Believe it: there was a seminar in the second week of April in Raipur to discuss the “Role of Business in Social Development”. While the notion of such a gathering might, to many, seem preposterous in the capital of Chhattisgarh, a state where the push for industrial growth has clashed with the rights of indigenous people, at least a few managed to say what needed to be said. In particular, a presentation about rights-based growth and rights-based business; though coming as it did only two days after the Maoist attack that killed 76 paramilitary and police personnel in Dantewada, I doubt how deeply the message sank in.
Anyway, to the message. It urged the implementation of industrial projects “within the framework of a holistic set of social norms that at all costs must not be violated”, all the way from conception of the project to closure and through eventual operation. This includes:
• Free, prior and informed consent, unlike, say, the established practice in several Indian states of browbeating, threatening, forcibly uprooting, beating—and sometimes, killing—reluctant sellers of land marked for projects by government in concert with business.
• Adhering to norms of SA 8000, an ISO-like standard that is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, norms of the International Labour Organization, and United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child. Established by New York-based Social Accountability International (www.sa-intl.org), it offers methods for socially auditing projects, and improving conditions at work.
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• And, the reporting of the sustainability of a project.
The presentation also mentioned the urgent, if currently utopian, need of the state to “promote and enforce” rights in businesses “from negotiating MoUs (memorandums of understanding) to overseeing operational sites”. These, the presentation urged, include the rights to information, political participation and peaceful protest; the “right to remedy” before the law of victims of abuse, and right to a fair trial of anyone accused of abuse; and the right to an “adequate standard of living”, including the right to health and a clean environment. The clincher: “Enforcement would encompass government.”
I would go further even at the cost of facing derision from those who know how deeply corrupt the Indian way of politics and business is. In a white paper on internal security issues I wrote late last year for a private think tank, and discussed at a small gathering of leaders of businesses and non-governmental organizations this past February in New Delhi, the joy was as much the exercise in “futuring”—projections, scenario-planning—as suggesting possible discussion areas for solutions.
Of course, there are—and can be—numerous solutions, ranging from the relatively simple to those requiring foresight and fortitude from political, administrative and business leadership. Besides, the purpose of the white paper was not to offer outright solutions; that would be presumptuous, as solutions require multiple minds. However, as indicative examples, the paper placed a few possible solutions to generate discussion.
As with the presentation in Raipur, the white paper urged building a system of social audit into a project, especially an extractive or mining project, heavy industry—indeed, any project that involves displacement of people in traditional areas such as tribal homelands, and elsewhere. This needs to be incorporated into the process from the MoU stage.
The other, the paper argued, is to develop a system of credits, on the line of carbon credits, for the audited success of resettlement and rehabilitation issues. And, equally, develop a system of penalties.
The alternatives are frightening. An estimated 50 million live in urban slums. This number will dramatically increase through creation of new slums on account of migrants from rural areas as well as those continually pushed out to the peripheries of cities by, say, real estate development projects. Estimates of those displaced by projects since India’s independence average out at 50 million. Of these, many have been resettled, but not rehabilitated, a nuance long lost on leaders of politics, administration and business. This displacement is ongoing and will get more acute. The numbers of landless rural peasantry will increase by several million with further fracturing of landholding, and destitution on account of non-family issues such as indebtedness, crop failure, non-remunerative pricing, cheaper imports of competing crops, and rising input costs. If the Maoist rebellion is scaring people and has polarized the country like few other issues in recent memory, conflagration, disruption and dislocation of the near future could make today’s anger and resentment look like a walk in the industrial park.
Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues related to conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. He writes a column alternate Thursdays on conflicts that directly affect business.
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