CSR Simple Lesson Learnt at Grass-Roots


Saradamani Dey

Member- CSR Sub Committee, CII Southern
Region and GRI, G4 trained Communication
specialist on sustainable development

“I understand your point of view, but your ideas won’t work here,” said Vijay Kumar, the headmaster of the Palavakkam local government school impatiently to me when I approached him for implementing road safety initiatives, along with Junior Red Cross, at his humble and modest school. “Road safety training sessions and posters can come later. Basic infrastructure is what we need,” he emphasised. “We don’t even have a school gate. Shouldn’t this be the first step towards road safety? ” his obvious and assertive voice reduced my presence to a mere embarrassment.

‘Of course! How could I be so blind? I cursed myself. On second thoughts, yes indeed, it had a dangerous proximity to the road. Tamil Nadu State highway 51 almost kissed its class-rooms. I went into a damage control mode desperately trying to frame my next set of conversations. I had already made a wrong start. I was grappling with the appropriate choice of words. What would make this stern looking bespectacled man open to our ideas? The school had nothing to lose. On the contrary, it was a golden opportunity for Kumar to be associated with us, the ‘pompous corporate’ in me felt. Personally for the headmaster, there was more to gain. All I wanted, at that moment, was to make this school a ‘pilot’ and showcase it as a success case to the CSR board so that we get the approval to scale up the ‘school road safety’ project. Deadlines were nearing. Time was running out. And Vijay was beginning to be a tough nut to crack. The corporate communication professional in me was fully active. Pat came the animated solution in my thick head, ‘empathy, better still, compassionate choice of words while engaging in a discussion, would have been more impactful.’

My face was already warm with my brain being hyperactive. To cool down I made an attempt to divert. Morning showers had painted a subtle rainbow. The school bore a rugged look, drearily acknowledging passers-by. A wry smile touched my face. What irony! It seemed we (at corporate) were on the other side of spectrum or the road when it comes to understanding social needs. This wide gap stems from the fact that matters of reality and board room discussions are on different planes.

Some teachers had come to Mr. Kumar to discuss on their lesson plan. It was a welcoming interlude. It gave me a breather and time enough to collect my optimism. Gazing outside the window, my thoughts were swimming into oblivion. This approach had always helped me start a fresh. The headmaster’s room was well lit with copious natural light coming through a huge window. Myriad Shades of green were in the silhouette, perks of being in a rural belt. A rarity these days in cityscape. My train of thoughts were cut off when a MTC bus was continuously honking to make way. Sitting in Vijay Kumar’s room, I could clearly see the road was jammed with couple of trucks lined up waiting for the disorganised cattle to cross the road. It was mayhem as impatient cyclists and pedestrians were navigating through this ruckus. Some two wheelers came inside the school premise to take a short cut. No dream, but harsh reality this. Literally, it gave me goose bumps. Sending my kids to this school would be a nightmare for me for every second my mind would wander worrying about their safety and my heart, like any other mom’s, weakened by maternal emotions, would eventually succumb to the pressure of such unsafe condition.

The school bell rang. Suddenly the tiny play area was bustling with children. One look at their innocence make you want to do something special for them. They are as precious as my little ones. Their enthusiasm, their vivacious attitude, the twinkle in their eyes, their curiosity, everything is so much like any other ‘uber’ kids. What then deprives them of their right to be safe?

I almost shrank in my seat. Sensing my discomfort and the reasons behind it, Vijay let out a laugh. ‘This is everyday scene, madam’, he quipped. The sarcasm in his voice pierced through me. Somewhere, at that instance, we both were thinking of the same.

He made me more human. The experience made me more humble. I walked out, amidst the playful kids, with a ‘purpose’ and this time it was more grounded and more sensible. It was my first field day and there were handful of lessons I learnt from this poignant experience. Nothing earth shattering, nevertheless left an impression.

Lesson #1:

Common Sense: A rural school, though almost in the middle of state highway, that is screaming for basic infrastructure will not be able to prioritise important subjects like road safety, green environment, etc. That is the difference between urgent and important.

Lesson #2:

Stakeholder Engagement: Get the stakeholders involved much before planning or strategising. Dialogues and discussion in open forums (parent teacher association, gram panchayat sabhas, etc) should form the baseline for any social strategies. In this case, road safety was on our agenda (and not the school’s). We must visit the area as many times as we can, for observations is always a rich source of information and data.

Lesson #3:

Appropriate Support: Often, supporting the articulated than a perceived need becomes priority and should include the appropriate process to achieve an end objective that has more long term implications. Though infrastructure support was not within our perimeter, we (the CSR team), later, approached the Chief Education Office of the district with an appeal (representing the school) to allocate budgets and expedite the construction of the compound wall and the gate. After all, having a secured compound wall is also an inherent part of ‘safety’.

These lessons are simple, yet they open the floodgates of the way we approach a social program. These lessons are the iceberg, for there is so much beneath to unravel, understand, unlearn. Some basic questions we should not shy away from asking ourselves: How much effort do we actually invest in conducting an impact assessment while choosing to implement a ‘CSR project’. How much sensitive are we to the actual needs of our stakeholders or are we just thrusting down something as a solution to the problem that is seen only from our perspective. How much of our preconceived judgement of a situation overrides our ability to think logically, rationally?

Defining the scope of the geography, a baseline study of the schools (infrastructure, availability of resources, etc.) in the neighbourhood (within the defined perimeter) thereafter, a stakeholder mapping with impact analysis helped us in terms of going back to the drawing board. This time, the approach was more realistic. (I gained this knowledge while working as a Communications Manager at a MNC Tyre Manufacturer in Gummidipoondi, TN)

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