Connect, empower and withdraw the TVS way
Civil Society News, New Delhi
Vijaya sits with accounts ledgers and minute books on the ground in front of her. Placed proudly on display is also a plaque — a peacock in silver affixed to a wooden stand. It is an award given by the government of Tamil Nadu to the best self-help group (SHG) in the district of Tiruvannamalai.
The Pachiamman SHG has been around since 2003. There are nine other SHGs in the village of Kesavapuram, which is one of 27 villages under the Padavedu panchayat. The SHGs were created to help the women save and invest in small enterprises.
We are in Kesavapuram to hear the stories of the women who turn up in variously coloured saris. Each SHG wears its own uniform. Pachiamman’s members, for instance, wear peach-coloured saris, though Vijaya herself is in orange on this day. There are others in red saris with golden motifs and sea green saris with a yellow pattern.
It is a colourful sight and the women are clearly asserting themselves, sending out a message of empowerment and identity. There was a time when these women were timid rural housewives, but now they are micro entrepreneurs who bring money home. It has changed the way they are regarded by their families and, more importantly, how they think of themselves.
It has been a slow and steady transformation over 12 years. Yet, when the women talk about how family incomes have gone up and children have been educated, it seems like it all happened just yesterday. A strong current of excitement is evident and the women end up speaking together about their achievements. In the din there is an undercurrent of happy aggression. These are women who have upturned social equations and cut loose in ways they may have earlier found unimaginable.
Vijaya says that in 2003, when they got the Pachiamman SHG going, there were the same 12 members that are there today. Then they could each save just about Rs 10 a month. Now they put away Rs 200 each a month. The SHG has about Rs 1.5 lakh in savings on its books. It has given out several lakhs of rupees over the years by way of loans to its members.
It was the TVS Motor Company through its social arm, the Srinivasan Services Trust (SST), that first told the women about the advantages of coming together as an SHG. It took time and effort to persuade the women and win over their husbands.
“It was very difficult in the beginning. Our men didn’t want us to form the SHG. They didn’t want us to go out of the house,” says Vijaya. “We had to muster the courage and go ahead despite their opposition. It is only after money began coming in and we began educating our children well that our men recognised the benefits of an SHG.
“Of the 12 of us in the Pachiamman SHG, just four were literate at the time we set up the SHG. We didn’t know anything about opening a bank account, updating passbooks, filing applications for loans, depositing and withdrawing cash and so on. Now all 12 of us are literate and take responsibility for these tasks in turn.”
The 12 of them each have different income-generating activities and different graphs for their personal achievements.
Vijaya keeps milch animals, has a rice shop and sells cattle feed. She has bought a car, which plies as a taxi in Chennai. Her family income is around Rs 50,000 a month, she says.
It is with a lot of pride that Vijaya talks of having educated her son. He has a qualification as a technician from the local Industrial Training Institute (ITI) and is employed in a private sector company.
It is also significant that the family’s assets have grown. With their savings they have bought four cents of land (100 cents equal an acre) in the village. This is in addition to the two acres the family already owned.
Kasturi, another member, has similarly taken her family to a new level of economic security. She buys flowers, strings them into garlands and sells them. There is also an income from milch animals and, of course, there are the crops from the family’s small landholding. Thanks to the financial support she has got from the SHG, Kasturi is able to invest in her small businesses and earns about Rs 25,000 a month.
The Sri Balamurugan SHG has its own story to tell. It has 16 members, who now save Rs 80 each a month. There was a time when they could just about squirrel together Rs 20.
Jayalakshmi says her son has an engineering degree from a private college and is in Mexico. A daughter is a qualified teacher and another daughter is training to be a nurse. Jayalakshmi’s children now see opportunities for themselves all over the world. The family has achieved levels of prosperity it would not have imagined possible in earlier generations.
It is much the same for Anjala’s family. Her son drives a taxi. His wife works too and together they earn Rs 30,000. The family’s income would be over Rs 40,000 a month. The village remains their base but they think and plan much beyond it.
The Muneeswaran SHG’s savings add up to Rs 2 lakh. Like the other SHGs, it has many successes to report. Dhanalakshmi, for instance, has gone from being a coolie to the owner of a small silk weaving unit. Her son is an assistant manager in HDFC, having done his MBA. Her daughter is studying for an MSc degree.
