In war time, as is the case now, CSR needs to acquire a new sense of urgency and responsibility
By Prem Das Rai & Sarath Davala
The coronavirus pandemic has brought about a moment that has no precedence in our lifetime. We are dealing with a situation that is fast-evolving, and merits our immediate attention and action. Time has arrived to bring all our resources to the public square and to collectively resist and take affirmative action against the fallout from the pandemic. In peace time, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is seen as doing some social good somewhere. If it is done well, and in compliance with the government guidelines, it is seen as having accomplished its mission. In war time though, as is the case now, CSR needs to acquire a new sense of urgency and indeed responsibility.
The finance minister announced that CSR funds can be spent on activities related to addressing Covid-19 impact. Even before this announcement was made on March 23, we saw some examples of benevolent individual corporate leaders offering resources to combat Covid-19. Anand Mahindra, the chief of automobile giant Mahindra has offered to convert Mahindra Resorts into care facilities for Covid-19 patients. Anil Agarwal, the chief of the natural resources conglomerate Vedanta has pledged `100 crore for the fight against Covid-19. And, Reliance has set up a 100-bed hospital in Mumbai and offered healthcare facilities through Jio platform and free fuel for emergency vehicles.
While these individual efforts are laudable, we need to nevertheless give serious thought as to how we can collectively add value to the overall societal effort to combat the virus impact. We need to now apply all the strategic thinking we teach in our business schools. We need to collectively identify our priorities first and then see where the resources are to be deployed. The government will do what it normally does in its own way. The corporate sector can bring its unique way of doing things albeit in a strategic way. The corporate sector is good at innovation. This is their forte and must be exercised at this moment. Here are some of the key priorities that need urgent addressing and more importantly funds.
In the last financial year, CSR spend was about Rs 12,000 crore. In a war-situation which has unfolded due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the CSR spend can easily double. World Health Organisation has alerted that a lockdown alone does not help in controlling the spread of virus. Much more needs to be done. There are three important areas of urgent strategic intervention.
One, our testing capacities must increase several-fold. We just have 118 government labs and 12 private labs. Many of them are still equipping themselves. This is one critical gap where CSR can contribute very effectively. Start-ups such as Mylab Discovery Solutions that are making indigenous test kits is a case in point. They may have secured the funding for development but lack the resources to scale it to areas where they are needed the most. For instance, in the North-Eastern region (NER), for a population of over 50 million there are just eight labs, and half of them are in Assam. The state of Bihar has nearly 100 million people, but there is just one lab in Patna. With the lockdown in place it is not easy to send samples from Sikkim to Guwahati. It will be weeks before the results come. We need mobile testing labs and deploy them in large numbers. For epidemiological reasons also, a mobile testing lab has many advantages. CSR is quick and an effective instrument to ensure that this happens.
The second area of intervention is addressing the severe shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). This shortage has the serious risk of healthcare workers getting exposed to the virus. Just imagine more than 12% of all those who are infected and indeed dying are healthcare workers in Spain. They have just run out of all PPEs. It is important to identify the current and potential epicentres in India and ensure that PPE demand is met in all healthcare centres and hospitals. The current institutional arrangement has come under severe criticism. We need to overcome these limitations and galvanise our energies with zero red-tape.
We are dealing with a potential disaster scenario and we need to work on a war footing to resolve the issues and increase the manufacturing and supply of PPE wherever it is needed. CSR can ensure that enough supplies reach these epicentres to protect our health and front-line workers.
Lastly, it is equally important for CSR to reach out to the most vulnerable sections of our society with an emergency basic income. Cash relief to those who are daily wage earners and must stay home due to lockdown can get the priority. This is to ensure that no one dies of hunger. Corporates can start this at least in their own catchment areas where they are working. The challenge here is to design a fool-proof and leak-proof method of transferring cash to people in need.
What does all this mean? Foresight to make CSR mandatory by law by government of India has not to be lost sight of but more importantly now corporate India, with their CSR armament, must rise to the occasion.
Rai is the former MP from Sikkim. Davala is the Coordinator of India Network for Basic Income. Views are personal