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A push for social responsibility

A push for social responsibility
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First Published: Wed, Dec 22 2010. 08 35 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Dec 22 2010. 08 35 PM IST
Those who practise in the convergence zone of business and human rights have an agenda lined up for the coming year. The UK-based Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), which moves purposefully in the area of dissemination and influencing global policy, has a heads-up of Top 10 issues and areas of interest for 2011. The list can be found at www.institutehrb.org. Here, I would like to point to a few key areas that are fast gaining ground in terms of best practice norms as well as triggers for activists, lawyers and corporate responsibility practitioners.
Mid-2011 will see a significant step ahead in the globalization of responsibility, as it were, with the presentation of the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework that the UN’s special representative for human rights, John Ruggie, will present to the UN Human Rights Council. Upon adoption, the recommendations and principles will become a pre-eminent benchmark and could, the institute says, “reshape much of the current corporate responsibility landscape”.
While this is an umbrella, a specific issue is “tackling rights challenges associated with resource extraction”. This approach will basically highlight, as the US has recently done, to apply legislation to minerals extracted in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The US initiative calls for listed companies to declare a due diligence process for minerals from Congo. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has a “guidance on conflict minerals”. The US initiative, for example, calls for listed companies to declare use of minerals from Congo and due diligence processes. As this process spreads to others areas, a key area could—and should, in my opinion—well be minerals extracted in India’s conflict zones of Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand. Due diligence could soon apply to rights concerns in other extraction-heavy states such as Goa and Karnataka. Most major players in these areas are listed in India and several are listed overseas.
Another key area that is likely to come into focus, the institute suggests, is foreign acquisition of agricultural land in developing countries. I would add that in India it applies equally to domestic players. “What complicates the picture is that current trends in land acquisition indicate the purchases are not only for agricultural purposes,” IHRB says. “Often it is to develop other sectors, such as tourism, export-oriented horticulture, building special economic zones, and creating industrial estates. While such activities may lead to positive impacts on human rights, it isn’t clear if those whose land is taken away are likely to benefit from the new developments.”
Also of import, clearly, is the Top 10 focus on “fostering corporate cultures that respect human rights”—the draft of Ruggie’s report already addresses this area. Primarily, it urges governments to seek accountability from companies even as governments themselves are under scrutiny for pro-business human rights violations in land acquisition—using state agencies such as the local administration and the police to overcome resistance—to overlooking direct corporate perversion of, say, resettlement and rehabilitation.
India alone can provide several dozen case studies, including the well known, aborted car and chemical-hub projects in West Bengal, to several marquee mining and metals projects in Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka. Practitioners who deal with these issues daily often express surprise at the level of callousness. One such is New Delhi-based lawyer and researcher Usha Ramanathan, who was earlier in 2010 part of a ministry of environment and forests-mandated committee that inquired into Vedanta Resources Plc’s bauxite mining and alumina project in Orissa. “I am shocked by the unwillingness,” Ramanathan told me, “to even acknowledge these as problems.”
There is another peculiarity in India which Ashok Panikkar, founder and executive director of Bangalore-based conflict resolution firm Meta-Culture Consulting mentioned to me. “It’s astonishing,” he said, “that top-level decision makers are oblivious of social and political ramifications of their projects.”
Indeed, I would add that this can be wilful oblivion. In my conversations with executives of major metals and mining conglomerates in India, I have heard statements such as “policy made in Mumbai may translate differently in Orissa”. Meaning, in effect, that staff downstream of dignified boardrooms are free to execute a project as they see fit.
The tide is turning, would be my suggestion to such people. What resolution they adopt for 2011 is their business, but here is another cheerful thought from IHRB to round off things. There is a growing move to make human rights a part of integrated corporate reporting which includes “financial, social, environmental and governance information”. As Vedanta’s case shows, institutional investors are already forcing the pace that activists and lawyers have set.
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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First Published: Wed, Dec 22 2010. 08 35 PM IST