SHGs help women save and invest in small businesses to increase household incomes. Over time, because they earn, they have a bigger say over their own lives. Their position in their families and in the village generally improves. They learn to exercise their preferences and their rights as women.
THE ROLE OF FACILITATOR
K.S. Krishnan is SST’s field director at Padavedu, which is centrally located in Tiruvannamalai district and is an important hub of SST’s operations. He recounts how the women got the local administration to remove a liquor vend at Kesavapuram because they had had enough of their men wasting money on drink and ruining their health.
“It is seen as their major achievement,” says Krishnan. “A petition was given to the Collector. I helped them get an appointment with him. Finally, the liquor vend was shifted.”
SST plays the role of facilitator in multiple situations. It makes the connections that help people along. When the SHGs were first set up, SST’s field staff showed the women how to do basic paperwork and approach banks. SST also connected the women to the block development officer (BDO) who provided formal training in the maintenance of records.
Over time the SHGs have learned to maintain their own accounts, keep minutes of their monthly meetings and deal with the paperwork that banks require. It is empowerment in the real sense.
For TVS, helping communities is all about joining the dots. The company puts money into programmes. But it is more interested in empowering people by helping them connect with government and access the benefits already available to them. SST works closely with people and local administrations to sort out the problems of last-mile connectivity.
The idea is to help people improve lives through social values and higher standards of living. It could be by building small enterprises, putting schools in shape, cleaning up garbage in villages, overcoming water shortages, improving healthcare or accessing sources of finance.
NOT BRANDS or MARKETING
Self-reliance of the community is the clear objective and so it is that SST consciously works towards its own redundancy over time. In all that it does it seeks to connect, empower and withdraw. It is involved in some 3,000 villages in five states. In 700 of these villages it has put programmes in place and reduced its involvement drastically by getting communities to take over.
As a company TVS has for long spent on CSR more than the two per cent of profits that is currently mandated. It has been the philosophy in the company that laudable causes shouldn’t suffer for want of financial support. But money in itself is not a solution. Initiatives need to find local ownership and be sustainable over the long term.
Interestingly, TVS works among the very poor but doesn’t have a bottom of the pyramid approach. It doesn’t link business objectives to social endeavours. CSR is not tied to marketing and building its brands. The company also doesn’t restrict its social initiatives to areas around its factories. It doesn’t promise jobs to win the support of local people.
TVS’ approach to CSR has evolved over time. In the beginning, the company, and the Srinivasan family personally, did charity through SST. Temples, churches and mosques were restored in Tamil Nadu, but this did not have a big enough impact on the social and economic lives of people. It was then that TVS realised significant and enduring change could only come by facilitating the implementation of the government’s programmes. As an enabler it could bring exponential and lasting change in the lives of people and ensure better utilisation of public funds.
FIVE FOCUS AREAS AND A SIXTH
“We believe in holistic development,” says Ashoke Joshi, Chairman of SST. “We learnt a long time ago that if you work in a focussed manner on only one aspect of a community’s life then you tend to leave out a large number of people from the community.
“If you want the ownership of the project to go to the community you have to aspire to touch every individual’s life. We have five focus areas of environment, health, education, infrastructure and economic development. They are all interrelated. They are all equally important.”
When SST moves into a village, economic development and child welfare are given priority because they help establish trust. But, as acceptance and trust are established, the other focus areas are taken up.
“We now have a sixth focus area — what we call developing social leaders. It would not be possible for SST to reach out to so many villages if we were to do all the work ourselves,” explains Joshi.
“Today there are 700 villages that are self-sufficient and fully empowered to meet their needs. We go to these villages just once in a month. We want the community to take over,” he says.
Local ownership is exercised in many ways.
Take, for instance, the Panchayat Level Federation (PLF). It consists of women of the village and is an example of the kind of local capacity building that TVS promotes along with the government.
The PLF plays a crucial role in helping SHGs apply for loans, providing bridge and emergency finance and auditing the books of the SHGs.
Valarmathi is the president of the PLF. She explains that there are SHGs and then the Hamlet Level Forums (HLFs), which consist of SHGs in each hamlet, and finally the PLF where two members of each HLF are members.
“Sometimes an SHG applies to the bank for a loan, but it takes time for the paperwork to be done. We have Rs 23 lakh from which we can help an SHG with a loan within 24 hours. There are other occasions on which an SHG sells some products but the payment takes time. We step in,” Valarmathi explains.
