The world’s largest democracy, India, even after 67 years of independence scores low on the Human Development Index—135 out of 187 countries surveyed! This Index reflects the long-term progress on three basic dimensions of human lives—providing a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living.

This low score reflects how despite following a focused development agenda in the context of a strong democratic political system and a socialist economic form of government, India has not yet succeeded in lifting its masses out of poverty.

The economic liberalisation of 1991, which effectively unshackled the economy from the license raj, marked a major step forward towards accelerating the role of private enterprises in the growth and development of the country and in globalising India. However we still have a very long way to go to take our 1.3 billion people towards economic prosperity in creating sustainable livelihoods.

Widening disparity in developed countries

In 2007 the richest 1 per cent of Americans owned 35 per cent of the country’s total wealth and the next 19 per cent owned 51 per cent. The top 20 per cent of Americans therefore owned 85 per cent of the country’s wealth and the bottom 80 per cent just 15 per cent. During the economic expansion between 2002 and 2007, the income of the top 1 per cent grew 10 times faster than the income of the bottom 90 per cent.

The evidence indicates that global wealth disparity only grows: Oxfam Charity’s research shows that the share of the world’s wealth owned by the richest 1 per cent increased from 44 per cent in 2009 to 48 per cent in 2014. There was a US $750 billion drop in wealth for the poorest 50 per cent of the world in these four years. On current trends, Oxfam says, it expects the wealthiest 1 per cent to own more than 50 per cent of the world’s wealth by 2016.

The real question we must ask ourselves is as India embarks on an aggressive journey of growth and development what can we do differently? Can we create an inclusive agenda for growth such that we are able to take our teeming and under-served millions along the path of progress and prosperity?

Basics lacking

Many of the basics in our country are sorely lacking—nutrition, sanitation, education, housing and a decent sustainable means of livelihood. The enablement that a social and economic system endows on an average citizen—the ability to empower and to influence the future course of one’s life and to continuously progress upwards and forwards, for a better today and tomorrow is also severely lacking.

The old capitalist belief, that the pursuit of pure profit reflected a good intention for people engaged in commerce & industry and ensured the most efficient use of resources, is giving way to a more inclusive style of business. With growing income disparity and a planet which is quickly being denuded of its natural resources, industry thinking is shifting towards the Triple Bottom Line report card. Essentially this means that in pursuit of economic activity, the industry must not only make effective use of financial capital, but also foster and nurture human capital and environmental capital.

Urban slums abound in and around every metro city. You don’t have to travel far to recognise the crying need to raise the standard of living of our people, to give them hope for a better tomorrow. Just a few kilometres outside any large metropolis are villages which are as deprived as the metropolis is replete. These villages have little access to decent drinking water, shelter, sanitation, education or the steady means of earning a livelihood.

It is therefore essential that growth in India should go well beyond just being captured as a GDP percentage or a monetary value and be expressed in terms of impacting lives especially of the common man. Companies in the Twenty-First Century cannot afford to grow without demonstrating responsible behaviour which goes well beyond answering to just the shareholder. Can growth using these metrics be hard coded into the DNA of corporates? Can the word profit stand for “gain or value addition for all stakeholders” and start to redefine the intersection point where society and business work together to create lasting social impact as well as a competitive business environment?

Common good

This evolving thinking is reflected in the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda as set forth in the redrafted Indian Companies Act and is perhaps the very first example of its kind in the world. The driving thoughts being—Can people who have experienced great success in the use of free enterprise thinking and marketbased strategies now leverage this same thinking for the common good and create lasting value? Can social entrepreneurship become the new buzz word? Can corporates embed a social perspective into their pursuits?

In Indian context, at 2 per cent contribution the total corpus for CSR is quite substantial about Rs 15–20,000 crores. Several companies are putting together teams, agendas as well as areas of operation to make their CSR contributions come alive. The Companies Act specifies eligible activities as follows: (a) Eradication of extreme hunger and poverty, (b) Promotion of education, (c) Measures to reduce infant and child mortality, (d) Gender equity and women empowerment, (e) Environmental sustainability, (f) Employment enhancing vocational skills, (g) Social business projects, (h) Combating HIV, Malaria and other diseases.

In order to undertake any of these initiatives, the biggest hurdle that companies face is which geographical locations to choose, how to effectively reach them and subsequently, how to ensure that the money is being spent on the activities they intended, efficiently controlling the disbursements as well as ensuring impact.

