By Oxfam India
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Kick Starting IRBF Conference 2017

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It’s rare to find government, civil society and private sector under the same roof. It’s even rarer to see them having honest & straightforward discussions.

A day full of such discussions centred on responsible business happened during the IRBF Conference 2017. The conference’s theme was Going Beyond. The day long event took place on 14 February at The Park Hotel, New Delhi. It attracted over 100 participants from the fields of business, finance, administration, banking, civil society, academia and media.

The highlight of the conference was the launch of the India Responsible Business Index 2016.

The day began with a warm welcome from Nisha Agrawal, CEO, Oxfam India. IRBF is an initiative of Oxfam India, created in partnership with other organisations.

Nisha Agrawal: Trust is broken

“ Why is the civil society beginning to engage with the corporate sector?”, asked Nisha in her welcome speech at IRBF 2017. Reflecting on the role of India Inc, she said, “Development is a broad topic beyond civil society’s role in it. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cannot be attained without the private sector’s participation.”

Nisha spoke about how the world has seen inequality rising steeply in the last 15 years. Referring to the latest Oxfam report released at Davos, she pointed towards a shocking statistic – just 8 men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity.

Talking about the trust crisis in the world, Nisha shared the latest findings of the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer. She said, “Trust is broken. Whether it is the government, private sector or civil society, trust is falling. 53% of the people say that the whole system is completely failing.”

Business is expected to lead the change. Nisha said, “75% of the people think that most change can come from the private sector – that a company can take specific actions that increase profits and benefit people and the planet.”

Ending her speech on a positive note, Nisha laid emphasis on “the need for a shared vision and partnership between the government, private sector, civil society and media to achieve SDGs.”

Tom Thomas: Inequity is our biggest challenge

Tom Thomas, CEO, Praxis set the context for the release of the index. Praxis is a technical partner of IRBF.

Tracing the journey of IRBI, Tom said, “It started with a detailed look at BRRs (Business Responsibility Reports) from the lens of social inclusion which evolved to a modest index. It required a lot of hard work and going through a mine of information and making sense of it. Collating it was a tremendous job.”

Tom also shared his views on income inequality. He said, “ After 25 years of economic liberalisation, the biggest challenge remains the correction of inequity in the distribution of the enormous wealth that has been created over this period.”

Tom also pointed out some shocking statistics to reveal the unequal wealth in India. He said, “Unemployment has reduced by less than one per cent (from 4.3% in 1991 to 3.6% in 2014), and abject poverty still remains unreduced. The big jump of 1,388 per cent in per capita income reminds us of a cruel joke. Per capita income has not reached the poorest.”

Tom concluded his speech by challenging corporates. He said, “Businesses have to introspect and ask themselves where did they fail. We do know that 2% CSR is not the answer. For the country to grow, we have to find inclusive, creative and sustainable solutions”.

Amitabh Behar: The civil society has failed dramatically

Amitabh Behar, Executive Director, National Foundation For India shared a civil society perspective on business responsibility.

Amitabh said, “We live in completely baffling times which have started with the change in regimes. We see a global trend with the election of far right leaders…”

“The civil society has failed dramatically in guaging what has happened in the larger narrative”, said Amitabh.

Amitabh said that responsible business is a broad term and needs to be broken down into 3 critical parts – human rights, environmental & labour standards.

Amitabh also offered his take on inequality. He said, “ The pay difference is 2000 times between an entry level engineer and a CEO. Such kind of inequality is unacceptable.”

Expressing his concerns about the recent happenings with Infosys and Tatas, Amitabh said, “These are worrying trends. There are dramatic changes happening due to neo-liberalism. The business community can’t continue to function in the same way…we need to bring back questions of human rights, environmental and labour standards to the discussion. We can’t continue to thrive like this.”

Amita Joseph: A 3 million strong civil society needs to flex its muscles

One of the best things about the IRBF 2017 conference was the diverse voices it covered. Amita Joseph, Director, Business Community Foundation offered a completely different perspective on civil society and the private sector.

Amita said, “Civil society has done India proud.” Quoting the young rapper Sofia Ashraf, she said, “We are not singing and dancing around CSR. Let’s look at the hard facts and not fiction.”

Amita also talked about what businesses can do to be more responsible. She said, “Companies need to resolve bad debts. Arvind Subramaniam, the current Chief Economic Adviser said that banks might have to write off as much as 75 percent of the amount owed by 57 out of India’s top 100 debtors as they could not even afford to pay interest. 50 companies owe Rs 20,000 crore in debt, with 10 companies owing more than Rs 40,000 crore each.”

Comparing the situation to farm loan subsidies given by the government in 2009, Amita said, “The industry was outraged (by the subsidies). The government faced huge criticism from free market economists who start beating their chests at the mention of subsidy to the poor in the country.”

Wrapping up her speech, Amita offered her take on civil society’s role in influencing responsible business. She said, “It’s time for the civil society to get enraged. If we are a 3 million strong civil society, it’s time to flex our muscles.”

The welcome and context setting sessions were followed by a keynote address by Amitabh Kant, CEO, Niti Aayog.

Nisha Agrawal


Tom Thomas