CSR and Development in North East India

What does it take to empower North East India? How can we bring development to the most unique area of India with a rich culture and heritage, yet deprived of basic development that has created barriers for its economic growth.

The North- Eastern part of India comprises of eight states; Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Sikkim, Nagaland, Mizoram and Tripura. The area shares 99% of its regional borders with neighboring countries of China, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Unlike most of India this region is scarcely populated, and the unexplored geography allows for many indigenous tribes to survive and thrive. 

This remoteness also means slower pace of development. Efforts made by the government are remarkable yet insufficient. Our endeavor is to bring the collective might of the corporate world under the umbrella of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to join hands with the government and bolster much needed development work. Can these two forces work together to impact the lives of the many communities in these regions? The obvious answer is Yes, because we have seen it happen across many parts of India. The reality however couldn’t be more stark. Let’s discover the challenges the region throws at the development forces and possible solutions that we would like to explore and implement.

Why North-East is a win-win situation for any corporate house?

The CSR act of 2013 prescribes mandatory provisions for a company to fulfill its social responsibility towards the society by spending a percentage of its profits on development of communities. The act has made CSR, a common topic in board room meetings. It has also brought upon many positive changes and innovations in corporate culture; with organizations understanding the importance of CSR as a responsibility and a measure of brand value.  There were always a few organizations which had philanthropy or community work embedded in the culture. The number however, stayed small and the need to get involved restricted to a matter of choice. 

The mindset has changed considerably. CSR has now become a part of the culture statement for many organizations. Many are even ready to go beyond financial limits mandated by the act. This paradigm shift in the perceived value of CSR is now becoming an essential component of corporate governance and not just a mandatory spend item. We seem to be moving past the time where community responsibility was considered optional to business goals and organizational vision. In fact, social activities are increasingly becoming the main anchor of public relation campaigns aimed at promoting brand awareness and brand loyalty. The combining of CSR with organizational objectives is clearly essential for social activities to sustain and flourish. 

It is a win-win proposition for both the community and the corporate world. At one side the underprivileged communities get attention from India Inc. and at the other the brand equity of the firm rises rapidly. The consumer today, is well informed and educated. She wants to be associated with a brand which holds social responsibility dear to its narrative and actions. The signs can be found in the recent actions of many top brands. The issues ranging from women empowerment to a safer workplace were raised through multiple campaigns. Many sports brands have changed their public relation strategies endorsing real change makers and replacing actors. 

Enough and more evidence suggest that an action taken for the betterment of society brings with it a broad spectrum of positive aftereffects. Let’s look at what Hancock bank did in Gulfport Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was a tough time for everyone with the loss of lives, infrastructure, and wealth. The employees of the bank arranged temporary furniture to start the operations and disbursed the cash to the customers in need. The staff would dry currency notes they found from the waterlogged areas in the bank. and disburse to clients using social security and primary contact details as most of the people had lost their documents. This act solved to a large extent the problem of cash in hand for the customers. After things settled, not only did the distributed cash return to the bank, but the deposits also swelled. The number of customers opening new accounts increased and the bank became the first choice for many more customers. The bank now had customer loyalty that would last the client’s lifetime. 

The same is applicable in the current COVID-19 scenario. Today the world is in the grip of a much larger threat. The COVID 19 pandemic is seeing organizations taking proactive steps for the security and safety of their employees, customers and even communities. These companies will gain the loyalty and support of the society at large. The rise in respect for medical, police and sanitization workers is another example of changing perceptions. These jobs are now held by people who are considered modern warriors. Their sense of duty in the hour of need is applauded by billions globally. 

