Corporate social irresponsibility

Published: Sunday 31 May 2009

Jharkhand killings show the common face of industrialization in India

THE corporate world knows its communications priorities. When profit hangs in balance, you have phrases like 'just do it' and 'always the real thing'. The message is kept simple, its appeal universal. But when advertising gurus take the backseat and the copy is written by public relations spin doctors, they hunt for abstract ideas, complex language.

Corporate Social Responsibility, or csr, comes from the public relations stable. It is overfull of the emotion of political correctness, suitably nebulous, devoid of accountability; the kind of term a seasoned bureaucrat would devise while negotiating a sharp question from an irksome minister on a difficult afternoon when Parliament is in session.

csr is meant to convince the corporation has an interest wider than profit. Its votaries--many of them in the non-profit, non-government sector--claim it is a constructive way for the haves to engage with the have-nots. This is a noble idea; anybody who shies from it is erring on the side of cynicism.

Anybody who accepts this idea unquestioningly, however, errs on the side of wishful thinking. Altruism is not written into the charter of too many corporations. For any real exchange between the haves and the have-nots, there are at least two requisites: one, a level playing field where the two parties can talk freely and negotiate; and two, an understanding of what the other brings to the table, so that the costs and benefits can be weighed.

In the unfortunate case of Chakla village in Jharkhand, neither existed. After facing resistance in several villages, the Abhijeet Group settled upon this village because its mixed population made it easier to buy land for a power plant. After four villagers the company had employed were shot down, allegedly by Maoist rebels, police are now investigating the relations between the company and a breakaway Maoist group. The company may have used the strongmen to break the resistance in the village to sell land.

Villagers resist selling land to companies because it is a raw deal. Most are yet to see a factory that improves their lives--a lot of them see pollution and coercive land deals. But they have seen politicians bring them some relief, which is why they prefer politicians to corporates. This is exactly the opposite of India's urban rich, which prefers corporates, as illustrated after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and in the television news studios that have an eye and a half on their trps.

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