Skip to content

The Teens Arrive

Irreverent, empowered youth willing and concerned enough to take to the streets is cause for hope

Welcome the teens! The first teen year of the century begins today: a significant landmark, particularly for a young country like India, with half of its population below 25. For some, 13 may be an inauspicious number; yet, doubtless, the year promises to be an exciting and fulfilling one for the country.

The year gone by saw many ups and downs; more of the latter and too little of the former. Of course, the very fact that the whole year has gone by is itself significant: the world was to end on December 21, according to one interpretation of the Mayan calendar! Another important date — one which saw overflowing maternity wards, thanks to over-zealous parents — was 12-12-12, a number alliteration which will not recur this century. It has been a year in which other numbers too took on big roles, being short-hand representations of larger issues. For example, 66. Standing for Section 66 of the Information Technology Act, it has achieved notoriety for its blatant misuse by a pliant police force at the behest of the politicians. A professor in Kolkata and two young ladies in Mumbai were amongst the many victimised under this law, for innocuous posts on the Net. The wording of this Section permits interpretations that make it undemocratic and draconian: a law that deserves to be quickly repealed or, at least, drastically re-worded. A smaller number — 2, or, more precisely 2% — has seen a divide in the corporate world. This refers to the requirement in the new Companies Bill for certain categories of companies to spend 2% of their profits on CSR. The oxymoron of compulsory philanthropy, with a ‘comply or explain’ framework, has been welcomed by some and criticised by others. Behind the number are deep philosophical issues about the responsibility of companies, the desirability of mandating such spending, the rights of shareholders, the virtues of voluntarism as opposed to a tax, etc. There are also practical concerns: would this mean another inspector and more corruption; could it lead to clever juggling of accounts to boost expenditures shown as CSR?

Meanwhile, thanks to the CAG, the country is learning some really big numbers. The most popular is 1,76,000 crore. A Rorschach-like test will have most Indians instantly respond to this number with ‘telecom scam’. Even bigger numbers were bandied about in the context of ‘Coalgate’, but they have not embedded themselves in the popular mind so firmly.

The number of zeroes in this seem to have so spooked the government that instead of condemning wrongdoers and defending a policy that made India the global showpiece of a successful telecom revolution, it chose to condemn the policy and defend the alleged wrongdoers! The aam aadmi, who benefitted phenomenally with the lowest tariffs and cheap phones, was left confused and may soon turn sullen if rates begin to go up, as is expected. The new philosophy, driven by blinkered accountants and simplistic judicial pronouncements, seems to be: maximise government revenues and don’t worry about public welfare. 1,76,000 means all this, and much more.

On the other hand, the end of the year had the Prime Minister expressing that 8 was too much. He was referring to the projected 8% growth rate — scaled down from 9 to 8.2 and now 8% — for the 12th Plan. Amidst the reams of paper used in discussing this growth percentage, there was little mention of much bigger figures like the number of illiterates, the number of malnourished children, the extent of female foeticide or the number of persons below the poverty line. Lacking too was the focus on gini coefficient — indicating income inequality — or the growing number of billionaires in a poor country. Targets for reduction of any of these hardly featured in the debate. A figure related to this was, earlier, the subject of much controversy: whether . 32 a day was sufficient for livelihood. The Planning Commission and its Deputy Chairman got much stick on this figure of 32.

Beyond numbers, there was laudable individual triumphs — some high-profile, as in the Olympics, others unsung and hidden in the humdrum of daily life — and many unfortunate tragedies. Amongst the latter, the one that caught the attention of the whole nation was the criminal and barbaric assault on a young women in Delhi. The spontaneous countrywide galvanisation—particularly amongst youth—has rarely been seen. The political class, across the spectrum, was caught unawares. While the government came across as inept and insensitive, especially in the early days, other parties — including many who sought to ride on this wave — were only marginally better. What is clear is the lack of commitment towards gender equality and the inability to empathise with the aspirations of a new generation.

