Our save the tiger programme contributed significantly to tiger conservation: Brinda Malhotra, Head CSR, Aircel

By Rusen Kumar

NEW DELHI: AIRCEL, leading GSM mobile service provider initiated the campaign towards a social cause in association with WWF-India to help save our tigers in the year 2010. Aircel “Save Our Tiger” campaign intends to draw attention towards dwindling numbers of tigers across the planet and bring forward the seriousness of losing tigers. In an interview with Rusen Kumar, Editor, India CSR Network; Brinda Malhotra, Head – Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Aircel said, “In 2008, we recognized the urgency of the depleting Tiger population and drew up a sustained and long-term strategy for the cause.” She discussed in detail of Aircel CSR. Edited excerpts: 

Tell us about Aircel journey and its business philosophy?

Aircel started as a regional player in Coimbatore in 1999 and now is India’s fifth largest and fastest growing GSM mobile service provider and a pan India operator. It won 3G spectrum in 13 circles and BWA spectrum in 8 circles and has successfully launched 3G services in 13 circles, which is the fastest 3G roll out ever in the Indian Telecom Space. Aircel has been constantly innovating products & services and is credited with making 3G affordable to masses by launching Pocket Internet Smart which offers best value 3G packs.

At Aircel, our culture defines the way we work as a team and differentiates us from the rest of the competition. We are engaged, passionate and constantly working towards a ‘higher purpose’. Every day, we strive to find a simpler and better way of doing things – be it shaping the national agenda of Save Our Tigers, or connecting and empowering millions of Indians through services like Pocket Internet, which gives free access to Facebook and Whatsapp to all customers.

Can you discuss your company’s CSR journey?

Aircel has been a socially responsible company since its inception. Our philosophy has always been centered on a sense of responsibility to society that comes from an appreciation of India’s challenges and realities. Our two recurring mandates have been environment and education.

Adopting the Save Our Tigers programme as our flagship project since 2008 has been incredibly rewarding. There have been marked successes in tiger conservation and Aircel takes a lot of pride in its contribution towards the effort. Our success through this project has been immense. The Aircel SOT programme over the years has contributed significantly to tiger conservation and the recent increase in no. of tigers is a testimony to our sustained commitment to the cause.

Under the Aircel a+ program we developed education centers to help underprivileged children bridge the digital divide. Furthermore, we have been helping provide underprivileged youth with vocational skills so they can make the most of opportunities presented to them.

Recently, we decided to stand up for a very serious issue we face in our country – Sanitation and Hygiene. We are committed commitment to the GoI’s Swachh Bharat mission under which we are supporting this project. Our focus is on hygiene and sanitation through building toilets. We are calling our project ‘Swachh Vidylaya: Swachh Bharat’. With this initiative, our role will not just be restricted to building toilets but we also aim to generate an impact that will last long by laying strong foundation pillars- Creating Sanitation facilities, Sanitation and Hygiene Education among students and Community awareness

What is the implementing method of CSR?

At Aircel, we operate under a structured CSR process. We believe in creating networks which translates into long-term commitment with people and the environment. Our CSR approach follows our 3 core values – Simplicity, Creativity & Trustworthiness which are also aligned to our corporate values.

We begin the process by identifying projects in our two recurring themes which are environment and education. We look for simple yet creative solutions which are executable in the most efficient manner.

We do not believe in merely funding a project – We work very collaboratively with all our partners and not in a top-down manner. This not only ensures effective monitoring and desired outcomes but also increases our learning to for better programme planning and management. We completely back these projects and our partners to ensure there is a long-term and sustainable benefit for everyone.

Do you have CSR Policy? If so, Please describe.

CSR at Aircel includes initiatives that create economic, social and societal development for citizens of today. The objective of Aircel’s CSR is to not only address the requirements of the neediest but also ensure a sustainable future for them, their families and the environment.
We take immense pride in being able to sustain the causes we have stood for. CSR in its proper context is beyond giving. We look beyond cheque book charity and adopt initiatives that are in natural alignment, by minimising operational risks and in line with their business expertise, that help establish a strongly differentiated offering for all stakeholders.

At an early stage we realized the importance of having our CSR program aligned with our HR strategy. We did this to ensure our employees could participate in the CSR programmes of the company. This created a sense of ownership among our employees; a characteristic rare among Indian corporates. The result is a cohesive CSR program that the employees can identify with and then contribute to it through regular engagements. We as an organisation believe in the immense potential of employee engagement and therefore constantly create platforms to engage our employees with our on-going CSR activities. Our employees bring in their rich and varied skill sets which are also utilised by our various partner CSR agencies to ensure a better and more efficient implementation of the programme.

Please describe the CSR team?

