Socioeconomic issues: B-schools must do more | Premchand Palety

Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, has been the buzzword for the past few years in many business schools. CSR has now evolved to corporate sustainability. This paradigm shift was much needed. CSR smacked of a charity-like approach. “With great power comes great responsibility,” one senior executive said while referring to CSR at one of the conferences that I attended.

The approach of corporate sustainability, on the other hand, is more pragmatic. By addressing socioeconomic and environmental concerns, it’s not as if the corporate world is doing charity; it is important for its own survival.

For, the concerns are so real that the majority of the population can experience the dangers in their lifetime. The threat of global warming is for real. Poverty is alienating many; they are joining the ranks of insurgents. Naxalites have a presence in about one-tenth of the land.

Some B-schools have written to me about what they do as part of their social responsibility. Some take their students to villages to sensitize them to the plight of the poor and do some social work. Some are engaged in welfare activities, such as running a school for the children of slum dwellers. Some make their students donate money to help victims of natural disaster.

Some also cite the environment-friendly activities that they do on campus, such as water harvesting. All such work is very noble indeed. But I am of the view that such sporadic philanthropic activities are not enough.

B-schools should be doing something more and different. They could direct their research and other activities in such a way that they facilitate the churning out of wealth creators among the poor. If everyone in society is to enjoy quality of life, there is bound to be a dramatic increase in the production and consumption of energy, goods and services. How to make this process environmentally sustainable is another challenge for the institutes.

I often read the faculty publications of different B-schools. Most of them are disappointing. It seems the research work that some faculty members do and the papers they publish are just out of pressure and not out of passion. They still don’t believe that they can be change agents and can play a leadership role in transforming society.

Meerut is a case in point. A few days back I was there in connection with a study that we are doing for a product launch. The city has a large number of institutes of higher education. The region around the city is also agriculturally one of the most productive areas of the country.

Statistically it is also counted among the world’s most crime-infested cities. One of the reasons for this is the high rate of unemployment among youth. This is where B-schools and engineering colleges could have played a more proactive role. Unfortunately, most of them are just teaching colleges and are run like any other business.

In fact, many sick factories of the area have been converted into colleges. Many of them are owned by politicians. If these colleges take upon themselves the task of social responsibility, they can bring about much needed change. All of them could jointly float a fund to promote entrepreneurship.

One project that I could think of when I visited the countryside was electricity generation using biomass such as agricultural waste, poultry litter, etc. The region is known for long power cuts and there is so much untapped potential to generate electricity using biomass. Unlike states such as Andhra Pradesh, where there are more than 30 such power plants, there is not a single one in this region. Such plants, which are small in size, can be commissioned in a year’s time. They are also environment-friendly and can generate a lot of jobs. There could be many more ideas if the B-schools are proactive in directing their research to create employment opportunities in that area.

There are many areas such as Meerut in our country that exemplify the great Indian paradox; on the one hand, there is so much development work to be done and, on the other, so much unemployment.

Our politicians and bureaucrats have so far failed in creating an effective link between the two; rather, they have been more of an obstacle. Our educational institutes with the right leadership can enable their faculty and students to take up this challenge.

Premchand Palety is director of Centre for Forecasting and Research (C fore) in New Delhi, from where he keeps a close eye on India’s business schools.