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Risk-pooling in areas like health insurance, especially to boost micro-insurance for the poor is, according to the Commission, a $145 billion opportunity. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Risk-pooling in areas like health insurance, especially to boost micro-insurance for the poor is, according to the Commission, a $145 billion opportunity. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Business and the social contract

Rebuilding the social contract is a given, though it would help to first rebuild the attitude of businesses

Sure, $12 trillion is a lot. But $1 trillion isn’t shabby either. Whoever thought sustainable development could be such a business proposition?

Earlier this year, I wrote about a call for “Better Business Better World", the mantra of the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, a London-based association of governments, businesses and international organizations. The group made a splash this January with a big picture promise of $12 trillion worth of global “business value" and “market opportunities" by 2030. All this, by scaling up the trope of sustainable development (The business of sustainable development, 19 January 2017).

A subsequent big picture projection for India by the organization holds up the promise of “at least" $1 trillion for business, and the creation of “over 73 million" new jobs, attractive redress for India’s Achilles’ heel of jobless growth. All just words, but it’s worth taking a look at this compact of business and the less-well-off ensuring everyone is better off.

Risk-pooling in areas like health insurance, especially to boost micro-insurance for the poor is, according to the Commission, a $145 billion opportunity. A combination of providing alternative sources of nutrition—say, cheaper millet instead of more expensive rice—and stepping up efforts to reduce extreme poverty (which “could produce an additional 195 million consumers") could open up $87 billion in opportunity for food and consumer goods companies.

Throw in business that seeks to reduce waste in food supply chains, and eventually take home more than $60 billion. Provide small holders of farms with technology solutions based on mobile telephony: $33 billion. Gain $22 billion for technology upgrades to big farms. Micro-irrigation, like drip irrigation? Do good by saving water, and earn $31 billion. Such opportunity indicators are provided for a range of other areas from affordable housing ($52 billion) and energy efficient buildings ($27 billion) to remote patient management ($24 billion) and green vehicles ($29 billion).

As I discussed in a column last year (Cynical practice and the death of CSR, 17 November 2016), it’s about a musketeer-like all-for-one-world-and-one-world-for-all effort where good business equals doing good by global society: addressing poverty, hunger, food waste, energy issues and such, alongside profiting with financial, social and environmental capital. If it gainfully sustains the world, it sustains your business. That’s the bottom line.

It is easy to sneer at this, but it’s honest. No business is ever going to take a leap of faith for India’s future if it doesn’t tie in with future earnings, based also on the government of India’s efforts to boost socioeconomic development and business opportunities at the same time.

The Commission (at businesscommission.org) gets preachy to leaven its bait of economic offering aimed at businesses—which eye earnings more sharply than they do ethics. Helping the disadvantaged is not just a business opportunity, but also a “business imperative", it maintains. “Without improvement in the incomes, health, rights, and education of the vast majority… the business opportunities arising from sustainable development will not materialize." Good business is responsible business.

Government, civil society and the private sector need to work in concert, the Commission urges. They need to “renew a social contract". For good measure it points to the United Nations Global Compact (at unglobalcompact.org), the Commission’s partner in the “Better Business Better World" endeavour. The Global Compact “calls on companies to align their strategies with universal principles of human rights, labour, the environment, and anti-corruption."

It’s another matter of course that the Compact counts among its ranks—including in India—several businesses accused of human rights violations and other recorded and alleged transgressions precisely within such parameters.

Moreover, besides routine human rights violations, as it were, some Compact members are also active practitioners of SLAPP, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. This retaliatory mechanism targets protesters, activists, even human rights lawyers—and journalists.

A SLAPP is intended, as the non-profit organization Business and Human Rights Resource Centre reminds us, to “silence, intimidate, or punish those who have used public forums" to bring to attention matters that go against a business, government or individual".

Frequent recourse to libel and defamation suits, the Resource Centre says, moves “the public debate away from … issues originally raised, and toward a litigious battle between two parties with vastly different financial resources". This, of course, may be in addition to “threats of death, arrest or physical harm when they speak out against abuses by companies".

Rebuilding the social contract is a given, though it would help to first rebuild the attitude of businesses.

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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