CSR in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene – What Are India’s Top Companies Up To?

“The Swachh Bharat Mission has catalysed the conversation around sanitation, right from the streets to the boardrooms of corporate India. However, despite substantial support from the corporate sector, the road ahead remains challenging. We need to recognise that tackling this issue is as much about changing ingrained behaviour and social norms as it is about infrastructure.”

–   Naina Lal Kidwai, Chair, India Sanitation Coalition and Past President, FICCI


620 million people or 50% of the population in India defecate in the open. In order to address this critical situation and make sanitation a national priority, the Indian Government launched the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) with an ambitious goal to end open defecation in India by 2019.

Along with providing government funding, the Swachh Bharat Mission has also sought active participation from the corporate sector to tackle the issue. Companies have responded to this call-to-action with enthusiasm; many leveraging Section 135 of the Companies Act, 2013, which introduced mandatory Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), to contribute to the campaign.

Despite this significant interest and participation from companies, little is known about their approach, the nature of their interventions and the barriers they face while implementing programs in the field of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). In an attempt to generate evidence based data that can guide companies and help them make informed decisions about such programs, this study
analyses CSR efforts in WASH by the 100 companies with the largest CSR budgets on the BSE 500.

The main findings of the report are as follows:

Corporate India has responded enthusiastically to the Government’s call-to-action on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) issues.

90% of the 100 companies reported at least one CSR intervention in WASH over the last three years, with a total of 164 programs carried out. Of these, 38% were public sector undertakings.

Industries with strategic interest in WASH lead the way

Heavy Engineering and Manufacturing and Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies were more likely to support WASH programs than other industries. This higher level of interest can be explained by the strategic importance of WASH to both these industries – FMCG companies have products such as soaps, disinfectants and sanitizers that are closely aligned to the WASH agenda and were most likely to conduct programs aimed at influencing behaviour and attitude. Heavy Engineering and Manufacturing companies have an incentive to provide facilities for communities residing around their factories as well as the resources to construct these facilities.

CSR programs in WASH are broadly aligned to the needs of states, although North-East India has been ignored

Data indicated that the most popular states for CSR in WASH were Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. These states also reported high rates of open defecation. However, some states such as Jammu and Kashmir, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh were neglected, despite high open defecation rates. The North-East in general saw low levels of corporate interest.

CSR programs in WASH focus more on rural areas

Of the 86 companies that published information on geographical coverage, 52% were focused exclusively on rural areas, compared to only 17% which focused on urban areas. The remaining 31% were spread across mixed geographies. In the face of a growing urban population, the lack of adequate facilities to support this rapid growth could result in serious health risks for urban populations if sidelined.

CSR in WASH is focused on the creation of infrastructure, but discounts software aspects such as behaviour change

Despite compelling evidence that the construction of toilets alone cannot eliminate open defecation, 75% companies were supporting programs related to creating infrastructure, such as the construction of toilets and water facilities, with little focus on programs aimed at influencing behaviour. Underlying reasons for this could include perceiving behaviour change programs as highrisk
due to difficulties quantifying and measuring impact, the long gestation period required and a lack of knowledge combined with construction-oriented targets defined by the Government.

The operation and maintenance of toilets is neglected

The operation and maintenance of sanitation facilities is essential to ensure that there is no ‘functionality’ gap due to poor conditions that render these facilities unusable. However, only 15% of companies reported incorporating the repair and maintenance of toilets as part of their CSR initiatives.

Programs on influencing behaviour appear tokenistic

20% of companies reported integrating behaviour change communication (BCC) into their programs. Data on existing programs suggests that a majority were implementing awareness programs on the importance of good WASH practices and organizing cleanliness drives. While creating awareness is a necessary part of any program that aims to influence behaviour, this forms only one component of an effective behaviour change communication program. This trend indicates that even the few companies that are conducting BCC programs could be doing so as a token gesture or from a lack of understanding of BCC.

The way forward

Companies: Companies should consider addressing existing gaps in the WASH lifecycle, such as the operation and maintenance of sanitation facilities and influencing the behaviour and attitude of communities. Companies can also collaborate with other key stakeholders on the WASH agenda through collective impact models which reduce risk and encourage sustainability.

Government and NGOs: Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) could work to boost
community participation and ownership in WASH interventions. Central, State and local Governments should encourage holistic sanitation models and ensure that the political environment is conducive for corporate participation.

The sanitation ecosystem: For a well-functioning WASH market, gaps in the ecosystem need to be addressed. There needs to be more attention given to financing solutions for stakeholders, innovations should be encouraged across the value-chain, actionable knowledge produced and disseminated and stakeholders supported through capacity building initiatives.