Time’s march into the teens, combined with the new communication technologies, has given birth to a generation of young and connected people. Aspirations have fused with empowerment and a willingness to take to the streets: an amalgam that is potent. Add to this, youthful idealism and irreverence towards authority, and one sees why the establishment needs to worry. It is this commitment to a cause, the readiness to agitate for it and the fearless confrontation against entrenched interests that gives one hope for the country. The teens certainly mark a new beginning and provide cause for optimism and cheer.

Re-positioning and Re-imaging India

Over the last year or so, the image of India, like the Indian Test team, has taken a beating. The halcyon days of India Shining, of India Everywhere and the world’s “fastest growing free market economy” are now over; the brand-builders and spin-masters are not able to conjure up the magic of old. Instead, we have the picture of a struggling economy, just chugging along at barely over 5% a year; simmering social unrest fuelled by a hugely inequitous society; scam-a-day revealations of corruption; a divisive polity and – certainly till recently – an indecisive leadership. Many feel that if BRIC is the new power-house of the global economy, the “I” in it should now mean Indonesia, not India.

Yet, any attempt to write-off India may be, as Mark Twain said about false reports of his demise “The report of my death was an exaggeration”. After all, the fundamental underlying factors driving the India economy have not changed: demographics, a huge domestic market, an extensive education system with a sufficient topping of high quality, a thrifty and hard-working population, and a strong institutional base. However, converting these potential advantages to real economic benefit requires appropriate action.

The gains of a proportionately large young population, the “demographic dividend”, can be reaped only if they are imparted sufficient education and trained in skills that the economy needs. While recent years have seen a major thrust on education – through both the Right to Education at the school level and a huge expansion at the university level – and an ambitious skills development programme, their results depend on efficient implementation. It will not be easy to simultaneously achieve the goals of expansion, equity and excellence. The veneer of a few institutions producing high-quality professionals will no longer be sufficient, especially in an evolving, globally-competitive market for goods, services and ideas. We will need to be flexible and innovative not only in content and pedagogy, but also in the administration and structures of the education system.

The advantages of a large domestic market are currently reduced by regulations and structural barriers, inhibiting the free and easy movement of goods across the country. These include barriers to movement of agricultural commodities, octroi, and too many and inefficient toll collection points, causing unnecessary harassment and delays. Poor infrastructure slows movement. The introduction of GST – much delayed, already – will certainly ease the numerous tax-related obstacles and provide a big boost to the economy. Similarly, changes in the APMC regulations, and better management and use of technology at toll collection points on highways, can lower costs in the movement of goods.

India’s institutional base – a strong and fair legal framework and an independent judiciary, in particular – have long been projected as major strengths and a comparative advantage. In addition to the Election Commission, independent regulators, including SEBI and RBI, are much respected around the world. All these contribute to business confidence, especially amongst foreign companies and investors. However, the gains of many years have been endangered by retrospective tax laws, cancellation of contracts/licenses which had been entered into within existing laws, and perceptions of government pressure on regulators. Institutions and their credibility are built over decades; destroying them is, unfortunately, much faster and easier. Government needs to tread with caution to sustain and build on the respect that our institutions command overseas.

Globalisation has been driven not only by trade and investment, but equally through bonds of religion and ideology, which – aided by new communication technologies – transcend national boundaries. The battles of today are for the hearts and minds of people rather than territory. In a world where wars between countries have become rare, “soft power” has become far more important. While recognizing the importance of the economic dimension, the image of India needs to go beyond that. India’s unique advantages lie, in fact, in other areas.

India has substantial soft power assets: its rich culture – including films, music, yoga and spirituality – cuisines, historical heritage and natural beauty. These are a powerful magnet for people around the world. Of late, the country is also recognized as a hub for innovation. In the developing world – and, often, elsewhere too – its democracy and electoral process is highly regarded. A large number of countries admire India’s higher education system, despite its many flaws, and the top institutions are held in awe even in the developed world.

