AI (Institute for Artificial Intelligence)and how artificial intelligence is used to help resolve pollution, Paul said The Nature Conservancy are in deep conversation with Wadhwani AI.
“India’s remote sensing program (under the Indian Space Research Organization) is quite advanced, the government has a lot of data, but the point is how do you leverage that data for decision making? So, we are working on how do we deploy those data,” said Paul, adding that would help resolve policy decisions and rapid scaling of effective action that still is a challenge.
Sharing where AI could be used, she said that by promoting interventions around no-burn agriculture, they hope to address a real issue faced by farmers in northern India while at the same time taking on the rather toxic problem of air pollution.
“Crop burning is happening across India, but we are focused on Northwest India because of impact (of crop burning) on Delhi. So with Wadhwani AI what we are looking at is, can there be some machine learning. Because there are massive data the Punjab government has. And with the help of AI, machine learning we identify pro-actively which farms are likely to burn and intervene at that stage,” said Paul.
Paul said the similar way they are working on water issues and planting of trees and also are working on at the request of the Ministry of Water Resources and National Mission for clean Ganga (NMCG) and developing and decision-making tools. The tools will enable them to basically see a different scenario for allocating the river water by using GI technology.