How Did We Help Build One Of The Best CSR Programs?


A major pharmaceutical company has its eyes firmly set on the Indian market. The potential that the country offers is deemed to be a gamechanger for the company in the next decade. They have already been in the country for over 10 years and in their time in the Indian market, opportunities have dwarfed the risks.

The management is highly optimistic and has decided that Bharuch in Gujarat would be the location to house one of its biggest plants in Asia. Attractive offerings by the state government have played a crucial role in enticing the company to invest in the state.

Work to identify the land where the factory would be set up proceeded with break neck speed. It is estimated that the construction of the massive factory would take about 2.5 years to complete. It would be state of the art, something which not only the company would be proud about but also the employees who would be working in it.

The project launch date is announced with the event expected to be a high profile affair. In attendance are expected to be some senior bureaucrats, political leaders and of course the company’s senior leadership.

A day prior to the project launch event, about 100 locals gather outside the gate to the project site. They seem rather angry and demand to see the project head; he is informed of the situation and he promptly steps outside to meet them. A person who was leading this group of locals questions the Project Head - why wasn’t our leader invited to the project launch event? The Project Head seems confused. To his understanding, all the “important” people to be invited are already on the list.

He assures the locals that all important leaders have been invited and that there must be some misunderstanding. The locals do not buy into it though. They demand that their leader’s name be included in the list. The name of the leader is noted down by the Project Head who informs the group that the team managing the event would take care of it. A promise good enough for the group to leave.

This incident is brought to the attention of the Event Manager. He runs a check of this name on the list but doesn’t find it. All stakeholders involved in deciding the list of VIP’s are contacted to reconfirm if anyone has been missed out. They confirm - nobody has been missed out, all important VIP’s have been invited.

Internally it has been decided that this person is not important hence he is not on the list of VIP’s. Back to preparation for the big launch event!

Launch day is here. Everything is set. Given the significance of the occasion, some nerves can be felt amongst those managing the event. However, the event goes well according to plan. Speeches made by senior leaders, politicians and bureaucrats receive the desired press coverage the next day. All is hunky dory!

All Hell Breaks Loose!
A couple of days following the event, a storm breaks out. Not the kind of storm generally known to mankind but the kind which would come back to haunt this company. Agitated locals who had turned up a day prior to the event, have turned up in full force. Thousands of them storm right into the project site, with a group heading towards the project site office. They are hunting down the Project Head who had promised them that their leader would be invited but failed to keep his promise.

The Project Head is informed of the situation. All he could do for now is wait and pray, hoping that he is spared the wrath of the angry locals. Him and his team are mere spectators at this very moment. Barging into the site office, the group directs the Project Head to stop all work. They tell him that he and his team need to meet their leader. Till their leader provides his approval, no work would take place on this site. The Project Head along with a couple of other site leaders are escorted out of the site by the group.

All of this escalation happens within a matter of minutes. A group of people take the Project Head and drive off in a vehicle, while a large number of people stay back on site. Their job is to make sure that not a single thing on site moves. While this seemingly nightmarish situation unfolds, the management at the regional HQ is notified of the developments.

Suddenly, all the positivity around the new project site vanishes. The discussions have now moved to addressing more urgent questions - Have our employees been abducted? Has our site been encroached? How come nobody saw this coming? Don’t we need to contact some of the senior police officials who had turned up for the event?

What Does “Controlled” Extortion Look Like?
While all plans are being put in place to address some of the more pressing questions, the Project Head and his team are driven to the leaders residence. A massive villa in the midst of a rather average locale. They are escorted into what appears like a large meeting room. Everyone now eagerly awaits the leader.

After an agonising wait of sixty minutes, the leader arrives. He greets the Project Head and his team very respectfully; something completely unexpected. They are offered some fine refreshments too!

The leader introduces himself. He says that he is the political leader of that locale and that he controlled everything, further adding that nothing moves without his support. Referring to the grand launch event, he states that his friends present at the event informed him that it was a very well organised event. Unfortunately, he wasn’t invited, he quipped.

He said that he is aware that the political leaders present at the event belonged to the opposing political party, a party which has been trying hard to bring him down but have never succeeded. Talking about the opposing party, he tells the Project Head that he was disappointed that his company supports the opposing party and disrespects him and his party that holds office. Further, he also states that it’s not just disrespecting him and his party but also the locals, many, who are tribals.