Leveraging these advantages can position India strongly in the mind-space of the global community. This, however, demands strong and pro-active action by both, government and industry. Image building without substance is like a soufflé: hot air will hold it up, but it will soon collapse. Therefore, in each area, concrete steps on the ground are necessary. In education, for example, the high drop-out rates and very poor quality at school level need to be quickly remedied. Higher education calls for major reform. In addition, a large scheme of scholarships (say, 5000 a year) for foreign students for study in top universities and professional institutions will engender much goodwill and be an investment for the future (foreign students develop a special relationship with the country; Suu Kyi is but one example). Similarly, promoting Indian cinema, music and tourism abroad can lead to great benefits. An independent global TV channel – aimed at viewers beyond the Indian diaspora –  which sees world events through Indian eyes can be another contributor.

It is time to re-image India, going beyond the purely economic. A private-public partnership, like the Brand India Fund, could be the best means. Such re-positioning will certainly provide business and economic advantages, but will also give India a greater share of voice resulting in geo-strategic benefits.

Combating Corruption: Try Technology

It is better to try and plug the leak in a sinking boat rather than to keep bailing out water, especially if the hole is getting bigger. Few will disagree that it is wiser to root out the cause, instead of merely tackling the symptoms. Yet, much of the movement against corruption has focused only on tackling the symptoms, the manifestation, and not on how to eradicate the cause itself. Thus, there are daily exposes and a cry to act against the alleged culprits. While wrong-doers need to be exposed and punished, a better strategy would seek to eliminate the very opportunity for corruption.

Such a systemic solution would have a long-term and sustainable impact. On the other hand, punishing the guilty is, at best, a band-aid solution: given the risk to reward ratio, one set of offenders will be quickly replaced by another. After all, the possibility of being caught is small, and the chance of being convicted is no bigger. Endless delays ensure that even this tiny probability is but a distant event. Effectively, there is little deterrence, while the gain can be very substantial.

Adding to the problem is the lack of societal aversion to corruption, amongst the urban middle class, despite their apparently strong support to the Anna movement last year. Thus, there is no social stigma for the corrupt; nor, so far, is there evidence of corruption affecting electoral prospects of a contestant. Industry associations, while emphasising corporate governance, integrity and ethics, are loathe to expel – or even name – member-companies that are known to have indulged in corrupt and questionable practices.

In this situation, trying to root out corruption by exposing individuals or companies, a name and shame approach, is hardly going to work. It only serves to provide endless fodder for TV news channels, publicity for the accusers, titillation for the viewing public, and ammunition for one or the other political party to fire random salvos at their opponents.

There is no magic bullet, no singular solution to the deep-rooted problem of corruption. Initiatives like to Lok Pal Bill, touted by many as the remedy for eradication of corruption, can – at best – be one amongst an array of tools required to tackle the issue. Any legal approach, even if the Bill can actually be steered through both Houses of Parliament, has inherent weaknesses in implementation: detection, poor investigation, long-drawn legal processes, and low conviction rates. Yet, the assumption seems to be that this new body (Lok Pal) will consist of only scrupulously honest people, a super-body of super-men, given extra-ordinary powers. However, what was proposed would only result in another massive, parallel bureaucracy, an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, with scope for further corruption; in effect, just adding one more layer of corruption.

The growing cynicism caused by daily reports of corruption, and the frustrations of an abysmally slow legal system, are making many wish for a strong and decisive leadership or a wise King who dispenses immediate justice. This is fertile ground for fascism. Meanwhile, each accused is presumed guilty, in a lynch-mob mentality amplified by media. In this climate, moving from summary trials in media to systemic ways of eliminating corruption is not going to be easy.

Even so, there are straight forward ways of reducing exploitative corruption. This “retail” rent-seeking is ubiquitous and most affects the common-man, causing much resentment because of its coercive nature. One widespread example is the demand for a bribe to provide a ration card. A choice of alternative service points, increased supply, competition – where possible – and transparency can eliminate much of this.