Status Quo and Challenges 

The North- East gets less than 2% of the total CSR budget of India Inc. There are several reasons and challenges. Tough terrain and connectivity, distance from the economic centers, lesser numbers of implementing partners and low volume impact of the program are some of them. Let us go a little deeper to understand on how these challenges play out on the ground 

Tough Terrain and connectivity:

We recently visited Arunachal Pradesh for a social entrepreneurship summit organized by the chief minister’s office. The intent and endeavor of the government machinery were extra-ordinary, but the connectivity and terrain were not in favor. There is a limited air connectivity to the Guwahati airport from all major metro cities. It is still not connected by majority of metros. One has no choice but to go via Guwahati to reach Itanagar, which is the capital of the state. If you want to go to any other city, a road trip is the only option, which is tiring and time-consuming owing to the roads and the terrain involved.  It throws a serious challenge when it comes to mobilization of resources. It increases the time required to execute a project. This becomes a bottleneck and keeps many corporates away from the region. At the same time, the supply for Food and, other necessary items happen on a regular basis. Which means that the villages are within the reach. It may be time consuming, but it is possible. 

Distance from the Economic centers

The CSR act encourages companies to focus on operational geography. As a result, the majority of the funds go to the developed states and not much reaches to regions where remoteness acts as a barrier to the funds and efforts.  

Genuine implementing partners:

The tough terrain presents a challenge for the implementing agencies as well. There are very few genuine partners available to collaborate at a remote location. Finding the right partner which resonates the corporate strategy is a tough task. As a result, the region gets lesser number of projects. This phenomenon repeats itself across all the remote terrains in the world.

Low Volume Impact program:

This is more of a psychological barrier for corporate houses. The discussion almost always starts with a formula that divides the impacted population with the fund utilized. From a company’s point of view, it is almost believed to be essential. Businesses do prefer the tried and tested quantitative approach. This makes it mandatory to work in densely populated areas. Keeping regions like the north east deprived of intent and funding. We need to change the impact matrix to counter the issue. Can there be a way to include the geographical distance, first time development and severity of a situation in the matrix? A changed formula that has the ability to bring development where it is needed the most. 

The areas of intervention 

The corporate world has aligned itself with the sustainable development goals (SDGs) provided by united nations. The SDGs provide the direction for any development project globally. They cover all identified needs of the underprivileged communities of the world. 
Let’s talk about some of the most relevant areas which need development in the North-East. 

Renewable energy: As per our survey and reports, majority of the North-East states suffer from irregular electricity supply. Some of the hamlets have a limited supply whereas others have none. Renewable energy is an effective answer to the problem. It serves many purposes for a brand. It provides energy access, removes carbon from the environment and gives the native population a business model in terms of service and maintenance. The scattered population and tough terrain set the perfect stage for solar micro-grids. The only question is who will take the leap of faith? A public- private partnership model can ensure a long-term success.

Digital Education: Although the region has got the basic education infrastructure intact, there is a huge requirement for Digital Infrastructure. There are schools in the interior parts of the states like Meghalaya and Arunachal where students still do not know how to work on a computer. While we are living with all the modern gazettes at disposal, these kids do not have the access to basic digital education, which is essential in today’s environment. Imagine the plight of such a student in finding a job after education, she will be underqualified for any role

Livelihood: There are very few employment opportunities in the region today. Even if the person is lucky to get a graduation degree, she has very limited options to work post graduating. The gap is visible, and the corporate world can play a vital role in filling it. Skill development programs and out of the box thinking are the need of the hour. Rather than focusing upon something which doesn’t exist at present, lets focus on the things which are gifted to the region. North-East has a huge potential for tourism industry. It also produces huge amount of fruits and spices, which can promote experiential tourism. There is a huge need of skill development and market linkage. The circle of sustainability completes with the rising income at a local scale.

The states of North-east have enormous potential for development. The area represents untapped territory for tourism, agriculture and trade in spices etc. There is a huge handicraft industry which doesn’t know how to market itself. The government is doing its bit by creating infrastructure like roads and airports. The top leadership of every state is aggressive and pro-active for development. Intent and support from the corporate world can take the region forward to fulfill the potential of its natives and the region itself. It is a call to all the serious and committed CSR teams; come join hands in the development story of North-East. 

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