CSR is a component of Sustainability: Shankar Venkateswaran, Chief, Tata Sustainability Group

Interview with Shankar Venkateswaran for India CSR Leadership Series with Nayan Mitra


NEW DELHI: Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainability has been defined variously by various researchers and practitioners at different times. In this Leadership Series, we present to our readers the Sustainability approaches of the Tata group and how it relates to CSR, in the words and thoughts of Shankar Venkateswaran, the Chief of Tata Sustainability Group (TSG).

What does Sustainability mean to you?

For businesses to fulfil their social contract of providing goods and services to society, they need to be able to do this profitably and over time. This means that they have to be able to meet and balance the expectations of all their stakeholders. In a world that is challenged by growing inequity, resource scarcity and climate change, businesses can do this only if they balance their financial, environmental and social performances and conduct themselves ethically. This is the essence of sustainability.

What is the difference between Sustainability and CSR?

CSR, as described by Section 135 of the Companies Act, 2013, is meant to address the expectations of one key stakeholder – communities. Also, CSR is about what/ how a company spends its profits. Sustainability on the other hand is a more holistic construct and is about addressing expectations of all stakeholders and covers not just what a company does with its profits but how it makes its profits in the first place. Thus, CSR is a component of Sustainability.

When and why was the Tata Sustainability Group formed?

TSG was formed in 2014 to integrate activities that were previously being done in different parts of the group. Its role is to support and provide thought leadership to group companies so that they can embed sustainability principles into their core businesses and become global leaders in the sectors they operate.

What are the various functions of the Tata Sustainability Group?

TSG sees itself as performing 3 functions – Knowledge, Advisory and Execution. The Knowledge function is about bringing in next thinking into the group, identifying and socialising good practice and capacity and capability building on sustainability issues. The Advisory function is like an in-house consulting role, which focuses on helping our companies get better at what they wish to drive in the space. And the Execution function is about implementing group-level initiatives such as responding to natural disaster, our group volunteering programme called Tata Engage and our Group CSR Programmes such as Tata STRIVE, our skilling and employability programme. Functionally, we have 4 verticals – Environment Services, Community Services and Disaster Response, Strategy and Communications and Knowledge Management.

What are the priority areas of Sustainability in the Tata group?

Given the wide and diverse nature of the operations of the Tata group, the group’s priorities are essentially a summation of individual company priorities. There are, of course, several common threads that address some of the global challenges of inequity, resource scarcity and climate change but how these get addressed are company and sector specific.

How has the CSR mandate under the Companies Act, 2013 affected the Tata group?

The 2 big value-adds of Section 135 are that it has raised CSR to a board level conversation and made reporting mandatory. Many larger and older companies were already practising this and so for them, this was really “business-as-usual”. Others gained from these 2 practices which brought greater rigour and accountability to their practice of CSR.

Shankar Venkateswaran

Since January 2014, Shankar Venkateswaran is the chief of Tata Sustainability Group which has been tasked with providing guidance, thought leadership and support on sustainability and corporate responsibility activities of the $103 billion Tata group. A mechanical engineer and an MBA, Shankar has about 35 years of experience of working in the corporate and social development sectors. He started his career in mainstream management consulting before going on to set up Partners in Change, a pioneering non-profit specializing in corporate sustainability and CSR. He has also set up the India office of the American India Foundation and served as its Executive Director, India and Director of the think-tank and consultancy firm, SustainAbility, before joining PwC as Director, Sustainability. Shankar has held board and advisory positions with several non-profits and academic institutions in India and overseas. He served as a member of the guidelines drafting committee for the National Voluntary Guidelines for Responsible Business notified by the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, Government of India and was a part of a two-member panel updating these guidelines in 2016.

Nayan Mitra

Nayan Mitra comes with a rich mix of diverse professional experience of over sixteen years. She straddles seamlessly between academics, social and corporate sectors. As a Developmental Consultant and Researcher, she works closely with some of the eminent Corporations and not-for profits of India as well as being in their Advisory and Board level. She has conducted several social researches for multi-lateral agencies; the findings of which have become important bases for sustainable action. She has been a resource person in eminent Institutions of higher learning in the areas of CSR and Corporate Governance and has important peer reviewed research publications to her credit in national and international Academic journals and books as well as delivered at key Conferences. Her book, ‘Corporate Social Responsibility in India: Cases and Development after the Legal Mandate’ alongwith co-editor Dr. Rene Schmidpeter is a first book of its kind that charters the development of mandated Indian CSR from a multi-stakeholder perspective, bringing in over 15 authors. She was a finalist of the prestigious Chevening Gurukul Scholarship for Leadership and Excellence – 2013, as conferred by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) of the British Deputy High Commission.

Interview was conducted by Nayan Mitra on January 23, 2017 via e-mail.

Disclaimer: The thoughts captured in the interview is solely that of the interviewee. The views expressed by the author in this feature are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of India CSR.

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