Lighting a Billion Lives, a measurable initiative

In the early 90', when the term CSR (corporate social responsibility) became a part of corporate India' lexicon, most Indian companies looked at it as a new term for an old practice - making donations to good causes or support communities around their factories. At the same time knowledge institutions like TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) were of the view that CSR is multilayered, and there are activities beyond the normal that could be pursued by companies. That was perhaps one of the earliest calls in India to advocate CSR as an integral business principle.

Since then TERI' remit has included providing advice to companies on sustainability and sustainable development - technologies and the approaches that they should adopt to improve their profitability, competitiveness, and market share - without compromising resources for future generations and also to meet the challenges of climate change, which is bound to have a toll if steps are not taken in advance. In 2000, we set up the TERI Business Council for Sustainable Development India, an independent and select platform for corporate leaders to address issues related to sustainable development, which now has evolved into a strong industry body of 106 members coming from diverse sectors including PSUs, MNCs and private sector companies from across India. The focus - to guide the Indian corporate diaspora and encouraging businesses to develop a vision of a sustainable company, translate that vision into a management action plan and turn sustainability into a competitive advantage, hence changing the way companies see CSR as a new wine in the old community-development-and-corporate-philanthropy.

In the year 2007, while conducting its own research and study on socio-economic conditions and technological opportunities, TERI realized that 400 million people in India today have no access to electricity, and the global population was 1.6 billion worldwide. Tragically, it is very unlikely that the current generation among these deprived 1.6 billion would ever receive electricity in their homes. Against this background the initiative "Lighting a Billion Lives" was launched. This is based on the use of solar lanterns specially designed and manufactured on a decentralized basis. Typically, this activity is centered around one person in a village, usually a woman, who is able to charge a number of solar lanterns using a solar panel during the day and rents them out to all the villagers at night. The entire village benefits from clean, pollution-free lighting, which enhances their incomes and wellbeing. Over the last two years, the initiative has succeeded in illuminating around 30,000 households or 1, 50,000 lives spread over 560 villages across 16 states in India.

Today, Lighting a Billion Lives is a unique and measurable sustainability initiative that effectively demonstrates how Public-Private-People partnerships easily support rural schemes mooted by the government, particularly in the areas of health, education, environment, women' empowerment as well as rural development. The campaign has support from PSU' and corporates, among its various partners to aid the execution of the program at the scale at which it exists today, while providing the corporates with CSRs and other strategic benefits.

Some of the key projects that have been taken up by PSU' and Corporates towards Lighting a Billion Lives are:

1. Lighting up a KGBV establishment under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan: Setting example of public-private partnership for a social cause, the Lighting a Billion Lives campaign commissioned a Solar Charging Station in a residential school at Podi Uproda village in the Korba district of Chattisgarh, under the sponsorship support of NTPC. The residential school has been set-up by the government under the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) scheme. The objective of KGBV is to ensure access and quality education to the girls of disadvantaged groups of society by setting up residential schools with boarding facilities at elementary level. KGBV tries to target the significant gaps in the enrolment of girls at the elementary level reaching out to the most excluded groups of children. The provisioning of solar lanterns at the residential schools established specifically under KGBV scheme of GoI has ensured availability of safe and environment friendly source of light (in the form of solar lanterns) after dusk. This has also helped in eliminating the dependence of these young girls on kerosene lit lamps which poses threats to their safety and health. The solar lanterns have also helped the tribal students in overcoming the impediments to learning and gaining knowledge that these young girls have to face due to non-availability or erratic supply of electricity after dusk.

2. Promoting innovative financing of solar charging stations: Lighting a Billion Lives entered into strategic partnership with YES Bank Limited to expand the reach of the campaign. As part of the collaboration, YES Bank shall work with TERI towards promotion of the campaign in two specific areas of partnership, namely design and implementing a scaleable semi-commercial business model for financing solar charging stations and developing fundraising programs/products at YES Bank for grant support to initiative. To begin with, the semi-commercial business model, being developed by TERI and YES Bank, will be piloted across 2-3 villages with divergent socio-economic conditions. Going ahead, YES Bank shall provide financing for at least 50 solar charging stations during the year and market the financing product to other financial institutions to support scaling up of the campaign in India. Earlier last month, RGVN (Rashtriya Gramin Vikas Nidhi) also announced its interest to draw synergies between its various livelihood programs and Lighting a Billion Lives.

3. Jagmag Desh Mera: In a bid to connect common people to the Lighting a Billion Lives initiative, Voltas partnered with the program. As part of this partnership, Voltas created a welfare fund called 'Jagmag Desh Mera Fund'. Anyone can participate in this movement and contribute by bringing home an energy-efficient Voltas Star Rated AC. Contribution could also be made from the savings in electricity bills. The funds collected were used to bring light to many villages.

4. Strategic Partnerships: Armed with the twin objectives of providing access to clean energy and enhancing the rural livelihood potential, Lighting a Billion Lives entered into a strategic partnership with leading sugar producer Mawana Sugars Ltd. and its sister concern Usha International Ltd. As part of this collaboration, stitching and sewing training would be extended to rural women at the Lighting a Billion Lives solar charging stations, in addition to the provision of solar lanterns. Two pilot villages have already been implemented in the Kaul village, which is around 2 kms from the Mawana Sugars Complex in Nanglamal (Meerut, Uttar Pradesh). While TERI is coordinating and monitoring the pilots at the central level, Mawana Sugars and Usha International are supervising the project at the village level.

Similarly leading photocopier company, Ricoh India joined hands with Lighting a Billion Lives to further channelize efforts in extending clean lighting to rural areas of India. The collaboration formalises sponsorship of at least 4 villages through an innovative scheme of exchanging old Ricoh photocopiers against new ones. The old photocopiers would be recycled by government approved recyclers and if possible, would be refurbished and donated to needy organizations by Ricoh. For each trade in, Ricoh would light up a family under the Lighting a Billion Lives initiative.

India Chapter of the IAA (International Advertising Association) chipped in along with media to create awareness about Lighting a Billion Lives and mobilize funds for the cause. Early last year in January, Water Consulting, a division of Mudra, was given the Creative Lantern award and was commissioned by the International Advertising Association to develop a print and TV campaign for the release. The response to this largest ever public service campaign attempted by the advertising industry helped in lighting up six villages thereby benefiting around 2000 lives.

The above are just a few of the numerous successful examples where one campaign has through enormous support from PSU' and corporates impacted thousands of lives. While corporates and PSU' may have utilized their CSR funds for the same, TERI is ensuring that the campaign, for long-term sustainability, has a high level ownership, with the ultimate aim of empowering communities to be informed, self-reliant, and able to manage their resources independently, which lead them to become agents of change for their own development. TERI not only has been successful in mobilizing resources for villagers, it created market based solutions in these villages, hence breaking the myth that CSR is just an 'investment strategy' devised to build an image, cultivate stakeholders and eventually push business. TERI' Lighting a Billion Lives program today is a pioneering model which showcases that strategy for developing a partnership and advocacy with the business sector must be carried out through evoking compassion, consideration and commitment as a good corporate citizen.