To my mind, dairying provides an effective and efficient answer as it is one of the most common means of livelihood for the rural poor in India. It provides an immediate and daily connect to many of the terribly underserved populations in rural India. More than 70 million rural households are engaged in dairying and about half of them are at a subsistence level with just two or three animals per family.

Some of the poorest families can therefore be reached through the dairy network. Having a steady means of livelihood enables and encourages the farmer to then build his resources further even by taking a bank loan. This has a multiplier effect on the pace of growth and development needs of his family.

Development initiatives

The dairy value chain is vast and has the potential to create a pool of several smaller sustainable mechanisms for farmers. For example, growing green fodder for the village, establishing timely sourcing of cattle feed and other nutrients for a village, local and small vehicle logistics for transporting milk, availability of renewable energy for milk collection centres, on-site equipment repair technicians, local veterinary services etc.

Dairy value chains also represent an opportunity to connect several integrated development initiatives to rural households like education for their children, empowerment of women, medical facilities, health insurance, access to safe drinking water, nutrition, sanitation, alternative sources of energy, and inclusive banking by leveraging the milk collection system that dairy cooperatives and companies have put in place and which interacts with these farmers every day!

Undoubtedly several dairy cooperatives are already undertaking such initiatives and perhaps now sense the opportunity to do a lot more. Many of them are already following a values driven agenda to grow while caring for the environment and improving access to resources for the vast populations they serve. Dairying is an activity which is impactful, scalable, enduring and especially empowering for women to earn, save and provide for their families in a sustainable manner.

Looked at in another way, in the wake of the CSR stipulation by the Indian Companies’ Act, several corporates are now seeking ways of providing integrated development, suitably encouraged by our Prime Minister (PM). The Rajya Sabha members have been asked to adopt villages for integrated development. The PM is also suggesting that banks come together and undertake CSR in order to impact lives on long-term rather than undertaking a disparate set of CSR initiatives here and there.

In order to pursue an integrated development agenda in a sustainable way companies will also need to resolve what livelihood mechanisms they can introduce and support. Dairying could well be the answer to creating sustainable livelihoods. We all know very well that mere distribution of cows/milch cattle to each potential and impoverished farmer is not the answer. Somebody will need to establish the ecosystem—a dairy value chain to collect the milk, process it, sell it and provide remunerative prices to the dairy farmer. In addition they would need to ensure timely payment so as not to break the farmer’s economic cycle.

Default option

Will many dairy organisations come forward to set up the value chain for such companies, to collect the milk in time from small and far flung villages, areas that are hitherto not under any cooperative or company and pay a fair and market linked price for milk? Dairying as is being suggested could then become the default option for creating sustainable livelihoods on the back of an integrated CSR driven programme. This could help further accelerate the dairy growth agenda in the country.

To make this CSR journey successful the basic concepts of entrepreneurship, philanthropy and impact-investing will need to be applied in an innovative and passionate manner. For example there seems to be an opportunity to integrate much more affordable technology into everyday dairy practices. Could companies engaged in the business of sensor technology be motivated to bring their latest innovations to make the dairy business more predictable, transparent, controllable and more easily measurable?

The dairy business is geographically dispersed and collects milk from villages distributed over a large landscape. The terrain is fairly difficult to traverse and coordinate. Can chip technology, GPRS and wireless data transfer bring a paradigm shift to the way the business is conducted and tracked everyday? Could heat sensing methods make the fertility cycle of buffaloes quickly recognisable? Could education companies extend adult literacy programs and vocational guidance to the villagers making efficient use of the milk collection centres doubling up as community contact centres?

Could artificial insemination companies use payment gateways and swipe cards in villages so that AI technicians are forced to charge the right price to the farmer. Through technology they could keep track of the type of semen used and judge its efficacy more accurately. The much needed veterinary services could be provided digitally on call with a remote medical advice facility perhaps, as more and more of rural India gets digitally connected.

Incumbent to all the CSR investment is to ensure that the money is actually spent on the activity it was intended for and to judge its impact over a period of time. This discipline could also aid and push the dairy industry to organise itself along the lines suggested by the Companies Act viz to define the distinct baselines, spell out the activities, set targets and budgets that can be monitored and define measurable outcomes.

It may seem like a dream too far. But then the future belongs to those “who dare to dream” and then determine to paint the canvass with their unique hues of talent and passion for the greater good!