Use of technology and innovative “business” models can be of great help. Creating a common data base connected to multiple points of service can provide transparency and competition. Eliminating the monopoly of a designated service point can itself drastically reduce corruption. Computerisation of land records is a long-standing example of the effective use of technology. Digitization, a central data base and the ability to get an authenticated print-out of ownership from multiple points have together made the process easy and corruption-free.

Corruption in schemes like MGNREGA can be minimized by using the unique identity (Aadhar) to directly transfer funds to the beneficiary and also to match the worker and the recipient. Aadhar could be used in the food (PDS) and other subsidy schemes to ensure minimal misuse, as also in transitioning to cash transfer of subsidies. The use of Aadhar and creation of publicly-accessible data bases will ensure transparency and, along with independent social audits, can make corruption very difficult.

Collusive corruption in its “wholesale” form, akin to crony capitalism, seems pervasive and is certainly more difficult to contain, since the parties directly involved are both gainers. Transparency, RTI, and protection to whistle-blowers, are possible safeguards. Systemic changes, with clear procedures and minimal discretion, will also help as will technology-based e-procurement and e-auctions. This will require re-engineering processes, and using technology to bring in efficiency and transparency at all stages. However, since those involved in collusion are inevitably clever, tackling such corruption is never going to be easy. Integrity, ethics, professionalism and social sanctions are probably the ultimate solution. Till then, we need to turn to technology.

Technology too – like the Lok Pal – is no magic bullet, but it can provide transparency, access and efficiency, and be transformational. Importantly, it can be a strategic tool to prevent corruption; plugging the leak, rather than trying to continuously bail out water. It is high time that we brought technology centre-stage in the fight against corruption.

Given the double-edged sword social media has become, self-regulation by platforms is the best option

Salman Khan is famous: he has delivered a series of films grossing 100 crore-plus. He has a namesake, equally famous, though amongst a different circle of admirers. The latter has set up the eponymous Khan Academy, a website, which Forbes has called “the most influential teaching organisation on the planet.” With over 2,410 videos and 129 modules (mainly maths), it has been visited by 63 million people.

Less widely known, especially to those over 30 years, is Ray William Johnson, the originator of the most-subscribed video channel on YouTube. It has over 5.6 million subscribers and has garnered, incredibly, almost two billion video views. A bigger celebrity, US President Barack Obama, uses Twitter, and his tweets have as many as 18 million followers.

Clearly, the reach of the new media is massive – and rapidly growing. For many youngsters, social media is the major means of communication. Little wonder, then, that more and more businesses are using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to supplement other media in their marketing efforts to reach the young. Recognising the commercial potential, advertising agencies have set up separate digital media groups, recruiters too are using social media as an important tool for outreach.

Many companies are yet at the rudimentary step of websites, little realising that those who have not yet begun to use the new media are in danger of being left behind.

Though social media penetration in India is limited, amongst urban youth, its power – in conjunction with SMS and MMS – was seen recently, through the widespread and instantaneous dissemination of rumours, threats and doctored images. These messages and images ignited passions and spread panic, leading to some violent incidents and a mass exodus from Bangalore.

The upheaval caused by the messages and images led the government to impose constraints on the number of SMSs and MMSs that a person could send (first, only five a day, then raised to 20; the limit has now been withdrawn).

Instructions were issued to block or take down some pages and websites. Given the consequences of dissemination of morphed pictures, particularly in a surcharged environment, many considered some restrictions as reasonable. However, the reported order to take down spoof sites of Prime Minister’s Office gave a different turn. It seemed the government was taking cover of ‘law-and-order’ issues to stifle satire and comment against it.

The disturbing trend towards censorship – denied, of course, by the government – is exemplified by the demand to remove cartoons from textbooks, the arrest in Kolkata of a professor for creating a satirical cartoon and the removal of some Twitter handles.

Such politically-motivated moves impinge on freedom of expression and cannot be seen as ‘reasonable restrictions’. In a diverse society with politically-created and inflamed sensitivities, there will always be groups that find something or the other offensive.