The Project Head and his team are told that since they do not have intentions of supporting locals, it would have to be enforced on them by him. He goes on to explain that his main mission is the development of all locals, mainly tribals. The Project Head is told that the company would need to do the following:

  • All labour would be sourced through him
  • All construction materials would be sourced through him
  • All construction equipment would be sourced through him
  • The onsite Security team employed would be his

He issues a threat to conclude the meeting - Failing to meet the above demands, the company’s factory would remain a mere dream.

The Project Head and his team are thanked for their precious time and his men are directed to drop them back to the site. What followed was an eerily quiet drive back to the site. On being dropped off, the men responsible for escorting, instruct the other group of people on site to leave.

Fixing The Mess

On getting back to the project site, the Project Head and his team settle down over a cup of tea. Calming themselves down, soaking in everything that they had been through over the past few hours.

It’s time to brief the leadership. Concalls are organised. The relevant people are engaged. The Project Head leads the briefing, providing every single detail. At the end of the call, one thing was clear, this massive threat was missed. Everyone paid way too much attention at the opportunity, completely ignoring one of the biggest threats to them.

There was no backing away now. But, to do anything at all, it was essential to first understand more about the threat actor.

The Chief Human Resource Officer (CHRO) of the company reaches out to us. A meeting is scheduled on a day when all other Crisis Management Team (CMT) members were to be assembling in Bharuch. We do a little bit of our study on this incident as part of our preparation for the meeting. Come meeting day, the CHRO introduces us to the CHRO and other team members. We meet with the Project Head (he is part of the CMT) too. All the necessary details are discussed with us. In the end, the common concern bothering everyone was that nothing was known about the leader. And, to have any effective strategy in place, it was critical to know more about the leader.

Our mandate - Deliver an intelligence report on the leader which enables the development of a robust strategy to counter the threat issued by him. And, within two weeks.

Two weeks is a tight timeline however given the significance of this report, we are determined to deliver the desired results. The next couple of weeks are going to be spent in and around Bharuch. You don’t normally find much on individuals like our current target doing OSINT.

Over a two week period, we received a number of good findings however the “silver bullet” was lacking. We weren’t  able to find something which would help us contribute towards the building of an effective risk mitigation strategy. Time was not on our side either.

With just three more days to go, we decided to hold a brainstorming session. Table all our findings and see if the data showed us something useful. A couple of hours into our session, we notice that there are a number of large Indian companies operating fairly close to the project site. Our common assumption was that, if those factories have been operating then surely they must have faced some challenges from the leader. And there was a good chance that they may have found the right approach to work with the leader.That was our eureka moment!

From there on, we got down to identifying and connecting with senior sources at those companies. We were lucky that 4 people from 3 different companies agreed to meet us. The findings from these meetings were absolute gold. They provided us three common insights - (1) The leader genuinely cared for the locals, especially the tribals, (2) He supported companies which supported the locals, and (3) All the Indian companies had a CSR program which helped locals.       

Combined with all our other findings, we had all that we needed to help our client in achieving what they wanted. The report is circulated a day prior, while our presentation to the CMT is scheduled the next day.

As we prepare to get our presentation started, we can see from the faces in the room that they were eagerly looking forward to it. Once we started delivering our presentation, we could see that some were shocked, while some were surprised and some were purely embarrassed - all of this simply because they were being haunted with one question - How could we miss such a big threat? Well, the simple answer is that the company completely underestimated the presence of such a threat while riding a wave of high optimism on the opportunity being presented.   

By the end of the meeting, it was clear to everyone that the wise thing was to find an ethical way of working with the leader. A win-win approach which would be highly sustainable.  

In the week following our meeting, the team reconvenes to table their ideas on putting together a sustainable strategy. Every CMT member talks through their ideas. The popular recommendation is to build a CSR Program which would support the local community and at the same time, receive support from the leader and locals to ensure that the factory being built is seen as a positive.

Once there was internal consensus on the approach, the company’s GLobal HQ is updated on the developments. It didn’t take too long for the approval and associated budgets to come through.

A comprehensive CSR program which would provide locals opportunities, support children with their educational needs and provide skills training for those locals wanting to upskill was put together.

Within 6 weeks of a nightmarish experience, the leadership team along with the Project Head and his core team meet with the leader to present their CSR Program. This program was welcomed wholeheartedly by the leader. In fact, he promised the company’s management all the support that they would need to make this program a reality as soon as possible.

As of today, the program run by our client is something that they are supremely proud of. It has touched and transformed many lives.


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