Focus on Rural India: Law On Corporate Social Responsibility Boosts Action To Address Social Inequity

By Jane Schukoske

Rural communities with unmet fundamental needs are clearly high priority among the key intended beneficiaries of thetwo percent provision for CSR in the Companies Act 2013. Schedule VII of the Act specifically includes rural development projects, and many other listed activities address the deprivation of basic human rights experienced by many rural villagers: eradicating hunger, poverty and malnutrition; promotion of preventive health care and sanitation and making available safe drinking water; promotion of education and employment, enhancing vocational skills; promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women; ensuring environmental sustainability, ecological balance, protection of flora and fauna, animal welfare, agro-forestry, conservation of natural resources and maintaining quality of soil, air and water.

For rural development interventions to be sustainable, the community must lead and “own” the efforts.  When the community helps design solutions and takes responsibility for behavior change within the village, the community will maintain infrastructure and the social commitment to the behavior over time.  Many companies will rely on NGOs that have built rapport with communities to engage the communities for a sustainable CSR effort.  Success of many of the listed CSR activities requires some community behavior change; this should be factored into the projects, programs and timelines proposed in CSR plans.

By drawing attention to neglected rural communities, the “2% CSR” provision will stimulate greater communication and collaboration between companies, NGOs and such communities. This joint effort will serve as a powerful tool for leveraging the funds and systems of the Government of India, which has capacity to scale rural development. The collaboration will cause more citizens to be attentive to policy gaps, such as in the Right to Education Act, 2009, which largely addresses school infrastructure rather than student learning. Corporate employees who engage in CSR activities will have the opportunity to traditional knowledge and meet talented and inspiring people, who, given a fair chance, could be contributing to greater wellbeing and prosperity in India.

Lawyers, themselves responsive to the professional ethical requirement of provision of pro bono services, have important roles to play in supporting rural CSR activities.  In addition to advising clients on compliance with the Companies Act, lawyers should advise clients about government systems, such as the legal services authority system and its paralegals, who could work in rural areas to bring about women’s empowerment and to implement existing government programs designed to provide dignity and meet basic human needs.

Jane Schukoske is the CEO of S M Sehgal Foundation, Gurgaon, which works with rural communities on governance and policy advocacy, capacity building, water management and agriculture.  She can be reached at jschukoske@gmail.com.

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