PLF also plays the significant role of an auditor. “An SHG would have to pay an auditor. But we have been trained by the government to issue certificates after auditing an SHG’s accounts.”
Activities SST takes up with people in the villages where it works pertain to schools, anganwadis, toilets, water harvesting, garbage composting, sewage treatment, primary health and skill training. It is a flexible list because the idea is to make interventions based on what people need and ask for.
A MODEL GOVT PRIMARY SCHOOL
A government-run primary school has been brilliantly revived in the village of Ramasanikuppam. It is now as good as the private primary schools in the district of Tiruvannamalai where parents pay as much as Rs 30,000 to admit their children.
The government school’s building has been painted, a boundary wall built, classrooms have been spruced up, the toilets for the children now have water and cartoons on the walls, tablets are used to promote e-learning and so on. The floor of the balwadi or nursery has been tiled and its kitchen is functional.
With SST help, this primary school run by the government has not just survived but thrived. Many parents now prefer it to privately run schools. It is completely free, there is a choice of English as a medium of instruction and teachers are regular. The children go to middle school having learnt something.
There is a lot of positive energy in evidence as children run around or intently scribble letters and numbers on blackboards. They are encouraged to learn through small projects. The use of tablets helps bridge a digital divide. In one of the classrooms, a girl has been making paper boats and wants us to see them. A boy blows a paper boat into a ball.
The sarpanch of the village, P.E. Bala Subramaniam, says he was very eager to revive a government school. He himself is just about educated, having studied till Class 10. So he felt he should do what he could to promote education in his village.
The headmistress, R. Thamarai Selvi, has been posted here eight years. Before that she had spent 17 years as a teacher in the government school system.
“This district of Tiruvannamalai is backward in all respects, including education. It was my ambition to create a model school. A good grounding at the primary level prepares children for the higher classes. Children from here do well for themselves later. They even get awards,” Thamarai Selvi says.
There used to be 65 students in the school but the number has gone up to 71. There are 20 students whose parents have opted for English-medium teaching.
“I encourage the children to play. But I also ensure that they can study for one additional hour after school. It is a combination of play and study through which they learn,” the headmistress tells us.
HOMES WITH PERSONAL TOILETS
A personal toilet-building programme is underway in the village of Poongkollaimedu under the Pariyagaram panchayat adjacent to Padavedu.
SST adopted the village a year ago. There are 450 houses and nine SHGs. For 15 years a programme for building toilets existed, but no progress was made, explains Jayaseelan, the block coordinator for SST. A survey revealed that just five families had toilets.
People were used to squatting in the open. They also didn’t want to spend on a toilet. It costs at least Rs 20,000 to make a toilet, but the government provides only Rs 12,000. A toilet in a home meant a personal investment of at least Rs 8,000.
Now, 174 toilets have been sanctioned and 74 are complete. SST first played the role of a motivator, explaining to villagers the health benefits of using a toilet. It then helped fund the toilets by supplying the construction material and encouraging the villagers to put in the labour. In this way the shortfall of Rs 8,000 or so between what the government provides and the actual cost of a toilet has been bridged.
BUILDING ON PARTNERSHIPS
Krishnan, the field director at Padavedu, is a retired Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer. He has been with SST since 2003 when TVS changed its mode of doing social service from charity to shaping partnerships with communities and government.
Krishnan recalls that, in the early years, it wasn’t easy to win over lower government functionaries and people in the villages. “The image of NGOs wasn’t good and we had to build our credibility,” he says. “People now have high regard for SST and TVS. We have proved that our intentions are good and that we are here to help people improve the quality of their lives. A transformation has happened in government officers and the community. Now people come to us and when we go to a new village they readily accept us because word of the work we do has spread. In the local administration, the block development officer or the collector will no longer keep us waiting.”
Krishnan has several examples of successful little partnerships at the local level. For instance, a bridge was needed over a river where a small dam had been built. People had problems crossing the river.
“The government should have built the bridge but didn’t. A pucca bridge would cost a lot of money. So, our managing director, Mr Venu Srinivasan, suggested we build a footbridge,” recalls Krishnan. “The footbridge was made for `12 lakh with the government putting in a little over `6 lakh and the company the rest and the local community providing the labour. In this way, the bridge got built quickly. Had it been left to the government and the many sanctions that would have had to be got, it may have taken seven years to build the bridge.”