We are lucky to have a healthy mix of experience and raw-energy in our CSR team. I joined Aircel in 2008 and since then have been spearheading the CSR function. My experience of more than 16 years in corporate social responsibility along with the talented people in my team has helped design and execute some of the clutter-breaking CSR initiatives in the industry. A lot of effort and hard work has gone behind successfully running the ‘Save Our Tigers’ programme, which has won many accolades and awards. I also got an opportunity to extend our CSR services to other sectors especially in empowering underprivileged children with basic skills in computers.

Other members of the team include Vijay Bhaskar who comes with over 10 years of first-hand experience in CSR and developmental sector and Mudita Lall who has been with the Aircel CSR team for more than three years.

The CSR team also draws on expertise from various departments at Aircel. Senior management and employees across the company back the functioning of the CSR team. It is not an isolated unit. This allows for smooth-functioning of the team when it comes to requiring help and resources. Our inclusive approach makes the CSR team more representative of the company in its functioning.

Your ‘Save our Tiger” project is widely discussed. Give the insight of the project and its journey, how it has improved the ecosystem?

In 2008, we as a company recognized the urgency of the depleting Tiger population and drew up a sustained and long-term strategy for the cause. We followed a two pronged approach:
First, create a buzz around the importance of conservation through a campaign that highlighted the dwindling tiger population – “Just 1411 left”. This was the first wake up call to people on a mass scale about the significance of Tiger conservation and its impact on our future.

Our seriousness to ‘Save Our Tigers’ has led us to partner with several well-known organizations like World Wildlife Fund-India, Wildlife Conservation Trust, Wildlife Trust of India, Sanctuary Asia and NDTV, as well as several noted conservationists to create an impact on ground where it really matters. We work on several projects that encompass capacity building, conflict mitigation and awareness creation. This helps us address issues in a holistic manner and reach out to all stakeholders to create maximum impact.

Our on-ground projects are based on two broad vision- Awareness Building and Capacity Building. Our Awareness Building projects are run and managed in partnership with Sanctuary Asia. Some of the key projects are:

‘Bagh Bachaao Project’
The programme was recently launched in Sundarbans with the intent of increasing community participation and awareness towards significance of tigers in India. We have planned a range of activities for a year with forest guards, locals and kids in Sundarbans. These entail showing films, initiating dialogues/ baithaks, organizing competitions and photo exhibitions to attract interests of the locals towards issues of tiger conservation

Kids for Tigers
A wildlife conservation initiative driven by a national programme envisioned and implemented by Sanctuary Asia over a decade ago. Conducted in Schools across 15 cities, the program uses the Tiger as a metaphor for all of nature and as a symbol of the environmental health of the habitats in which it is found. Over the years we have raised awareness with over 10 lakh children.

Kids for Tigers Express
Launched in April 2011 is a fully equipped edutainment van that traverses the villages around Ranthambhore National Park spreading awareness and importance amongst the communities on the need to Save Our Tigers.

Our capacity building focuses on empowering the forest department and providing an infrastructure that helps in conserving tigers and habitat around. Some of the key projects are:

1. Conservation of Tigers in Assam
2. Support Initiative Fund- aimed at empowering local communities living around tiger reserve by providing infrastructure support to Forest Departments, Emergency Relief, Anti-Poaching support and Capacity Building of Forest Department personnel.

3. Conflict Mitigation in Dudhwa- Formation of fully equipped Rapid Response Team that performs Awareness drives in villages and schools bordering Dudhwa Tiger landscape.

4. Bandipur Project- We launched the Mobile Veterinary Service (MVS) project that envisages the placement of trained wildlife veterinarians in Bandipur tiger reserve to ensure that 24-hour quality veterinary service is made available to the threatened wildlife in times of emergency.Kids for Save Tiger- Aircel

5. Rapid Action projects (RAP) – It has addressed diverse wildlife emergencies across the country since 1998. The projects are short-term conservation initiatives, implemented to help address wildlife conservation emergencies in India. RAP provides financial and technical support to non-government individuals and government agencies such as forest departments to respond to emergency wildlife situations. Collectively with Wildlife Trust of India, Aircel has undertaken 3 RAP’s in Tamil Nadu to address the conservation needs of the tiger.

While we are proud to see our projects and efforts making positive impact around, however, we, as an organization still believe that there are miles to go before the might of the tiger returns to its full glory. We at Aircel will continue to be a part of this exciting journey of human hope for development and the fight for conservation. The roar shall be louder than before.Kids For Tiger- Aircel

What are the key objectives of carrying such projects?

In a diverse country like India there are various causes that a corporate can support. Back in 2008, we were shocked to know that there were only 1400-odd tigers, our national animal, were left in the country. We decided to take up the cause and create mass awareness about the dire situation. We take up initiatives not because it satisfies our business objectives, but because these causes have some massive direct and indirect ramifications on the country we have inherited and plan to pass on to the next generation.Save Tiger and Aircel

We believe that for any corporate to be successful in the field of CSR, it is imperative to address the issues at hand in a holistic manner. It is important to contribute in and make a difference in a substantial way one can.

