Can business be responsible

By Sunita Narain
Published: Monday 15 July 2002

Call it paranoia or plain silliness. But it is amazing. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has been studying gas pricing in the country to assess how environmentally acceptable fuels can be promoted. My young colleague went to collect information from the Indraprastha Gas Limited -- the compressed natural gas (CNG) supplier for Delhi -- and found, by accident, a file lying on the table with his name and educational qualifications on it. He opened it wondering what the managing director was doing with a file on him and copious notes of their informal discussions. And found it was being hand delivered to the joint secretary in the Union ministry of petroleum and natural gas.

Readers of this column will recall that we have written before of our friends and foes in the ministry. But I never realised we were so important to merit this intelligence gathering. On the other hand, why are we surprised? The stakes are very high for them in this "battle".

But then the stakes are equally high for us. cng is a public sector fuel -- and it has no commercial vested interests. It is being promoted by environmentalists with a vested interest in clean air. On the other hand, diesel and even liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) are private sector fuels. They have promoters and other interested parties who are keen to ensure that competition is wiped out as fast as possible.

But I am not writing about cng today. I want to use this instance to discuss the implications of our growing faith and dependence on private sector enterprise. Governments are working to abdicate their role and responsibility, in just about every sphere, in favour of the private sector. Readers know that we have no particular fascination for the state. And indeed, living and working in India, you cannot defend the sheer dead weight of government and its disfunctionality. But to see every answer in the corporate world will be worse than foolish. It would be suicidal.

This is not an Indian phenomenon. The World Summit on Sustainable Development (wssd) is working on type 2 outcomes, which involve voluntary partnerships between business and whoever else. Governments are saying they are leaving the business of "good" sustainable development to the private sector. Multinationals have come a full circle from the days when the un set up the Centre for Transnational Corporations to monitor their activities. Now, the centre is gone -- under us directions -- and the corporate world has become part of the solution, not the problem.

But will this story have a fairy tale ending? Not as I can see it. In this issue of Down To Earth we feature a story on the endosulfan pesticide business (see our Cover Story) and its power to influence government. We detail the devilish games of this industry -- from its intimidation tactics to its manipulation of science and its fine art of disinformation -- to get what it wanted accepted by the government of the day. This when medical scientists have confirmed that their analysis found endosulfan residues in children's blood and in the water that villagers drink and concluded that the cases of congenital abnormalities, and neurological and reproductive system disorders in people were due to the exposure to a genotoxic and neurotoxic agent, in this case, endosulfan.

What would you say if you found out that a top government functionary, the agricultural secretary, was in possession of this report (we know because my colleague sneaked it out of his office) and had taken action, not to ban this deadly agent, but to lift the ban on its use? Criminal and despicable? But also understandable when you see the private-public partnerships that operate and will continue to flourish.

Then in our supplement, Gobar Times we caricature the serious business of oil, and the power and might that this corporation has in determining world politics. This when we are no conspiracy-theorists, just journalists trying to understand the logic of governance.

From this and everything else we see around us, it is clear that increased private sector participation will need more government, not less. More importantly, we will need more democracy, not less. But government will have to be re-engineered so that its regulation and monitoring role can be strengthened.

More importantly, we will need countervailing power to the growing influence of business. This requires democratic rights and institutions that can defend or advocate these rights -- from courts to civil society institutions. Today, there is unequal partnership between business and civil society in most cases. Business calls the shots -- and money for consultancies -- and civil society if engaged is weak and if disengaged is mostly powerless. This must change. The stakes, as I said earlier, are very high.

In all this we will need public research, with public funds, that is open and available. The fact that the cse laboratory was able to do an analysis on pesticide residue is no big deal. But it is a big deal where private-public control of scientific information is so total that if villagers are suffering from horrendous diseases for which they have no answer, there is no way that they could ask for independent analysis and get it.

It is not that industry is a pariah, but industry is in the business of making money, by hook or crook. It is not in the business of making change. If government does its work and if public pressure is effective, then corporations, large and small can be made to behave. But remember altruism does not make good business. Greed and power does. This is a God that is made to fail us.
-- Sunita Narain

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