Another example is of a health centre where a boundary wall was needed. Without the wall, cattle would stray in and people would misuse the premises. The Collector agreed to fund 70 per cent of the cost of the wall, SST was ready to pay the remaining 30 per cent but the sarpanch of the village insisted on contributing 10 per cent. The health centre is now in excellent condition.
TOP-DRIVEN AND BOTTOM-DRIVEN
Working closely with people and officials at the grassroots makes a huge difference. It results in invaluable awareness and trust. At TVS, this connect goes all the way to the top.
Ashoke Joshi, as chairman of SST, is closely involved with programmes as they get implemented in villages. Venu Srinivasan, despite his many responsibilities as managing director of TVS, finds the time at least on three occasions in a year to hold meetings at which field directors like Krishnan are present.
Says Joshi: “CSR in any company is top-driven.... We are fortunate to have Mr Venu Srinivasan, who believes in making communities healthier, vibrant and self-reliant. It is his dream, to make villages as they should be. His vision is the driving force for us. Since Mr Venu Srinivasan is deeply involved, the rest of the team follows.”
It is a team interestingly chosen. Joshi is a former IAS officer with a formidable reputation for probity and efficiency. Others like Krishnan or K. Ponnurangam also come from government services and are effective as field directors. They know how to tap into local administrations and understand the nuances of how government functions.
“We are not at all in conflict mode. Our approach is participatory. We consciously support proper implementation of government schemes,” explains Joshi.
But it isn’t just retired government officers that SST depends on. There are many others who are younger and could be doing jobs elsewhere but choose to be in villages.
Passion and the willingness to live in rural areas are also given a lot of importance. “In SST we have a strength of 250 people of which just five live in Chennai and the remaining 245 in villages,” says Joshi.
Anna Lakshmi, 34, works as an executive community development officer and is based in Padavedu. She is married but lives on her own because her husband has a job in another district. She has a Masters in social work from Stella Maris College in Chennai. Similarly, Nandgopal, her colleague in Padavedu, is a young man of 39. He is from Coimbatore and that is where his family lives while he lives and works in the villages around Padavedu.
IMPACT, NOT JUST ACTIVITY
The SST hub at Padavedu has Krishnan as field director, two site engineers, five community development officers, five senior village development facilitators and 17 village development facilitators. Once a week the full team meets in Padavedu for a general review.
Back in Chennai, Joshi has a separate room for tracking projects. The walls are covered with plastic folders and charts containing updates. “Our goal is not activity but the impact that we have made. We get our work audited. We also have our own audit teams from among SST staff who assess the progress and impact every three months. This way there is a lot of internal learning,” he says.
SST’s success depends on a balance between public-spirited effort and relentless scrutiny. The two need to go together. Joshi continuously assesses programmes and others in his team understand they have to do likewise.
TVS and SST are often referred to as one organisation and both receive enormous respect and affection in villages. But SST has its own objectives, style and pace. It represents TVS but is not expected to beat a drum for the business. If it serves the TVS brand it is by reinforcing the image of TVS as a company that wants to pay back to society by improving the lives of people irrespective of whether they are customers or not.
SST draws on TVS’ managerial expertise from time to time, but on the ground it has shaped methodologies of its own. The systems and chemistries by which it succeeds have evolved over time in SST’s space. It has learnt to work with government systems and improve the lives of ordinary people in ways that a business will find difficult.
Joshi and his team measure impact, but also realise that development is an ongoing process: a bridge here, a school there, nutrition for children, toilets, small loans.... They all add up and the results of SST’s efforts are impressive. The process, however, has to be slow. To have ambitions of instant and blockbuster improvements is to be unrealistic. Lasting change on a large scale depends on nurturing partnerships by bringing people and government together.
‘Our role is to be a catalyst’
As Chairman of the Srinivasan Services Trust (SST), Ashoke Joshi has the complex task of shaping and implementing programmes that touch the lives of roughly two million people in 3,000 villages across five states in the country.
Joshi is a retired IAS officer with a formidable reputation for honesty and efficiency during his many years of service. At SST he emphasises focus and impact in the trust’s social initiatives.
Joshi has helped Venu Srinivasan, Chairman and MD of TVS, build a team of 250 professionals who work almost entirely in rural areas to improve the lives of communities.
In this interview, Joshi talks about what corporate social responsibility (CSR) means to TVS and how Srinivasan’s vision of giving back to society has been implemented.
