July 2014 | Cynthia Rodrigues

Equal opportunity for all

Aimed at inclusive growth, Tata Steel Processing and Distribution’s affirmative action programme works on skill building and employment generation for the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe communities in India

Sometimes the best legacy you can leave another is a level playing field where each person, irrespective of caste, creed, race, or gender, has the opportunity to prove his or her mettle and live life to the fullest. The Affirmative Action (AA) programme initiated by Tata Steel Processing and Distribution (TSPDL) aims to create such a world of equal opportunities for all.

TSPDL, then known as Tata Ryerson, embraced the Affirmative Action agenda in late 2006, even before the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) had articulated its Code on Affirmative Action. It signed the Code in 2007, becoming one of the first companies to sign it and started reporting the status of its affirmative action initiatives to the CII. This is an activity it continues to do even today, on a biannual basis.

In 2011, TSPDL became an enthusiastic and active member of the Tata Affirmative Action Programme (TAAP), going on to win an award for its best practices at the TAAP Convention this year. Managing director Sandipan Chakravortty, whose visionary zeal has paved the way for widespread dissemination and acceptance of the AA agenda in TSPDL, elaborates on his plans for taking AA forward: “Our company’s vision encapsulates a commitment to caring for the community; AA is a step in that direction. I would like to see our employees and their families forge an emotional attachment to this initiative, and work to make a sustainable impact on society. Any AA initiative must be inclusive, without any differentiation on the basis of caste, creed or colour, and must ensure equal opportunities for all.”

The TSPDL leadership’s commitment to AA is seen in the composition of the apex committee formed to drive the initiative — headed by the MD, the committee includes executive director Abraham Stephanos; CFO Pratik Chatterjee; senior general manager HRM, PK Sahu; company secretary and head of corporate sustainability Asis Mitra; head of procurement Siddhartha Dash, and location heads. The unit HR heads, working under Mr Sahu at the company’s five locations, serve as the AA champions. They are responsible for the implementation, monitoring and review of the various initiatives launched by the apex committee. They also participate in the sustainability review.

The apex committee and the AA champions form an effective framework for the functioning of AA and other sustainability initiatives. As Mr Mitra elaborates: “Our focused approach involves our AA champions actively seeking to understand the needs of the community. This becomes a critical input for TSPDL to decide what AA activities should be undertaken for the year.” For FY2014-15, the company plans to give out 100 scholarships to needy school students. It has been observed that many children, a majority of them girls, drop out of school owing to financial constraints. TSPDL also plans to support college students, based on the findings of its need assessment study.

The overarching focus of TSPDL’s AA programme is creating employability. And it is in this context that the company has been making determined efforts to induct greater numbers of scheduled caste (SC) and scheduled tribe (ST) candidates and offer them opportunities for growth and development.

Organising stitching classes for girls and encouraging sports talent from the scheduled caste community
TSPDL first decided to hire SC / ST candidates in significant numbers in 2011. It now sets a target for the number of candidates that it will take on board every year.

“Recently, we conducted a SWOT analysis and learned that the representation of SC and ST groups was low among the officers and associates cadre in our company,” says Mr Sahu, “so we are now taking steps to address this imbalance. We are keen to increase the percentage of SC / ST officers to 4 percent and that of SC / ST associates to 12 percent. Currently, around 20 percent of the total workforce, including permanent and contract employees, belongs to the SC / ST category.”  

The apex committee reviewed the situation and realised the need to urgently align the goals of AA with the exigencies of the business, a necessary step that would help to bolster the company’s business while ensuring the longevity of the programme. Towards this, TSPDL has stepped up its on-the-job training and skills development efforts.

Skills for growth
TSPDL’s growth aspirations pose a unique challenge. As Mr Sahu explains, “The skills that our business requires are unique; no industrial training institutes (ITI) or polytechnics are able to provide them. So we have been training our SC / ST and other recruits in-house through on-the-job training over a two-year period. We exercise positive discrimination to induct more SC / ST candidates by giving them a relaxation of 10 percent in the minimum marks required.”

Once selected, however, the SC / ST candidates are put through the same drill as those selected from the general category. Their success is proof that, given the opportunity, they are able to demonstrate their competence. In the last four years, of the total 537 candidates selected for on-job training , 347 were from the SC / ST communities. In time, most of them will join the company as permanent employees.  

The on-the-job training includes coaching and mentoring by experienced line operators, called Dronacharyas, some of whom are from the SC / ST category themselves, and hence better equipped to empathise and understand the needs of the trainees.

After the training, the candidates have to take an examination, and undergo an assessment of their soft skills before being inducted into the company. This ensures that the new employees have the right skills and temperament for the job. Even after they are hired, they continue to undergo learning programmes to help them rise through the ranks.

TSPDL also expends considerable effort in cultivating SC / ST entrepreneurs. “TSPDL has taken a stand that the services and consumables we need for our business will only be sourced from SC / ST vendors,” says Mr Mitra, “And to facilitate this, we actually help SC / ST persons to set up their own business.”

Some of TSPDL’s affirmative action initiatives: providing education support
This is a huge challenge as people coming from the SC / ST community find it easier to get a job than to start their own enterprise. Encouraging entrepreneurship involves helping people with the registrations and other legal requirements for setting up a business, providing financial assistance and giving them a steady stream of orders to ensure that the business is viable. In Jamshedpur, TSPDL has developed 16 vendors, with an aggregate turnover of `50 million, and a client list that includes many Tata and non-Tata companies.

The sustained focus on AA has enabled TSPDL to induct a greater number of SC / ST candidates into its fold. The even greater achievement is the way these employees have integrated with the rest; people from the SC /ST community feel at ease, knowing that TSPDL and their colleagues will give them every opportunity to shine. As Mr Mitra says, “The buy-in for AA throughout our company is very encouraging. There has not been a single instance of resentment at any townhall meeting. The support is wholehearted. People believe that their company has taken up a good cause.”

The fact that the top leadership of the company is solidly behind the AA initiative goes a long way in fostering its adoption and implementation.

Emphasising the role of effective communication in disseminating the philosophy and concept, Mr Chakravortty says, “Awareness is the most essential part of our communication exercise to our employees and their families. The need for us to engage in the four Es of education, employment, employability and entrepreneurship for the SC / ST community is communicated in detail to all employees to ensure that there is inclusive growth in society and that the company in turn benefits from having employed SC / ST candidates in equal numbers as others.”

Not content to rest on its laurels, the apex committee at TSPDL is constantly looking for ways to improve the programme. Mr Mitra reveals that the most recent development is the creation of evaluators to measure the company’s performance in AA. These evaluators will be rolled out shortly.

Members of the TSPDL team with Group Chairman Cyrus Mistry, receiving the award for best practices at the TAAP Convention 2014
Looking into the future, Mr Chakravortty says, “We have definite plans to increase the number of SC / ST employees in the coming years, but that is not enough. Most of our initiatives are still concentrated on skills training and increasing employability at lower levels. 

“Additionally, we plan to support bright persons from the SC / ST community in higher fields of academics like engineering, medical, accountancy, etc through scholarships and continuous college support. We also want to encourage them to rise up to state and national levels in the fields of sports and culture by offering grants to individuals and organisations.”

TSPDL’s efforts in creating a level playing field are adding muscle to the Tata group’s TAAP programme, and, in fact, to India’s quest to provide equal opportunities to all its citizens.