The ongoing din over contentious amendments to the 2013 land law has drowned out another important matter. A judgement delivered by the Delhi high court on 12 March in the case of Priya Parameswaran Pillai vs Union of India and Others portrays the government as out of order, knee-jerk, paranoid and obtuse. This attitude offsets undeniable progress in making efficient a range of processes from governance and taxation to diplomacy.

The government offloaded Greenpeace India activist Pillai from a flight to London in January to prevent her from pursuing “anti-national activities", as the government put it. Pillai was to discuss perceived human rights violations by Mahan Coal Ltd, a joint venture of Essar Power Ltd and Hindalco Industries Ltd in Madhya Pradesh, with a committee of legislators in the UK. Pillai took the government to court to protest. She won.

The judgement will set a precedent as activists, human rights advocates and the communities they represent question at-any-cost economic growth. The judgement also underscores the point that, whatever India’s central and state governments and businesses operating here may think passes for immunity, the transnational nature of business will ensure scrutiny according to the law and legislative parameters of any country that chooses to apply it.

The government’s supporters were, in January and February, quick to dismiss Pillai and Greenpeace as taking down an Indian enterprise owned and managed by Indians. What they dismissed—Justice Rajiv Shakdher did not—is that Essar Power is a subsidiary of Essar Energy, the spearhead for several coal blocks in Madhya Pradesh, and which is registered in London. The Essar Group also maintains a corporate office and global office in London. Under the UK’s official ambit, inviting Pillai to query her about the activities of a UK-registered business was a legitimate exercise (as much as Pillai’s right, as a citizen of India, to travel there to do so—the court’s perspective).

In September 2013, the UK government presented to that country’s parliament a document titled Good Business: Implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Among other things, it promised to “implement UK Government obligations to protect human rights within UK jurisdiction where business enterprises are involved" and “support access to effective remedy for victims of human rights abuse involving business enterprises within UK jurisdiction". Effective 1 October of that year, the government also issued a clarification of the UK’s Companies Act 2006 to ensure “that company directors will include human rights issues in their annual reports".

Indian nationalist arguments about the East India Co. ravaging India, or the wiles of a Macaulayesque, marauding system perpetrated by the colonial government, though all devastatingly true, are irrelevant in the context of Pillai’s aborted travel to London. Whatever my personal disgust with Britain’s colonial depredations, or the fact that its foreign ministry is still, abysmally, called the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—and, that India chooses to be part of the Commonwealth—it does not detract from present-day querying of businesses according to the UK’s stated intentions and law.

Essar Energy is subject to that intention and law, the same as, say, Vedanta Resources Plc, headquartered in the UK. Or any from India’s Ivy League of transnational businesses that opts for a registered office or headquarters in the UK, buys a UK-registered business or raises money from a business or institution from that country.

Moreover, while crony capitalism is certainly no stranger to the UK, public and watchdog pressure is increasingly forcing change. As I wrote earlier this year, activists are pressuring the Greater Manchester Pension Fund to pull out an estimated £170 million worth of investment in British-Australian giant Rio Tinto, citing several deaths at a Rio Tinto-operated mine in Indonesia and alleged uranium pollution at its mines in Australia and Namibia. In January, Royal Dutch Shell agreed to pay £55 million in an
out-of-court settlement to a community of fishermen in Nigeria. Leaks from a pipeline owned by a Shell subsidiary had, in 2008, devastated the livelihoods of those in 35 villages of fisherfolk and subsistence farmers in the Niger Delta. At the time the company had offered £4,000.

The government of India’s intervention with Pillai has ensured that this country’s abundant human rights can of worms remains open and spot-lit. It’s also the opposite of what Mahan Coal might have wished.

Lessons learnt? I don’t think so.

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.

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