On which side – banning the book or curbing rioters and rabble rousers – the heavy hand of law descends, defines the space for freedom. In some instances, this is not an easy decision. In recent years, cities have been held to ransom by motley groups of organised protesters who, generally for political ends, have often indulged in violence. Such groups have succeeded in getting bans imposed on books, art and movies, thanks to weak-kneed governments. Too few have spoken up for freedom.

Porcupines and Jaguars

Do we really want a superpower India populated by angry Indians?

The mob frenzy at the Maruti factory in Manesar, the scale and intensity of violence in Bodoland, the daily reports of molestations and murders across the country: all these point to a problem that goes beyond law and order. After almost every case of molestation — like the recent incidents in Guwahati and Mangalore — one or the other so-called leader adds insult to injury by sermonising about ‘appropriate’ dressing or behaviour, of course, only for women. The strong gender bias reflects a deep-rooted sociological problem. Road rage, another growing and increasingly violent phenomenon, is also as much a psychosocial issue as a law and order one.

India’s historical self-image is of a peace-loving and tolerant society. Like the apocryphal story about the first Parsi immigrants, who apparently said that they would be like sugar dissolving in milk, for centuries, India welcomed and absorbed people from different religions, regions and cultures. Indians were also perceived to be spiritual and resigned to preordained fate. It was said that violent revolution could never take place in India, despite its inequities and poverty.

Whether this perception of India and Indians was self-delusion or media-created, today’s reality is the opposite. Now, we are a country of angry people: like porcupines, a touch and we bristle; like jaguars, ever aggressive and violent at the slightest provocation. Identity politics has made each group supersensitive, with advantage to be gained by taking umbrage at every imagined slight. Recently, this was played out through the created controversy over cartoons in school textbooks. This also saw the re-emergence of a new identity-group: politicians. It sought removal of all cartoons on politicians.

One manifestation of growing intolerance is the lack of respect for dissent. The life blood of democracy, dissent is often sought to be suppressed, sometimes by labelling it antinational. Draconian laws make it easy to arrest demonstrators; banning books, artworks and films is now commonplace: all it needs is some group that claims ‘hurt sentiments’. Thus, government, rather than being a protector of constitutional and democratic rights, abets — and encourages — intolerance.

Meanwhile, the rich and powerful have become ever-greater proponents of freedom: their freedom. This particularly extends to their freedom to be above, or beyond, the law. Political pressure and money ensure subversion of enforcement agencies on issues ranging from minor traffic offences to major crimes and corruption. Parts of the judicial system are compromised. So, the proverbial ‘common man’ sees the justice system as being skewed in favour of the rich. Mind-boggling delays in the justice system worsen the situation, especially for the disadvantaged. They have neither money nor time to go through protracted court proceedings. For them, justice delayed is injustice. As a result, the socially-oppressed and economically-deprived have little hope of getting justice.

Meanwhile, mobility and media, especially TV have exposed people to the flashy world of rich, ostentatious-consumption Indians. This, and education, has fuelled a revolution of rising expectations and an awareness of growing inequity. At the same time, corruption of the exploitative variety severely affects the poor. The resentment and disaffection provides fertile ground forleft-wing extremism, and is the base for its support amongst the disadvantaged. The reason this has not yet spread across the nation is greater trickle-down from growth and a residual belief in fate, with democracy serving as the safety valve to let off steam.

One consequence is a sense of marginalisation, with hundreds of millions feeling that they are outside the system. Such alienation, though, is by no means limited to the poor and disadvantaged: increasingly, large sections of the urban middle class too feel that the system does not deliver. Tired of graft, enduring endemic shortages of water and electricity, assailed by abysmal infrastructure and spiralling prices, they are constantly on a short fuse.
This may explain the frustration and unhappiness of the aam aadmi, including the middle class, but what causes the deep anger and its growing translation into violence?