What are the initiative towards Swachh Bharat Mission?

Under the mission Aircel has identified 50 schools in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry where we are working to provide clean water and sanitation facilities. The aim of this program is to construct and renovate sanitation facilities, raise awareness on water conservation, sanitation and health issues, and also mobilize relevant stakeholders for ensuring sustainability and longer impact.

What are the other CSR projectsSave Tiger project?

Another CSR project undertaken by us is Aircel A+, an initiative to bridge the digital divide in the country. Back in 2010 when we decided to launch Aircel A+ various industry studies had shown that only 14 per cent of students attending government schools were computer literate

Under this project, we developed computer learning centres for children from underprivileged backgrounds, who would otherwise have no access to basic computer literacy. The project catered to various government schools and shelter homes for underprivileged kids in partnership with NGOs. Children were introduced to the Microsoft ULIP curriculum that encompasses both basic as well as an intermediate curriculum. This helped empower them with a good knowledge in computer operations that aimed at not only instilling confidence in the children but also helping them be well prepared for the journey ahead.

What are the communication strategies to inform stakeholders at Aircel CSR?

We at Aircel believe in regular engagement with our stakeholders to ensure a steady flow of communications that is beneficial to the work of our projects. Stakeholders provide a variety of input that enriches our own awareness and the project at hand. Partnering with them creates opportunities for finding solutions that are innovative and useful. We rely on our stakeholders not just for ideas, but also for feedback after a project. This feedback helps further improve upon the project. Through the years we organised different panel discussions with conservationists, government stakeholders etc., do media advocacy, and at local level (project locations) hold many sensitization and feedback workshops to improve our work.

What is your annual CSR budget?

Much before the new Companies Act came into force we have been spending a considerable amount of money under CSR. We comply with all compliance requirements of the new CSR rules under the new Law. We voluntarily chose to build, sustain and grow our CSR department because we firmly believe in the concept of larger good.

We will continue to provide a larger financial and strategy support to our projects and development organisations who want to make a difference to the world we share.

What challenges you are facing at community level to implement CSR projects?

We have been lucky that most of our stakeholders at the community level have been very receptive to the projects we have proposed and implemented. However, some of the hurdles we have faced in the past include initial apprehension about our projects and expected efficacy. Our learning has also been that winning trust comes over a period of time. Therefore, short-term projects which are not sustainable usually face more resistance. Our understanding of the issue and many times the source of the solution also emanate from these people. We have tremendous trust and respect for the people at the community level and treasure their valuable insights.

What are CSR projects being implemented after CSR Law in force?

Our engagement for various projects began well before the CSR law was enforced. For example – our flagship ‘Save Our Tigers’ program began almost 8 years ago. More importantly we took and build these projects despite not falling under the mandatory 2 per cent CSR spend as per the new law. We are extremely happy that there is a CSR law in place that now guides the corporate world.

What message you want to give to the CSR world?

The CSR world in India is evolving and maturing and can really make a difference when it comes to the developmental challenges facing our country. It is important that people enter the CSR domain armed with great amount of patience. Perseverance pays in the sector, but you need to have long-term vision and the will to succeed. CSR needs to be looked at with a holistic and long term vision. The projects should ideally be well integrated with the social, environmental and economic impacts of the cause you choose. It must address the well-being of all stakeholders and it must be remembered that philanthropic activities are only one small part of CSR, which otherwise constitutes a much larger set of activities entailing strategic business sustainability and responsibility.

What message you want to give the CSR beginners?

The message we would like to give CSR beginners is that their initiatives should have inclusive plans that involves the community that is affected or you are trying to help. The focus should be on long term goals as opposed to short-term. Firstly, one needs to support projects by insights and research data which should help you understand the problem and also help in setting up a realistic solution.

It is important that you pick up projects which you can take till the finish line. People make the mistake of ditching a project in the middle because they lose the sight of the larger goal and get bowed down by the daily hurdles. Perseverance, discipline and planning are the most basic of the ingredients needed to succeed for a CSR project.

CSR beginners should avoid working in isolation. It is essential to partner with government and local bodies wherever possible. The reach of the government, and the knowledge and expertise of local bodies will be too invaluable for your initiative to ignore.

Lastly, do not forget that creating awareness through publicity should be a mere by-product of your CSR activity and not the core reason behind it.

According to you how CSR culture is taking roots in India?

The CSR culture has been growing rapidly in India after the Government intervened in the sector by enforcing the law. Helped by this impetus, the culture is taking root and the sector is growing. A lot of good work is being done. However, in a country like India, there is no end to contribution that can be made under CSR. A lot more can be done and this must always be remembered when gauging the successes. Monitoring and evaluation in our country is still in the nascent stage, the ecosystem needs to be empowered with the capacity to envision and execute on a larger scale. There is an importance of creating more positive change per Rupee spent. One should also encourage broad-basing of areas intervention, thereby increasing the avenues for overall development of the country.