CSR: What telecom companies should really focus on

The telecom revolution changed India’s landscape. From a country where one had to book a phone with MTNL and then wait months, sometimes years for it to be fixed we now are a nation where almost everyone has a phone. Phone purchases are frequent and telephone infrastructure too has reached the far interiors of our nation.

While the positive impact of connectivity is certain, the necessity of telecom firms mitigating the harmful environmental and social impacts of their services becomes necessary too. In this context we need to look at material issues

Material issues are things that could make a major difference to an organization’s performance. Best practice is to not only report on what is material to an organization, but to explain why it is material or relevant.

An increasing number of organizations are using materiality matrices to clearly indicate organizational priorities and to make content more accessible. Vodafone, SingTel and AT&T are some examples. The material issues can further be refined by Identifying stakeholder groups and incorporating stakeholders’ opinions and feedback into CSR reporting

Issues that Telecom firms could consider

Telecommunication services involve transmitting voice and data from one end-user to the other using handsets. The voice and data are transmitted through towers using a variety of transmission equipment.

The transmission infrastructure has significant impact on ecological environment. Telecom corporations provide technology support and allied services. Clearly both end-user and corporations are part of the wider society and its interests are critical. From the perspective of materiality we break up the key imperatives under each of the components of the telecom ecosystem.


While there are several key aspects, we feel that 4 critical areas could form the core for designing a telecom firms CSR and Sustainability strategy for a green, safe and inclusive digital India.

1. Emissions

Telecom towers dot the urban landscape. One can easily see sometimes 4 or even 5 towers close by. Not only do these towers use significant amount of diesel for power they also emit harmful radiation. The data centres too are energy guzzlers and require significant power for cooling.

Key Questions – Can we move to cleaner fuel? Can towers be shared or installed in areas where the radiation does not harm?

2. Waste

Telecom products generate mountains of e-waste. Phones, sim cards, wires, batteries and assorted equipment are often repurposed by the seconds market but many find their way into landfills or are taken apart by untrained people in unsafe ways. Many electronic devices include heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic. If not handled properly, these can poison our environment and threaten the health of individuals and communities.

E-waste contains a combination of reusable raw materials as well as toxic materials. The raw materials have value and can be reused to manufacture new products. The appropriate handling of e-waste can both prevent serious environmental damage and also recover valuable materials, especially for metals. (GRI guidance )

Key questions – Can we help customers and ourselves reuse and recycle? Can we innovate with different materials?

3. Customer Health and Safety

The ever present phone and internet has a downside too, safety, privacy and security affect all of us.

Child Safety – Little children don’t really know how to protect themselves against unsavoury activities on the net. In a country like ours which has a large young population. Although not unique to telecom, these issues become prominent as children are getting access to phones at younger ages by the day.

There is very little being done by way of making children, parents and teachers aware of internet related risks and how to manage them. Protection, prevention and  safety promotion are the key.

Dangerous driving – Most people appreciate the advantages of having their mobile phone with them in the car but holding a phone while driving is leading to an increasing number of accidents.

Health – Concerns about linkages between exposure to EMFs radiations from mobile phones and many health diseases ranging from sleep disorder, memory loss, cardiovascular to neurodegenerative diseases, such as cancer have been raised by medical professionals.

Key Questions – Who are our customers? How will this profile change in the next 5 years? What the risks to customer health and safety? How can we address these?

4.Impact on Biodiversity

There is significant impact on ecology -not only are humans affected by radiation from towers but this also affects birds, bees and other species that live nearby. At times, it hampers their ability to navigate. Hence it becomes a significant and material issue for telecoms.

Key Questions – What is the biodiversity impact of our activities and of those in the industry? How can this be mitigated? What kind of industry wide joint actions be taken to make a genuine difference?

Article coauthored with Utkarsh Majmudar and originally published in Economic Times.