That traditional opiate, religion, seems unable to calm emotions; in fact, it exacerbates them. Even the modern morphine, mindless media, has not been fully successful in numbing the mind. Mobility, and resulting rootlessness, has certainly removed some restraints on action and behaviour. In addition, does the environment of unregulated competition, acquisition and instant gratification serve to promote aggressive behaviour?

There is some merit in the argument that our model of development is individualistic, materialistic, hyper-competitive and greed-based. Therefore, it is antithetical to cooperation, caring and compassion. In such circumstances, violence is a more-than-likely outcome. Custodial torture and encounter killings by the police — even by the more disciplined armed forces — indicate the extent of dehumanisation of society. We are being transformed, not so slowly, into Angry Indians.

Much of the correctives need to come through improvement in governance. However, it is equally important for civil society and corporate leaders to ponder over this and reverse the transition towards a violent society. Parents and teachers have a special responsibility to ensure a tolerant new generation. Policymakers and business leaders need to rethink the economic paradigm that has taken root. The present trajectory is not socially sustainable. Even if it were, who wants a superpower India populated by Angry Indians?

Ideas, freedom and diversity will ensure India gets its place in the bold new world

Like a verb in a sentence, no business plan, sales pitch or vision-of-the-future is complete without the word ‘innovation’. It is, by far, the most popular flavour of the day, be it in board rooms or classrooms. Yet, its descent into a cliche, an overused buzzword, does not detract from its crucial importance.

The fact is that, in most areas – and not just in the sphere of technology – the advantage will lie with those individuals, organisations and countries that are more innovative.

Ideas and inventions are the other dimensions of the triple-I powerhouse, the trinity that is the holy grail for companies and countries. Encompassing art, culture and science, ideas indicate the vitality and dynamism of a society or organisation, its ability to rejuvenate itself and march ahead in a changing environment.

Inventions, stemming often – but not always – from R&D, give a country a decisive edge in the competitive, globalised world. More coveted and expensive than property in Tokyo or London is intellectual property that flows from these three ‘I’s.

India has dreams of being a major force in the sphere of knowledge. Its traditions and culture gave pride of place to knowledge, with intellectuals being at the top in a highly hierarchical society.

In more recent times, former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave great importance to science, and his successors have more or less continued that tradition. This focus on science is crucial, particularly as other countries, notably China, have invested far more and now outstrip India in scientific output.

Yet, invention and innovation are more than science; the former is sometimes a result of serendipity, while the latter can flow from a variety of other stimuli. While there will, in any society, always be individuals who are innately innovative or inventive, what is important is the creation of an ambience, an ecosystem that stimulates and nurtures innovation.

The big drivers of innovation are diversity and adversity. The former makes acceptable – even natural – different perspectives and approaches to the same problem; the latter forces out-of-box thinking. A great deal of grassroot innovation in India is the result of adversity – sadly, our competitive advantage.

Other countries, companies and organisations can simulate such adversity – and stimulate innovation – by limiting resources of time, cost or human resources: thus, one can have design-to-cost ( Tata Nano, for example) or ‘idiot-proof’ products and processes (products from Apple).

Immense diversity is India’s special advantage. It is essential to sustain and encourage this and ensure that the push towards homogenisation, to a single ‘Indian’ culture, is resisted. The issue, though, is more than ideological and cultural.

An example is the controversy over a single entrance test for engineering admissions. ‘One nation, one test’ is doubtlessly a good slogan, but if this means a single (common) merit list to be followed by all institutions, it could be disastrous for innovation.

The New Corporate Citizen

Companies need to evolve beyond CSR, speak for the good of all citizens and for democratic values

Like a kite in an updraft, the rupee-dollar graph continues its gravity-defying rise, even as the GDP growth-rate seeks to desperately side with Newton through a rapid free-fall. Further respect for the law of gravity comes from the Sensex, which continues to sink.

Meanwhile, the ship of state has dropped anchor, and remains motionless. The captain’s order to move — and in which direction — are not yet forthcoming.

