There is no doubt that economic advancement and infrastructure development are deeply interlinked. But, the development of infrastructure also brings with it a set of challenges. Local communities are displaced as their local businesses are affected, and in many cases, the way of life for people in these communities gets altered. Bangalore-based GMR Group, a global infrastructure major that has built two airports in the country and several power plants and highways across different states, is aware of the impact of these projects. In a move to rehabilitate these communities, the group’s CSR arm, the GMR Varalakshmi Foundation, goes beyond its business duties and helps develop social infrastructure and enhance the quality of life of these communities, around the locations where the group has a presence. Here are excerpts from the interview with Dr. V. Raghunathan on the subject.
Please tell us more about the foundation and the kind of work it does.
More than just making up for what these communities have lost, we believe that we have a special and continuing responsibility towards the local communities, in locations where we work on infrastructure projects. So, we don’t even wait for the project work to start or to make profits. The day we acquire the lands around the area, we begin working with the people – the key here being ‘with’.
Strengthening the educational initiatives remains our special focus, where we want to leave our footprints beyond the immediate neighbourhood of our projects and target going national at some point in the future.
The GMR Group formed the Foundation, its CSR arm, in 1991, and has since worked with the vision to create a sustainable impact on these under-served communities, through initiatives in the Education, Health and Livelihoods space, which are integral for the well-being of any community. Today, it is present in 22 locations across 15 states.
The CSR effort is supported by 450 to 500 employees in the education space, in addition to 140 employees working towards community development and 200 contract employees and volunteers from the local community. Each region has a regional coordinator, supported by project coordinators in every location. Additionally, Community Development, Education and Medical directors spearhead the initiatives under each of these verticals.
Please take us through the operations in each of these verticals.
The first step is to assess the local available infrastructure and offer solutions to fill the gaps. Some areas may not have any schools or not enough schools; there may be no connectivity – with children having to walk several miles and so on. In such cases, we assess the demand and supply and provide financial and pedagogical support. We support 200 government schools, run buses where connectivity is poor and have partnered with DAV and Chinmaya Mission through whom we fill the gaps.
The Foundation also closely works with the government education system to improve the quality of education in government schools and Anganwadis. Further, it runs Bala Badis (Pre-schools) in areas where government’s pre-school facilities are absent. Moreover, to meet the educational needs of the children of migrant labour, the Foundation has set up tent schools in some of the locations which provide multi-grade teaching through joyful self-learning methodologies. Twenty six Kid Smart Early Learning Centres are run by the Foundation to enable the children to experience technology-based learning.
Lastly, the Foundation operates institutions, colleges and schools, like the GMR Institute of Technology, for over 9000 students, in remote locations.
From state to state, district-to-district, healthcare concerns are different. In toll areas, the concerns are different from transport hubs. Somewhere it could be AIDS, elsewhere, the health of mother and child or in some cases, iodine deficiency. Thus, here too, we assess their needs and partner with existing service providers to reach out to the local communities. We provide ambulance services or run mobile hospitals, in partnership with HelpAge India, to improve access to healthcare. The Foundation also has set up a 135-bed multi-speciality hospital in Rajam, Andhra Pradesh, a 30-bed hospital in Kamalanga in Orissa and an 8-bed clinic in Kakinada. CARE Hospital operates one of our hospitals. We emphasise on sanitation and have built 20 public toilets and conduct several awareness programs.
Since the local industries and livelihood may be affected due to relocation, we also skill up the local youth, by identifying the work requirements of neighbouring industries. Many of them may not want to travel faraway to find employability either, so it is important to make their skills relevant to local demands.
Moreover, though, by law, we are not required to employ the local population in our projects, to meet the local community’s expectations, we try to find them jobs with our subcontractors, or train them in housekeeping, horticulture and taxi driving.
Apart from this, we have also partnered with companies like Volvo, Honda, Schneider, Leyland and Voltas, for training in heavy equipment; bike mechanics, electrical, truck maintenance and A/C repair. These companies train our trainers, who in turn impart these skills to the youth.
Lastly, the Foundation has set up eight vocational training centres, where about 4000 youth are trained and placements facilitated.
Apart from the specific activities in the areas of education, healthcare, livelihood and vocational training, through partners and relevant intervention, GMR directly gets involved in community building.
Training and other support is provided to women groups to produce different craft-based products which are marketed through shops at Delhi and Hyderabad airports, office sales, bulk orders, exhibitions and stalls, to name a few. The Foundation also encourages the communities to take up several farm and non-farm based livelihoods, to enhance their income.
What are some other challenges of working in the infrastructure sector?
One of the intrinsic challenges of working in this space is the distrust and discontent that the affected people develop towards us. We buy their lands at the market rate, but once the development work is over, the prices shoot up further, leaving them feeling cheated. The only way we can overcome this is with time and by working closely with them.
Other challenges are more localised. For instance, in some places, local politics is terrible, local people have a very belligerent attitude and anything we do does not seem enough or the lack of quality in the skill and education level of communities makes it difficult for us to help them engage in meaningful, further interventions. Lastly, scaling up and sustainability of the programs is also a challenge which we always try to meet by facilitating community involvement at all levels of the programs.
What is the big vision for the foundation?
Our goal for 2020 is to enhance service delivery effectiveness for better impact on these communities in the education, healthcare and vocational training space. However, strengthening the educational initiatives remains our special focus, where we aim to leave our footprints beyond the immediate neighbourhood of our projects and target going national at some point in the future. India needs infrastructure, and that needs buying land. Our focus is to maintain a humane approach not only in letter but also in spirit.
THE WAY FORWARD
- To effectively work with communities to create a win-win situation
- To be able to bring about significant difference in incomes of target communities through skill development, marketing support, etc.
- To run quality, self-sustaining education, health and vocational institutions in under-served areas.