A Balance Sheet Approach to CSR By Sudeep Chakravarti

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Human rights forums need to go beyond the attendance of sharply dressed people with sharp minds

By Sudeep Chakravarti
Sundeep_ChakravartiSeveral businesses also take application of human rights to mean good human resource practices within the business or in some cases extending it to vendors networks, but not at ground-zero. Photo: Thinkstock
Several businesses also take application of human rights to mean good human resource practices within the business or in some cases extending it to vendors networks, but not at ground-zero.

In the charged world where business goes head-to-head with human rights, there is hardly ever a downtime from abuses of every kind, anger and pathos. That is why I am looking forward to attending a conference early next week in Bangalore. Even rhetoric can sometimes be refreshing.

CEOs and human rights advocates will be meeting to discuss a mouthful of an agenda—Growth with Dignity, Respect and Accountability: A dialogue among Indian leaders on exploring the implementation of the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect, Remedy’ framework in the Indian context.

It will be held under the aegis of Global Compact Network India (GCNI), a not-for-profit focused on corporate social responsibility that seeks to bring together businesses, government institutions and NGOs. It will be co-hosted by the India CEO Forum on Business and Human Rights at the campus of Infosys Ltd. N.R. Narayana Murthy, chairman emeritus of Infosys, is also chair of the forum—a good thing, because usually when Murthy talks, people listen.

The general sound of the first gathering of the forum in New Delhi in February 2012 was positive. Beyond the platitudes and public relations smokescreens generated when people want to be seen to do good as much or more than actually doing good, some things stood out. One was the “need for businesses to rebuild the relationship with communities based on mutual listening and not through legal contracts and PR efforts where companies have resources and others do not”. The second: “Businesses should care about human rights for…legal, reputation, operational, litigation risk reasons and because multiple stakeholders are asking them to do so.”

For my money, these were practical points, far more than touting the flagging horse of the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a well-meaning but toothless bit of moral policing that expects to bind amoral nations and businesses to sermons, not summons. While UN emanations are the lifeblood for jet-setting heads of NGOs and similar global seminarists, only the lure of profit through relatively peaceable means—the flipside of loss of reputation, investors and funds—can motivate businesses to remain seated at the table of corporate responsibility.

Here I retain a few reservations, and it has nothing to do with stewardship based on good intention. In India, the overall speed of acceptance of the need of human rights, and its implementation, remains slow. Besides, there are a host of other issues and concerns.

GCNI, which has a sub-committee for human rights, counts among its numbers organizations—lobby groups as well as businesses—which continue to be vocal proponents of at-any-cost business. Among other things, they have also been at the forefront of ridiculing several key aspects of the Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Bill, 2011, currently in Parliament, to win back the Bill for business—quite overriding the purpose of the Bill: to protect those negatively affected by business. Participants at last year’s forum include those from both light and heavy manufacturing, who continue to be aggressively engaged in severe disconnects with and human rights violations against communities in areas of their ongoing and future operations. I expect to see similar representation at next week’s forum.

Several businesses also take application of human rights to mean good human resource practices within the business or in some cases extending it to vendors networks, but not at ground-zero—the community where it operates a plant. I can immediately think of a major manufacturer of flavoured soda water that has an impressively worded human rights agenda with regard to its employees, bottlers and value-chain suppliers, but has an awkward record of community engagement—in relation to, say, using or abusing a community’s water resource.

For the sake of illustration, perhaps even simplistically so, take the employees of a major bank who institutionally participate in the annual marathon in Mumbai or elsewhere to raise funds for a charity for that peculiarly named species: underprivileged children. They feel good about doing so and it’s a check-mark of CSR. But they or their bank may not blink when freely lending to a business that has provable association or liability arising out of intimidation, injuries and death while acquiring land for a project. For the CSR-friendly bank, that neatly becomes someone else’s CSR problem. Quite literally, a balance sheet approach to CSR.

Ideally, human rights forums need to go beyond the attendance of sharply dressed people with sharp minds, to minimizing dubious practices that work with the sharpened end of corporate ambition. But I guess if it is work-in-progress, it works.
Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business.

Article Source : First Published in Livemint.com on March 28 2013
Photo Source: Sify.com

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