You have headed the SST for around 11 years now. How do SST and TVS define corporate social responsibility? Has there been a lot of learning over this period?
We started off as a charitable organisation. We wanted to help places of worship — temples, mosques and churches — with the expectation that once these places became better and more people went there it would result in economic and social bonding in villages.
We did that but the expected impact was not there. It did economically benefit those who were closely associated with these places of worship. But, by and large, the community did not participate as actively as we thought it would.
So we moved on and changed our style. We decided to support government schemes — no scheme is bad, it is the implementation that is often wanting. We decided to work towards making implementation more effective so that the government’s resources are better utilised and the community gains.
To cite an example, repairing an anganwadi, making the place a little more attractive, getting the parents to know what is happening. Like with many other government schemes, with anganwadis, too, there was the problem of last-mile connectivity. We provided that.
The physical infrastructure improved and awareness grew, but the participation of the community was still lacking. So we decided to call the mothers to come and help the anganwadi teacher. That brought a lot of results. The mothers worked and were busy, but we convinced them to take turns on different days of the week.
Then we took up malnutrition. One of the goals of the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme) is to provide nutrition. It was happening under the ICDS, but we felt we could contribute to speeding it up. The mothers were requested to bring some supplementary food from home. Nothing extraordinary, but something they could spare. Maybe a few bananas, maybe some groundnuts. Today, in 1,300 or so anganwadis where we are involved, more than 80 per cent of the mothers volunteer. They regard it as their responsibility. They look after not just their own children but also the other children of the village.
The results are fantastic. Malnutrition levels are down to four per cent or less. There are many anganwadis where there is no malnourished child. The teachers are happier and practically no child stays home. They all go to the anganwadis.
So you have moved from charity to engagement with government schemes and community involvement.
Yes. And at the ground level when schemes are successful and local government officials get recognition, they automatically come forward with a large number of skills to reinforce our efforts. We would otherwise have been hardpressed to get those skills. Our approach is to be a catalyst for a whole lot of participation by community and government.
What is the relationship between SST and TVS, the company?
CSR in any company is top-driven. Middle-level functionaries see their main role as making profits for the company. We are fortunate to have Mr Venu Srinivasan, who believes in making communities healthier, vibrant and self-reliant. It is his dream to make villages as they should be.
What is the interaction between the company and the Trust?
In the Trust we draw on the company’s experience and expertise in matters relating to finance, human resources, policy, planning, quality control and so on.
Take the Village Buddha initiative. Prof Shoji Shiba, a renowned quality expert in manufacturing, suggested making CSR more effective through TQM (total quality management) practices. Village Buddha shows how to measure impact and not just activity. This kind of relationship between the company and the Trust has helped improve our functioning a lot.
How do you choose the geographies you work in? Companies tend to work around their factories, among their direct stakeholders.
We firmly believe that communities should be healthy, educated and vibrant. That should be so around your factory and everywhere else. Initially, we started with two villages. One was the ancestral village of the TVS family. The other was near our Hosur factory. Seeing our work, demand has increased and we have grown in concentric circles. Today, we are in about 3,000 villages.
How do you choose programmes? Are there any specific areas you have shown preference for?
We believe in holistic development. We learnt a long time ago that if you focus on only one aspect of a community’s life then you tend to leave out a large number of people from the development.
If you want ownership of the project to go to the community, you have to touch every individual’s life. For us the five focus areas of environment, health, education, infrastructure and economic development are interrelated. They are all equally important.
When we move into a village initially economic development and child welfare get priority, but that is to build trust. As trust grows we take up the other three development activities.
Now we have a sixth focus area — developing social leaders. It would not be possible for SST to reach out to so many villages if we had to do all the work ourselves. Today, there are 700 villages that are self-sufficient and the people are empowered. We go to such villages just once a month. The community has taken over the responsibility of development.
SST seems to have a preference for recruiting ex-government officers.
We look for passion among the people we hire. Retired government officers are recruited because they understand how the government functions.We are not at all in conflict mode. Our approach is participatory. We consciously support proper implementation of government schemes.
In SST we have a strength of 250 people of which just five live in Chennai and the remaining 245 in villages. We also impart a lot of in-house training to upgrade technical knowledge, improve and learn team building and conflict resolution skills. More than qualifications, what we look for is passion to be an effective agent of change.