Last year, when 17 young men in north India’s Babrala region, where Tata Chemicals has its fertiliser operations, set up their own individual mobile phone repair shops, it was a proud day for the company. The boys, part of a skills-building and enterprise development programme conducted by the Tata Chemicals Society for Rural Development (TCSRD), had evolved from unemployed youth to smart entrepreneurs earning Rs8,000-Rs10,000 a month and managing their own business.
The Tata Chemicals corporate sustainability philosophy is based on a strong foundation of long-term vision and community participation, of which the famous Okhai project is a sterling example. Started in Okhamandal, Gujarat, the initiative began by bringing local women together to form self-help groups (SHGs), enabling them to generate a livelihood from their traditional skills in creating exquisite appliqué work.
Today, Okhai has 450 members, its own retail outlets in Mithapur and Ahmedabad, and branded products sold at leading stores in Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata. “The women themselves will be taking over the initiative soon; we will withdraw from the day-to-day affairs, but continue to provide design and marketing support,” says Alka Talwar, head of corporate sustainability (CS) at Tata Chemicals.
The Okhai brand has become the umbrella brand for all of TCSRD’s handicrafts and livelihood projects and has also been introduced in Babrala, Uttar Pradesh, where local artisans are involved in the traditional Mughal art of karjobi with enterprise management support from TCSRD.
Inclusion is a crucial element in Tata Chemicals’ approach. When the company was looking to expand its Babrala plant operations, TCSRD tied up with Larsen & Toubro (L&T) to train youth from the village of Gouripura in some of the skills required for the plant expansion programme. “Not only did the youth learn and participate, many of them went on to get employed by L&T,” says Ms Talwar.
Another example of the company’s commitment to inclusive and affirmative action is the rural BPO (business process outsourcing) project in Mithapur, run by the Uday Foundation, which trains rural youth to work in local BPOs. In addition to creating employment opportunities, these BPOs have also stemmed the migration to urban areas and brought hope to those often marginalised in India’s growth story.
The natural way
In Gunnour, Babrala, where land salinity is a big problem, TCSRD, in partnership with the community and the RD Tata Trust, kicked off a land reclamation project aimed at improving soil quality through a combination of efforts such as building bunds, manual ploughing, using green manure, etc. So far, 1,600 acres of land has been reclaimed and agricultural productivity has been improved by about 75-80 per cent, increasing the region’s annual income by Rs40 million.
A similar project has been started in Mithapur, Gujarat by TCSRD (in partnership with the Sir Ratan Tata Trust) that addresses coastal salinity, improved productivity and water management, focusing currently on 18 villages of Okhamandal. A drinking water project has created local sources for drinking water, along with promoting the adoption of roof rainwater harvesting systems by the community.
In Haldia, West Bengal, where ponds are the most valuable resource that people own and are integral to every village and household, the NRM programme took up the task of helping the community maximise the returns from these ponds and also improve the quality of the water. In Akubpur village, for instance, women have taken to fish culture in a big way and are looking to take it to a commercial scale.
In 2002, Tata Salt created a fund called Desh Ko Arpan (dedicated to the nation) to support education. For the last two years the programme has specifically targeted children of salt-pan workers whose jobs are migratory in nature; the initiative allows these children to pursue education by offering them hostel facilities, extra nutrition and also additional training in computer skills and the English language.
“We are now looking at a five-year strategy for this initiative,” says Ms Talwar, adding that “CS is part of the way we do business at Tata Chemicals, part of the vision, part of the business structure; it is not, and cannot be, separate from the business.”