The government of India is quite insular to criticism in the area of human rights in general; and, in particular, the arena of economic activity, where a deliberate blindsiding of affirmative action and human rights landscaping around the world is often used to protect business-as-usual at home. Photo: AFP
The government of India is quite insular to criticism in the area of human rights in general; and, in particular, the arena of economic activity, where a deliberate blindsiding of affirmative action and human rights landscaping around the world is often used to protect business-as-usual at home. Photo: AFP

Mapping human rights intolerance

Those who manufacture spin about protests and environmental clearances being the main hold-up for economic growth need to take note that human rights scrutiny of business is increasing

Let’s play agent provocateur.

Go to ejatlas.org and hit the country option for India. A vibgyor-plus palette of dots will emerge. These mark a range of environmental conflicts in the categories of nuclear power, minerals, fossil fuels and extractive industries, “biomass and land conflicts", waste management, “industrial and utilities conflicts", and water management—dams—among others. Unflattering situation reports range from a Vedanta Resources Plc venture in Odisha and power projects in how-can-we-do-wrong Gujarat to aggressive initiation of nuclear projects and a couple of Coca-Cola India’s lamentable community interactions.

In this global scan launched on 19 March, India tops the list with 112 such long-standing and relatively new cases, ahead of Colombia, Nigeria, Brazil, Ecuador and Turkey, for long the usual suspects. A list of dubious practices and business-related human rights violations by both state- and privately-run entities alike, ejatlas.org (‘ej’ stands for environmental justice) is a project of ejolt (ejolt.org), or Environmental Justice Organisations, Liabilities and Trade, a global compact of major business and human rights organizations, pro-environment groups and academic institutions from the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia.

The Indian and global lists are far from comprehensive, but the information is scalable and can quickly incorporate data and critical perspectives. It’s a list that cannot be wished away by the government’s blocking of such websites, or accusations that it’s a conspiracy of Maoist rebels, of “pseudo-intellectuals" or “pseudo-secularists"—whatever such pseudo-nationalistic hard-right gibberish means.

The government of India is quite insular to criticism in the area of human rights in general; and, in particular, the arena of economic activity, where a deliberate blindsiding of affirmative action and human rights landscaping around the world is often used to protect business-as-usual at home. But unless India adopts the don’t-give-a-damn approach of China, in the game of public relations truth-or-dare there is nowhere for India to cut and run. The increasing globalization of social networking, activism and accountability makes it so.

(And for all of China’s don’t-give-a-damn practice at home, the fact is that it has indeed begun to reverse the attitude elsewhere, when push comes to shove. For instance, Chinese companies, especially in hydrocarbons and mining, have in the past year actively pushed to minimize conflict with communities in neighbouring Myanmar. As I have written earlier in this column, it has come about as part of official policy to protect geo-economic interests. Thailand, another notoriously defensive country in areas other than tourism, is grappling with accusations of massive environmental degradation and human rights violations at a Thai tin and tungsten mining joint venture in Myanmar’s southern region of Tanintharyi—earlier the Tenasserim Division.)

There’s more. Even governments are pitching in to take on the power of businesses that has often been known to exceed that of countries. This January, I wrote about how a group of countries from Central and South America, Asia and Africa flagged a major point of concern to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva last September. The group pressed for “appropriate protection, justice and remedy to the victims of human rights abuses directly resulting from or related to the activities of some transnational corporations and other businesses enterprises".

Earlier this month, coinciding with the ongoing March session of the council in Geneva, the permanent missions of Ecuador and South Africa to the council, among the two more vocal proponents of such a mechanism, sponsored a workshop on Human Rights and Transnational Corporations: Paving the way for a legally binding instrument. Tellingly, it came from two countries deeply embedded in the global mining and minerals structure. That they wish to rebel against being at the beck and call of business is notable.

Last October, Oxfam America volunteers protested outside PepsiCo Inc.’s headquarters in New York. They displayed a banner alleging human rights malpractices in the corporation’s supply chain, particularly sugar producers: “Caution", the banner declared, “Ingredients may cause land grabs." Earlier this year PepsiCo announced “zero tolerance" for land grabs in its global operations, and application of the principle of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent—“for all communities across its entire operations", Oxfam crowed in a media release, “requiring suppliers to do the same". Just imagine.

Those who manufacture spin about protests and environmental clearances being the main hold-up for businesses and economic growth in India, not massive and deliberate administrative ineptitude, impractical policies, populist fiscal payouts and rivers of corruption that flow as quick in dry summer months as they do at monsoonal spate, would need to take note. Human rights scrutiny of business is increasing. Deal with it.

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of 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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