Being socially responsible is not necessarily a new fad in Indian business.
More than a hundred years ago, Jamsetji Tata, founder of Tata, made the point that, as well as having business benefits and a philanthropic function, community engagement can be an end in itself.
Tata Group now encompasses 93 companies and commands 2.8% of Indian GDP and its involvement in community partnerships is well-documented (see Ethical Corporation June 2006).
One of its companies, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), has become a key player in an initiative to share best practice on corporate responsibility between businesses from India and the UK.
Business in the Community (BITC) and the Bombay Chamber of Commerce have teamed up to foster a more integrated approach to responsible business practice between the two countries.
Events so far have included a conference in Mumbai, which brought together executives from the UK and India, visits by UK firms to community projects in some of Asia's poorest slums and a European Union funded programme that is helping Indian SMEs implement international corporate social responsibility practices.
While bilateral trade totals £5.8bn a year, trade into India currently represents only 1% of Britain's overall business.
Lord Bilimoria, chair of the Indo-British Partnership Network, has said UK companies are only “scratching the surface” in terms of opportunities.
This presents a chance to nurture more partnerships to trade knowledge and ideas as well as goods and services.
Many of the issues companies on both continents are facing, such as risk and reputation management, innovation and recruitment and retention difficulties, are similar.
On the ground
But the rapidly expanding economy in India is also putting acute pressure on the environment and infrastructure and exacerbating inequalities in a country with a burgeoning population, absolute poverty and inadequate education and health facilities.
For this reason, BITC's president, the Prince of Wales, has invited members who have Indian links to join with companies there in using his Seeing is Believing approach.
Over the past 15 years, the Prince's Seeing Is Believing events have allowed UK business leaders to witness first-hand issues such as homelessness, unemployment and diversity.
The first Seeing is Believing India event took place in Mumbai in May and was led by Ian Smith, a managing director of Oracle Corporation.
Representatives from BT, KPMG, TCS, Ernst and Young, Man Group, Impact Development Training Group, Centrica, John Lewis Partnership and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs visited a number of projects.
These featured childcare on a construction site, HIV awareness, IT training and empowerment for women and education and employment for visually impaired people.
They illustrated how companies can help respond to community needs while meeting business challenges such as employability, innovation, diversity and supply chain management.
The construction site crèche, for example, is run by a local NGO with limited resources. Supporting such schemes can help reduce reputational risk for multi-nationals whose suppliers might have children living in shanties on similar sites and left unsupervised in hazardous conditions.
After the community visits, delegates from the UK met counterparts from India at a conference to exchange ideas and approaches.
They discussed ways in which broader corporate responsibility considerations - including environment, community partnership, measuring and reporting and workplace matters - relate to sustainable business in a global context.
The following week, armed with valuable lessons from Indian and UK examples, BITC, Ernst and Young and the Bombay Chamber helped 20 Indian firms create an internationally compatible corporate social responsibility model applicable to small businesses planning enter the European market.
This is part of a two-year scheme, funded by the European Union, which focuses on topics such as employee well-being, environmental quality and community development.
The UK delegates are now contributing to the Indian projects they visited in practical ways such as sharing skills and providing resources.
But, more importantly, it has helped them develop a deeper understanding of the social, environmental and cultural context of the country and the role they can play in responding to community needs, both directly and indirectly, through the sensitive management of their supply chains.
It is very much a two-way process and UK firms have a lot to learn from the Indian approach.
As Tata's founding father, Jamsetji Tata, said: "In a free enterprise, the community is not just another stakeholder in business, but is in fact the very purpose of its existence."
A hundred years on, Pankaj M Baliga, of TCS, said the recent Anglo-Indian work offers a chance to, “celebrate our differences, understand what being a responsible business means in each of our cultures and build a firm foundation for future collaboration to improve the positive impact of business in society.”
We hope this will be the start of a long-standing alliance.
Talks are under way with the British Council about their potential role.
The businesses involved have expressed an interest in participating in further events and developing global links.
Other companies are keen to get involved. They want to see a rolling programme of Prince's Seeing is Believing visits to other parts of India and for a network of partner organisations to be established throughout India to take forward joint action on corporate social responsibility.
Stephen Farrell is development director at Business in the Community. For information email: email@example.com