Executives across India tasked with project implementation and CSR—that often-suspect function, corporate social responsibility—and policymakers and bureaucrats would do well to read a draft document by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB). It is available at ihrb.org and is called Guidelines on Business, Land Acquisition and Land Use: A Human Rights Approach.
The alternative is the likelihood of disruption in business plans, public protest and litigation, and loss of revenue. The document issued by London-based IHRB will take final shape later this year.
The “principles” are three: transparency, non-discrimination and accountability. “Transparency is the means; accountability is the end,” the document pithily mentions. While the expansion of these ideas takes up a part of the document and provides the rationale of approach that ought to guide resettlement and rehabilitation, the 22 “guidelines” offer the hard-lessons bit, thus far wilfully ignored in particular by many of India’s best-known corporations, and global corporations working in India, who spend millions of dollars on whitewash CSR advertising on primetime television and other media.
“Assess conflict potential and impact,” goes one such practical guideline. “Make information available.” Another suggests, “Consult communities early and often.” “Consult without armed guards”—pointing to a dismal reality in India, where “consultations” with project-targetted communities are often held in an atmosphere of “or else”. Often, these are presided over by the district collector, and attended by local police equipped to beat or fire upon those who might find recompense inadequate, or simply decline to sell their land to a business, or to a government agency—which usually resells or leases this land to a business.
“Avoid using the state to secure a community’s consent,” suggests a guideline. And another, “Avoid the use of armed forces for land clearance. Even if local laws permit such use, and even if the doctrine of eminent domain gives the state the right to take over land for public purpose, the use of armed forces to displace people against their will can be a crime under international law,” and company officials could be held accountable for any abuses “as their complicity risk increases”.
Those who would sneer at such advice—perhaps thinking, correctly so, that organizations such as IHRB have no legal teeth—would ignore it at their peril. Human rights organizations that focus on business are not a flash in the pan. IHRB’s draft guidelines came about after a series of meetings since 2009 in India, Colombia, Kenya and South Africa, which took on board the views of businesses, governments, top legal experts, human rights activists and the media. Such organizations closely follow the office of the United Nations’ special representative that deals with human rights and business; press for adoption of best practices by corporations, their investors, even countries; and are widely networked.
Increasing corporate accountability in the developed world, combined with global business interest, global liability, and global reach of both information and law, is forcing the pace of exposure and change to the extent that even an aggregator such as the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre is today a platform for what’s happening, what’s wrong, and who is doing what to fix it—or not. Such platforms are a global resource that Indian businesses practising locally or globally, or foreign-owned business with a large India footprint would do well to wake up to. One aspect of such networking is news, say, of lawyers in South Africa preparing class-action suits against gold mining companies accused of aiding silicosis among their workers, to Chevron and Transocean executives barred from leaving Brazil after an oil spill.
The other aspect is of companies actually responding to the resource centre’s invitation to clarify their stand. During a recent trawl, I saw several. Herakles Farms, among other things, responded to issues of displacement at its palm oil project in Cameroon. Cementos Argos responded to allegations of land grab in Colombia. And Centerra Gold to allegations that it polluted drinking water in a part of Kyrgyzstan. Nestlé chose to offer comment over issues of a trade union leader’s death in Colombia. (Even Cisco took the trouble to clarify its stand over something as “vanilla” as reasons for not bidding for a tender for Internet filters issued by the government of Pakistan—activists had taken exception to the potential for censorship such tendering may have brought about.)
Like it or not, the convergence of business and human rights is a reality. And whatever the margins of profit, the margins for tolerance are shrinking.
Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues of conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and the soon-to-be-published Highway 39: Journeys Through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.
Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read | Sudeep Chakravarti’s earlier articles