By Oxfam India
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Amitabh Behar on How Indian Civil Society Can Ensure Responsible Business

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For decades, Indian civil society has been pushing private sector to conduct business in a responsible manner. Within the civil society, there is a variety of perspectives on how civil society organisations should engage with private sector.

Talking with IRBF, Amitabh Behar discusses how the civil society needs to weave diverse approaches to demand accountability from private sector. Amitabh is the Executive Director of the National Foundation for India (NFI). He is one of the leading experts of people-centred advocacy in India. His areas of interest are governance and civil society.

Q: In your opinion, does Indian private sector truly understand their responsibility towards the planet and the people?

One cannot look at the private sector as a homogenous entity. There are different nuances that guide the nature of the industry and its ownership. For instance, the IT sector understands business responsibility very differently from the mining sector. In fact, people within the same sector may view responsibility differently.

I find that the Indian private sector has inadequate and limited understanding of their responsibility towards both people and the environment.

I feel that they also fail to understand the spirit behind the laws and guidelines. Few companies attempt to comply with the letter of the law but ignore the spirit of the law. Most companies do not even follow the law.

Q: Do you see any change in how companies have understood their responsibility over the last decade?

We as civil society have set the bar very high for parameters of human rights, human dignity, rights of workers, and environmental issues. We also strongly believe that not even a single case of labour rights violation should be acceptable. From that perspective, companies seem very inadequate in their understanding of responsibilities. Their understanding is not rooted in a rights-based approach; they pay minimum wages only because the government says so.

Having said that, on the basis of my interaction with many progressive business leaders, I would say that some of them are making an honest attempt to understand some of these questions. For instance, environment is something that they understand more than workers’ rights.

Q: What factors, in your opinion, allow companies to get away from taking full responsibility?

A few factors help companies get away from taking full responsibility. First, the existing public narrative does not recognise the different social and environmental issues. For example, the severity of Delhi air pollution and our inaction as a society shows the lack of public narrative and understanding of environmental issues. The existing public narrative, thus, does not encourage companies to take community rights, workers’ rights, or environmental concerns seriously.

The second factor is India’s weak and inadequate regulatory framework. While the existing laws on labour, on SC and ST rights and on environment are quite robust, their implementation is inadequate. It is difficult to imagine affected communities and workers being able to use the existing regulatory framework and remedial mechanisms to fight against many private sector violations.

The third factor is that most companies are profit seeking. How many of these companies honestly believe in the triple bottom line? I know of enough business leaders in this country who are only concerned about profits. One can always make a good economic case by saying that in the long-run this will be unsustainable. However, that is not how our market system works; it is really about big wins on a daily basis.

Q: What role is civil society playing or should play in creating a better understanding?

Many of us in civil society tend to jump onto collaboration with companies too soon.

The history of the civil society shows that whenever you try to talk to a phenomenally powerful company, it never works. I think we as civil society have also failed in holding companies accountable.

Different people have different roles within the civil society. Some organisations engage in a dialogue with private sector while others do not. That is how advocacy is done. However, the primary strategy cannot be of just talking to companies because they are not going to take us seriously. Therefore, the civil society should be able to come up with accountability measures, which we have tried in some ways. For instance, there are civil society reports analysing the poor disclosure norms of companies. This approach needs more time and investment.

It does not mean that we do not need to engage with private sector. There is a need for a deeper engagement between civil society and the private sector. This engagement has to be substantive and not based on our own aspirations of raising more resources from companies. Companies will not become responsible all by themselves. Our motivation thus should be like any other change strategy, to use laws, local mobilisation, influencing people from within private sector doing the right things and good robust research.

Q: What can Indian civil society do differently to change the current status quo?

We should not chase this mirage of a good company, which will respond to the civil society’s dialogue and call for reforms all by itself. Instead, we should invest in creating a robust regulatory framework and promote a public narrative to hold companies accountable.

I do not know of Indian civil society groups writing to shareholders of companies demanding accountability and action. This is a very standard approach throughout Europe; their civil society does this on a regular basis. We could put together some of these ideas more strategically.

Q: Is it hard to get different members of the civil society on the same spectrum to talk about business responsibility? What would you suggest to improve this?

Yes, it is. One could select ten cases of violations and then start looking at it from the perspective of responsible businesses. That is where the real confrontation or challenge starts. Keeping such cases in context, an organisation’s ability to demonstrate the positive models/ approaches that we have discussed earlier will be far more amplified.

Some of the civil society members and people in the private sector may feel that being critical of private sector is just for the sake of opposition. We need to engage with them and express our point of view to bring them on board with us.

Ultimately, any change action is a spectrum of roles coming together and it is about weaving them smartly. Most often, this weaving does not happen. Though it is not so difficult, we perhaps lack the moral courage to do so.

We love doing workshops, reports, networking events etc. I am not saying that these are not important. However, we also need to assess the role of these knowledge dissemination events in campaigns or movements.

Q: Sometimes companies claim to do stakeholder consultations in their reports but they do not really do that in practice. Do companies understand what stakeholder engagement actually means? What are the top three things that companies need to do in order to engage communities as stakeholders?

I am sceptical about the kind of stakeholder engagement companies do. Therefore, we need to go back to the primary question of whether they have really understood their role and responsibility towards the planet and its people. If they understand this, then these stakeholder conversations, designed in whatever way, should be fine.

I have friends from the civil society who have been CSR leads. I can think of at least five people who have left their jobs precisely because they felt that the stakeholder meetings for which they were responsible were a complete farce. There was no serious intent involved.

In a Gandhian way, I would be very excited if companies could truly see themselves as local actors and design the destiny of the community along with their own but we are very far from that because companies do not have that knowledge.