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Et Cetera Book review

A humane model for business

Fulfilling social responsibilities ought to be a best practice, not lip service, for companies.

Deep into the book Clear Hold Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India (Collins Business, Rs 599), Sudeep Chakravarti narrates an anecdote about the Tatas’ plan to build a car factory in West Bengal’s Singur. The then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was shown a government-owned parcel of 1,200 acres in the Paschim Medinipur district for the project. It had good road, port, and rail access and was “as hassle-free as it could get”. Yet, Singur, where fertile farmland had to be acquired from farmers, often by force, was chosen. All because the CPI(M) government wanted to prove a point in Singur, which had an MLA from the rival Trinamool Congress. 

The failure to understand the political economy doomed the Rs 2,000 crore project. Why did the Tatas accept this? Where was their due diligence? These are questions Chakravarti asks the Bengal bureaucrat telling him the story. “They thought it would all work out! The government would come through for them!” the bureaucrat says exasperatedly.  

The takeaway from this book is that  India is teeming with opportunities but a mix of government bullying and graft, and the greed and gullibility of companies trips up project after project. Unless companies balance human rights and duties, says Chakravarti, they won’t truly secure their projects. He finds the level of relief and rehabilitation for displaced communities dubious, calling it “a drag-and-drop of relocated folk from their territory to tenement”. This, he argues, is unprofitable for business and unsustainable from the human rights perspective. He also maintains that it doesn’t always help to depend on the government to make such human rights problems go away. “Business needs to understand that you cannot privatise profit and socialise risk.” 

Chakravarti’s message is positive. “Not only is good practice good business, it is eminently workable and profitable,” he writes. “The scope of CSR [corporate social responsibility] needs to expand from the employee ... to the community in which it operates.” And trusting the state blindly does not help.