In the blazing Delhi summer, ‘Western disturbances’ (from Europe, particularly Greece) are the official villains; the haze makes it difficult to look ahead, explaining the faulty predictions of GDP and inflation. The heat also causes somnolence and torpor in government. Parliament avoided such lethargy, but generated more heat through an energetic frenzy against a cartoon. Maybe cool monsoon winds will bring solace, get the ship to move again and facilitate new growth.

Business barons, bruised by Budget blues, have been bemoaning the inaction — first cautiously, but now more stridently — as ‘policy paralysis’ becomes the buzzword. Though critical of social sector subsidies and schemes, seen as exacerbating the fiscal deficit, corporate leaders do support the concept of inclusive growth. Many companies have active programmes of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and fund activities of societal benefit. The focus is mostly on communities around their area of operation and in fields like health, education, water and sanitation. Some of this is undoubtedly based on altruism, but much of it is brand-building and self-interest: happy people do make good neighbours.

Government’s thrust on inclusive growth, and a view that the corporate sector must do much more, has led to proposals for a mandatory CSR spend.
The new Companies Bill may well include a clause on this — probably as a ‘comply or explain’ provision. As always, some companies will find clever loopholes while some officials indulge in rentseeking. In any case, voluntary spending based on genuine altruism or enlightened self-interest is generally a better approach. Reporting about CSR efforts and spending, combined with an independent rating of companies on this dimension, may well be sufficient, since the market is known to reward companies that are better governed and contribute more to society.

Traditionally, CSR has committed corporate resources to deliver specific social services to disadvantaged communities or to improving the physical environment. Some argue, though, that CSR is not just philanthropy, but is the integration of social goals into the mainstream business of the company. Thus, providing quality products at affordable prices to meet the needs of poor consumers in a manner that is financially viable for the company, is a way of fulfilling social responsibility.

In fact, since this is sustainable, it is better than pure philanthropy. Similarly, addressing environmental concerns by reducing resource use, recycling and reuse in a company’s operations may be a more effective expression of CSR than a one-time showpiece project in a local community. Is this sufficient or is there need for a different and broader interpretation of social responsibility in today’s context? As a big and important part of the country’s economy, the corporate sector gets a large — some say, disproportionate —share of mind of the government. Business leaders, unlike those from civil society groups, can get appointments with ministers and top officials with ease. This opportunity, combined with the size and influence of the corporate sector, is generally used to lobby for favourable regulations and tax concessions for their particular sector or, at best, for industry-friendly policies. However, its powerful position as an influencer puts greater responsibility on business. CSR must, therefore, extend to broader realms of public policy and national issues.

In its new form, CSR must mean engagement with the government and, importantly, with civil society organisations (CSO) on matters of social consequence — going beyond the narrow interests of business. The business-CSO dialogue has been a major missing element in evolving a consensus on many vital national issues like land acquisition, mining, the environment and hydropower projects. A dialogue can avoid confrontation and litigation, and develop acceptable solutions. To be genuine and useful, such a dialogue must be broad-based, involving industry associations. Individual companies talking to, and sometimes trying to buy out, a CSO, or using one CSO to front a battle against a rival, might work in the short term, but is bound to backfire in the course of time.

CSR must include taking a stance to protect civil and human rights, not only because the rule of law is essential for a positive business environment, but also because it is a responsibility. Sadly, one is hard-pressed to think of a company or business leader who has spoken out against violations of human rights, or the disregard for civil liberties inherent in draconian laws like AFSPA or cyberspace regulations. In the recent cartoon controversy, while one heard many voices from academia, the silence from the corporate sector was deafening. Surely, a community that often complains about educational quality had a point of view about textbooks that sought to promote thinking, questioning and debate, not rote learning? Companies and business leaders can no longer limit responsibility to their balancesheet, their shareholders or to occasional philanthropy. They have a duty to promote the welfare of all citizens, to democratic and egalitarian values and to the country: this is what CSR must mean.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 31 other followers