Home / Opinion / A memorandum for understanding

As self-congratulatory dust settles on the Vibrant Gujarat Summit that concluded earlier this week, there’s a surprising footnote. Overshadowed by the Gujarat government’s claim of having signed 21,000 memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with various businesses for promissory investments worth 25 trillion (approaching $400 billion), was a petition to delegates signed by 101 members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Alongside an invective about crony capitalism, and what it termed Gujarat’s “blind race towards mindless industrialization", the petition urged delegates to consider some eminently sensible points related to free, prior and informed consent; and resettlement and rehabilitation. “Before signing MoUs with the GoG (government of Gujarat), please do ensure that you meet and interact seriously with the impacted people/communities."

The petition reminded overseas businesses of human rights and corporate responsibility implications: “Back in your home in the various countries that (you) hail from, ethical and fair business norms are practised, which are openly flouted here by our Government."

These NGO signatories are mostly Gujarat-based, and represent several major local farmer, environment and labour welfare organizations. Remarkably, they put their names to the petition at a time when there are clear indications that the government of India and several state governments are targeting NGOs perceived as pro-community and, by unfortunate default, anti-business and anti-development.

I expect this smaller number could, in future, make the bigger noise.

This has little to do with the visible success of the investment meet that drew, besides top CEOs from India and overseas, the US secretary of state, and UN secretary general. Or the fact that all investments promised at such gatherings do not translate into projects. It has even less to do with the fact that the amount of investments pledged is basically a white lie. While governments claim investment as accruing entirely to a particular state or India, they blithely overlook the fact that a handsome fraction of investment in plant, machinery and consultancy actually accrues to overseas manufacturers and services providers.

The truth is: such investment forums hand reason to protesters on a platter.

As I have written earlier in this column, it all begins with the signing of MoUs between various state governments and businesses at private meetings and investment jamborees, usually without ground-level scan of a potential project site. The state’s assurance is seen as being enough. This is the first misstep.

The second occurs when consultants parachute in to gauge project viability, usually without factoring in local sentiments and livelihoods. Subsequent missteps are often taken by corporate social responsibility professionals, government officials, and environment and social impact assessment agencies. Singly and together, they work to acquire land, offer sops and are sometimes known to misrepresent patterns of land use and habitation to ensure acquisition. The state then sometimes uses its strong arms of bureaucracy and police to ensure the deal goes through to the hilt.

In India the examples are legion, well-documented—and ongoing. As the central government attempts to push through an ordinance that seeks to diminish the voice and future of project-affected communities, the likelihood of community resentment and conflict with state agencies and businesses are numerous.

It will be myopic of governments, both in New Delhi and states, to ignore this reality in attempts to score high-octane economic growth. It may be galling to economic and business planners ensconced in ivory suites, but ambition on behalf of a country or corporation can be diluted by simple needs of respect and remedy of a community.

Julie Fisher, a PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and a former scholar in residence at Yale University on non-profit organizations, writes colourfully of “…these three horsemen of the global apocalypse—poverty, environmental degradation and population growth…" The cautionary sting in Fisher’s assertion in her book Nongovernments: NGOs and the Political Development of the Third World, is about complications that arise when governments seek to bridle one or more of these negative forces by unleashing more negative forces.

“The rise of Third World NGOs," she elaborates, “has coincided with the increasing inevitability of the nation-state to muddle through as it confronts the long-term consequences of its own ignorance, corruption and lack of accountability."

That’s a future India can ill-afford, even as it can ill-afford chronic poverty and underdevelopment. Subtracting the shrillness, the NGOs petitioning delegates this past week were basically sending a message for a crucial middle ground to not undercut the community. It was really a memorandum for understanding.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear. Hold. Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His earlier books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.

Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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