There comes a time when corporate accountability in a conflict zone must arrive for those who cite matters of life and death as being someone else’s responsibility. The 29 June killings of suspected Maoist rebels in southern Chhattisgarh by elements of the Central Reserve Police Force—by other reckoning, the killing of innocents in an operation gone horribly wrong—brings the situation to such a tipping point.
It is another matter when conflict, such as the ongoing Maoist rebellion in large parts of central and eastern India, envelops the geographies of existing businesses. These operations can be disrupted by conflict and, quite often, become victims of extortion. As rebel economies are by default “offline”, many businesses are approached for “donation” or outright extortion to feed rebel machinery. This is as true of Maoist areas of operation as some parts of northeastern India. And this is tricky at the best of times.
But what business does business have to wilfully enter a zone of conflict with memoranda of understanding with governments; declare blueprints for which investment and finance are done deals; and, in many cases, where project work has begun in earnest? Several major Indian and global businesses, besides a slew of medium-sized businesses, are doing precisely this in Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Andhra Pradesh, with power plants, mines, ore processing facilities and steel plants.
Indeed, they are doing so in areas officially acknowledged as vulnerable to conflict. For instance, several major mining, iron and steel, and power projects are works in progress in the vicinity of the 29 June killings in Chhattisgarh; and, nearby areas emptied of villagers by forced displacement led by security forces and state-sponsored vigilante cohorts. In some cases, specific help has been sought from the government for deputing paramilitaries—the same that stand accused of non-combatant-centred human rights violations—to protect business. A sampler of some states and vulnerable districts where major business activity is either in progress or planned: Chhattisgarh (Bastar, Dantewada); Orissa (Jajpur, Kalahandi, Koraput) and Jharkhand (the Singhbhum districts). The entire list is available on Planning Commission and ministry of home affairs websites.
This is by definition separate but no less questionable from that other degree of routine corporate irresponsibility in India: To use the agencies of the state—political leadership, administration and police—to pressure acquisition of land from those unwilling to part with it, often at the cost of their lives, and effect resettlement without thought to rehabilitation. While such instances abound in areas outside armed conflict, in conflict areas the two realities profit, as do their key sponsors.
It might be time to ask, if somewhat luridly: what is then the difference between “blood diamond”—that infamous conflict mineral in parts of Africa—and “blood iron ore”, “blood coal”, “blood steel” or “blood power” that accrue from corporate action in conjunction with the state? International law does not require an insurgency to feed off a natural resource to provide that tag. Direct or indirect collusion with a government and its agencies to either perpetuate a state of conflict, or benefiting from state-inflicted violence is enough to open a business to liability.
There exist several grounds for local and global litigation against the businesses here. Expelling people from their communities by “the threat or the use of violence to force people out of their communities can be a crime”, maintains Red Flags, a document issued by the International Alert and the Fafo Institute. “A company may face liability if it has gained access to the site on which it operates, where it builds infrastructure, or where it explores for natural resources, through forced displacement.”
Other points of liability, as I have earlier written, include “engaging abusive security forces” (directly, or through the proxy of state police or paramilitary) to effect and perpetuate a project; and “allowing use of company assets for abuses”, or overlooking mistreatment of people by security forces.
India has always worked hard to prevent global scrutiny of its myriad conflicts in the North East, Jammu and Kashmir, and the various incarnations of left-wing extremism that have dogged this country since independence. It has applied the same degree of blithe sure-footedness to conflicts or situations of distress that have arisen out of economic plans and projects. The immunity that has worked for the government of India has worked for Indian states—and businesses.
With increasing social networking and citizens’ media, instruments like right to information, scrutiny by human rights and investor watchdogs, and the global ambit of law, the days of such delusion may be numbered.
Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues of conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and the just-published Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.
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