CSR and Preservation of Forests in India

Redefining CSR to Include Environmental Management and Afforestation

Last week the Indian Environmental Minister, Jairam Ramesh made a quiet affirmation that was barely noticed. He mentioned that he favoured re-defining CSR initiatives in order to forge partnerships between his ministry and Public Sector Units for afforestation activities.  He pointed out that last year the state-owned oil and gas company ONGC's total CSR fund was about $88million but the company could only spend half of it.

Speaking at a rally he said that, “I think, we should re-define CSR to include environmental management and afforestation.” The rally was the launch for the Harit-Moksha initiative. This is a venture that is working toward reducing pollution and conserving national forest reserves that are directly affected by cremation activities.

According to statistics released by ONGC, every year 50 to 60 million trees are felled and used for conventional wood based cremation across the country. Ramesh further commented that, "We should have partnership between MoEF and ONGC." He said that if the partnership includes five PSUs like ONGC, he will get a big budget for spending on "good afforestation activities" particularly in wetland areas and mangrove areas.

Forests and CSR Could be a Winning Combination

With India gunning for mandatory CSR and with the Environmental Minister saying that forests should be a focus for CSR plans, this could actually be a winning combination. India's forests, wetlands and mangroves are severely threatened from climate change, rising population and deforestation. India is also currently seeing an increase in demand for forest products.  This is causing deforestation and encroachment into forest protected areas, which leads to a severe loss of natural resources.

Many tribes who live on the fringes of the forest and whose livelihood depends on forest produce are being threatened. Protecting India's forests in a sustainable manner for both environmental and social purposes could be a CSR goal with long-term payoffs. The UN has declared 2011 as the international Year of Forests and it seems apt that the focus of the Indian Environmental Ministry should be on forests.

However, there are many hindrances with implementing a CSR policy with a focus on forests or even biodiversity. The recent happenings with Vedanta and Posco have thrown forests very firmly into business decisions. Various uproars both from local communities and environmentalists have changed the way forests are viewed in the country. They are no longer just an 'externality' and are being factored into decisions right from the beginning.

This is something that the Environmental Ministry is noticing. The threat to forests from industrial activities also throws into sharp spot-light tiger conservation efforts in the country. All these issues are now coming together in a mash-up of biodiversity conservation and industrial growth. CSR is the obvious bridge between the two.

How strong the bridge will be, remains to be seen.

Photo Credit: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©