‘You have to win the community’s trust’

Bidisha Dey believes that commonality of purpose and a shared commitment between partners accelerates the process of impact in social development projects. In this interview with Labonita Ghosh, the executive director of the Eicher Group Foundation talks about how the collaboration with the Tata Trusts in the Western Himalayas water programme was seeded, defined and actualised.

How did the Eicher Group Foundation’s association with the Tata Trusts come about?

At the Eicher Group Foundation, which is the CSR and sustainability arm of Royal Enfield, we believe that credible partnerships are extremely important for us to achieve our goals in sustainable development. This is particularly true in the Himalayas, where diversity of terrain, communities and their unique challenges mean that solutions have to be tailored to suit the needs of a specific region or community.

What differentiates our Foundation from a straightforward funding agency is that we go beyond the funding of the programme. We believe in a process of co-creation where we work with our partners to develop meaningful and impactful programmes. Given this, and that the focus of our work is in the Himalayas — which we consider to be the spiritual home of Royal Enfield — it took us some time to identify the exact project that we would support.

We started our conversation with the Tata Trusts towards the end of 2021. What really worked for us throughout the discussion phase was that there were lots of synergies between the Foundation and the Trusts, especially in our common goal for sustainable development in the Himalayas.

Why did the Foundation decide to partner the Trusts?

At Eicher, we have been committed to working with communities and have been running education and healthcare programmes for decades. We have a well-defined vision for our social mission, which is to partner Himalayan communities to build resilience and adaptive capacity in the face of climate change.

When we choose a partner for our programmes, we look for organisations or individuals not only with credibility but also those who share our values and vision for a sustainable future. It is crucial, from our perspective, to use the same moral-ethical compass to make sure we work with likeminded people.

The core values of the Tata Trusts are well known, and having interacted with several Tata companies before I joined Eicher, I knew of the group’s commitment to community development. As I said before, there are multiple synergies between the Trusts and us, including a shared goal of community-led sustainable development. That made starting up so much easier. It allowed us to focus on project design without worrying about whether or not we shared the same value system.

For us, governance of projects is also a vital aspect when choosing partners. This is important to ensure that the delivery of funds to stakeholders happens in a smooth and transparent manner, through an effective and well-monitored mechanism. The Trusts have a robust governance system; it’s a factor that was high on our checklist as well.

How has the commonality of vision and purpose shaped the dynamic of this partnership?

Royal Enfield is extremely focused on communities and community-led initiatives. While the Foundation is funding the programme, it is being conducted as a Royal Enfield project, which means we are focused on the Himalayan region. That’s where 95% of our initiatives are located, as are the 100 communities that we want to partner.

Given that we are covering communities across 13 Himalayan states, we wanted partners who have an understanding of this region and its people; who have the wherewithal and the desire to get on the ground and do impactful work. After all, the Himalayan region is an ecologically sensitive one that is struggling with climate change, and its importance in our ecosystem and as a critical source of water for the entire country, is known to all.

We are hands on with our implementing partners and with our communities. We also have our own teams on the ground. With the Trusts, we are no different and have been involved every step of the way, from the designing of the programme to its finer details.

A community meeting in Uskona village in Uttarakhand’s Almora district ahead of the formation of a water user group

As far as the scope of your participation is concerned, what kind of inputs do you provide on the project?

When it comes to the springshed management programme, I believe we are equal partners. In the spirit of that equality, we have been fairly involved when it comes to project design, which was done by Himmotthan Society, choosing locations that require more intervention than others, and such.

We have programme managers based across the Himalayan region, especially in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Although the Trusts have been doing this for a while, I do hope we have contributed our bit because we have an ecosystem there by virtue of having worked on other projects in the region.

You would have other partners as well, besides the Trusts. Is there any learning from them that have been used in the springshed initiative?

Our biggest learning over the years has been to have an on-ground presence, particularly in the context of serving remote communities. We have learned that community buy-in will only come when you can show them that you have an understanding of what is happening on the ground.

You cannot impose one-size-fits-all solutions or be patronising and have a top-down approach when working with them. You need to work with the community and be aware of their socioeconomic and cultural sensitivities. You have to win their trust by working with them on the ground and by bringing them on board.

Also, to be successful you have to be open enough to tweak your project, customise its design and purpose, and build whatever is most likely to work in specific situations. We have been mindful of these lessons.

How impactful has your work with the Trusts been in springshed management?

We are still at that point of scoping and creating the project. We want to make an impact, particularly because water is not only a critical resource, it's also in short supply. We have been a part of creating water user groups in the community alongside Himmotthan. We’ve started engaging with gram panchayats [village councils] and local communities to bring them on board.

So far we have conducted a pre-feasibility report to understand demand-and-supply gaps in 51 villages, each of which now has a water user group. We have also treated more than a cumulative 120 hectares of land in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand for recharge interventions.

Recharge structures filled by rainwater in Gutholi in Uttarakhand's Almora district

Have you considered extending the scope of your participation from water to, say, initiatives in education, healthcare, etc?

Springshed management is only one of our many projects. In Ladakh alone we have projects which range from cultural conservation to working with pastoral communities, from creating market linkages and livelihood programmes to waste management and developing a blueprint to promote ice hockey.

We have several projects relating to the promotion of responsible tourism throughout the Himalayas. We have a unique partnership with UNESCO where we engage and inspire the motorcycling community to document the intangible cultural heritage of India, beginning with the Himalayas.

Our intent in working in the Himalayas is long term, in different areas. As a result, we will look for active partnerships in our other projects, some of which are in the design stage at present. The Tata Trusts were already working on springshed management when we joined them. We are partnering them in this project and there could be room to do more together in the future.