Corporate impunity is an unpopular subject in India. And that is precisely why I like to bring it up from time to time, using examples from here and elsewhere to trigger some degree of introspection over this most vexing of issues.

The most recent trigger was provided by that excellent aggregator and researcher, UK-based Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), with its 2017 tracker report on the subject. It is simply titled, Corporate impunity is common and remedy for victims is rare.

In a country where those who question the will and ways of government and business—including government-run businesses—are frequently targeted I would recommend this report (at business-humanrights.org) as required reading for human rights lawyers, corporate lawyers, business planners, corporate social responsibility or CSR executives, and students engaged with these sectors.

BHRRC has globally tracked 450 instances of attacks and active harassment in the past two years against human rights defenders, who specifically demanded corporate responsibility and accountability. Though countries of Central and South America occupy the largest bandwidth—with local and transnational businesses complicit with governments—India has a large footprint in Asia, along with China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand.

Instances include what the Centre terms “judicial harassment"—the most frequent occurrence, designed to grind down opposition—and “killings, beatings and threats for demanding justice".

Sometimes it can be plain harassment. BHRRC lists the case of an environmental lawyer with Instituto de Derecho Ambiental who represented an indigenous community in Mexico over a land dispute with the iron ore mining operation of Peña Colorada. It is jointly operated by Ternium SA and ArcelorMittal SA. The community wanted land rights and access, which a court granted. But the lawyer, Eduardo Mosqueda, was detained by the government for 10 months on charge of protesting. He was released in May 2016 after a judge dismissed the charge.

Sometimes it can be death. In March 2016 Sikhosiphi Rhadebe, chair of a committee opposing the Xolobeni titanium mining project in South Africa was killed; his colleagues have continued to receive death threats. They had flagged issues of the local community suffering from environmental and livelihood degradation if the project went ahead. The Australian company MRC was developing the proposed mine.

In China, Jiang Tianyong, a lawyer who represented victims of the so-called tainted milk scandal of 2008, simply disappeared in November 2016. BHRRC quotes sources as saying police subsequently confirmed he was under detention and “surveillance"—but nobody knows where.

India has its own laundry list of deplorables, as it were, but I was struck by the coincidence of the report and a disturbing development in Odisha. Here’s a brief history.

On 2 January 2006 villagers were protesting against the setting up of a boundary wall for Tata Steel’s proposed plant in Kalinga Nagar, Odisha even as resettlement and rehabilitation issues remained greatly resolved. 14 villagers died when police opened fire. A policeman died when villagers retaliated.

To be fair Tata Steel walked into a land acquisition mess created by the Industrial Development Corporation of Odisha. But that argument holds up only to the point where Tata Steel watched impassively as heavy-handed administrative and police action took over—on its behalf. There are several utterly disturbing details related to the incident and its aftermath.

I have personally witnessed intimidation of the community and propaganda white-washing, and detailed these in a book, Clear.Hold.Build. The police chief of the district who supervised the operation was actually awarded a meritorious service medal by the President of India. The chief of civil administration was promoted. As recorded in this column, Tata Steel escaped censure because it blamed the government for the incident even though the government acted directly in its interest. In the company’s annual report for 2005-06 there was no suggestion of protest or tension of any kind in Kalinga Nagar—let alone the January 2006 incident and its aftermath.

A commission of inquiry established by the Odisha government, the justice P.K. Mohanty Commission submitted its report to the government in 2015 (it was the third; the first two commissions of inquiry were dissolved on procedural points). The government of Odisha held on to it for two years, and only this May announced a decision to share it with the state’s assembly when it next holds a session. Meanwhile, media reported Odisha’s home secretary as saying the commission had not recommended “punitive action" against anybody.

It triggered a political war of words, besides adding immunity to impunity.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.

Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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