With Diwali not far behind, and Christmas almost upon us, this is a time to think about giving – an essential part of both festivals. But in my last column before Christmas, I am not going to write about personal giving – the gifts we give to our family and friends; to those, also, who depend on us and those we depend on. Instead, I am writing about India’s corporate sector, and their obligation to fulfil their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
The Christmas that India has inherited, with its carols and Christmas trees, father Christmas and his reindeers, turkey and plum pudding, is a 19th century Victorian British festival. Under the 17th century Puritan Protestant regime in Britain, woe betide anyone who celebrated a festival in a joyful Catholic manner. When the Victorians decided they needed cheering up midwinter, they had to reinvent Christmas. The novelist Charles Dickens was at the forefront of the reinvention. He wrote his hugely popular novella, A Christmas Carol, to explain what Christmas should be all about – goodwill and giving.
A Christmas Carol’s central character, a miserable, miserly merchant, appropriately named Ebenezer Scrooge, realised the error of his ways when the “Ghost of Christmas Present” showed him a boy and girl, “meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish”, called “ignorance” and “want”. They jolted Scrooge’s conscience, making him aware of the poverty and inequality in the society he lived in. He cast off his miserly ways and sought every opportunity to give.
It might be thought that there is nothing in common between Scrooge, living in Victorian London, and 21st century Indian corporations with their CSR. For one thing, Scrooge gave voluntarily. India was the first country to mandate that corporations spend 2 per cent of their average net profit on contributions to economic, social, and environmental development. That raises the question: Is CSR really genuine giving, like Scrooge, or just doing what is required by the law and trying to squeeze the maximum advantage out of doing that? Cynics argue that corporations only choose CSR projects which will improve their image, boost their brand, or have some commercial spin-off, and that they pick the low-hanging fruit, avoiding long-term projects.
In New Delhi’s Nizamuddin, there is an example of a CSR project which should silence the critics of CSR. Aga Khan Foundation in partnership with the Archaeological Survey of In India (ASI), has done remarkable work in conserving Humayun’s Tomb. They have also developed the Mughal Garden, known as Sundar Nursery, in partnership with the Central Public Works Department as well as the ASI. But there was no plan to restore Nizamuddin’s magnificent tomb of Abdur Rahim Khan, the 16th century soldier, statesman and Hindi poet because there were no funds available. But then Interglobe Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the conglomerate Interglobe Enterprises, stepped in. They formed a partnership with the Aga Khan Foundation and the ASI to restore the tomb. This was certainly not plucking low-hanging fruits. The project began five years ago and will be declared completed shortly.
Another part of India’s dwindling heritage has been preserved. Conservation has become a new category for CSR giving. The project’s returns to the Interglobe Group seemed so limited that the board took a lot of persuading before they agreed to it. But wait a minute, the cynics, will argue, Interglobe is in the transport business and Indigo airlines is a member of the group, so the directors could have been motivated by the tourism potential of restoring the tomb. Maybe they were, but it seems to me to be far better to forget the cynicism, especially at this time of goodwill, and simply acknowledge that the restoration of Abdur Rahim Khan’s tomb is a gift.