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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Corporate Social Responsibility?

The Nano Goes to Modi’s Gujarat

The decision by the Tata group to re-locate the Nano plant in Sanand is of concern to liberal Gujaratis. The logic of business is to be competitive and profitable; as such, Tata’s move makes sense. The company was right to choose the business-friendly state and get down to the task of making the revolutionary Nano car, which promises to put India on the global map of the auto industry.

Nevertheless, it just does not sit comfortably with liberal sensibilities in the communally-polarized state. What’s more, the triumphal note that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi sounded at the media event to announce the pact appeared to be a new form of propaganda. He followed it up with a series of television interviews, resplendent in new sartorial style. In these interviews, Modi positioned himself as a spokesman for the new India.

Modi is a politician and, some might even argue, a cynical one. It doesn’t take rocket science to see through his new effort to buy respectability. Like Lady Macbeth, he is seeking desperately to wash the communal bloodstains off hands in order win national acceptability. He is positioning himself to emerge as a national leader in the BJP once L K Advani is gone.

We can explain away Modi’s posturing as the way of an ambitious and ruthless politician. What is more difficult to accept is Tata’s decision-making process. The Nano is Tata’s prestige project. It is plausible that the decision was made on the rebound after the embarrassment and the financial costs of the shenanigans at Singur in Bengal. Given the formidable reputation of Tata, did no one consider the possibility that the decision could sully that standing?

Tata has sizable commitments to corporate responsibility programs. They stem from the conviction of senior management that their methods of conducting business should be ethical; as such, they must take into account the interests of society. These laudable programs have won prestigious awards and wide recognition. The Nano project is also driven by the same larger vision: to provide affordable personal transport to the emergent middle class.

While some companies like The Body Shop and others are recognized for their socially conscious practices, others are disparaged and their efforts often dismissed as hollow public relations ploys to whitewash the ethical questions raised by their operations. For example, the tobacco and oil industries simply have been unable to deal with the core ethical questions.

For all the years that such companies have fretted about corporate social responsibility, their notion is largely a putative expense to divert attention from real and serious ethical issues surrounding their business. Milton Friedman made sense when he famously argued in an article written 38 years ago that “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”

Friedman’s piece stirred a major controversy at the time. Not just his idea of corporate responsibility but all his work on monetary theory was dismissed as a handmaiden of powerful multinationals. It was the time of Woodstock and Viet Nam; big business in the West was viewed with glaring hostility in the media, in the academy and in the liberal mainstream. In India, given the socialist mindsets in politics and the bureaucracy of the time, business was seen a milk cow: favors and cash in exchange for licenses and permits.

With the dawn of the Reagan-Thatcher era, governments ceded space to the private sector. That was when views about corporate social responsibility began to change. If the private sector has unfettered access to markets, land, labor and capital, many scholars and analysts argued, companies must consider the larger social entity in their decision making.

In a recent example, a major infrastructure firm with far-flung projects served by casual labor included AIDS awareness and disaster management as part of its social responsibility initiative. It serves both the larger community and the company interests. Companies need to seek out areas where their operations intersect with the larger good.

Seen in that light, the Tata decision to re-locate the Nano plant in Gujarat raises many questions. Modi is like a chameleon in his relentless pursuit of power. Starting out as a fiery Muslim basher, he went on to pose as the champion of Gujarati pride; now he pushes himself as a business friendly leader. How does Tata reconcile its pact with Modi whose seven years as chief minister have been marked by overt targeting of minority groups? How can a company that has been honored by the US India Business Council sign on with a controversial politician who has been and continues to be denied a visa to the United States.

Modi’s culpability in the communal mayhem that followed the Godhra incident was clearly established; his effort to gain absolution by setting up the kangaroo Nanavati commission was clumsy. It’s in the past; he has turned a new leaf: the cheerleaders say. But who can forget that Modi built his political career by fanning the flames of religious bigotry with references to the conquest of India by the Mughals in medieval times and more recently, the Partition of British India into India and Pakistan

In the end, there is a growing belief that Tata’s move, though legitimate, helped Modi in his whitewash campaign to emerge as a national leader. As a result, this highly respected company’s commitment to social responsibility appears somewhat weaker.

an edited version of this piece appeared in the times of india, october 21, 2008

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Goa Unplugged

After All, It IS India

So here we are in Ucassaim, Goa again. The monsoon is at an end and now there’s bright sunshine; warm humid days, cool starry nights. And I think to myself what a wonderful world. There are high-pitched songbirds in the morning; an irritating rooster with five-o’clock-alarm regularity; peacocks romantically a-braying at the prospect of snakes. The bread guy, the egg man and every other vendor has this little rooty-tooty horn that starts blowing from five in the morning to midday.

Our little village is, as such, a bucolic place. After three days of rain and a day of sunny blue skies, you can sit in the verandah and still hear the water dripping from the trees at night. You get up from your armchair and look up at the million trillion stars in the sky to see if it’s clouded over again and it’s raining. And you realize with some impeccable insight that dripping water is the main event in Goa during the monsoon. Even after two days of sunny skies, despite the star-filled, moonlit nights, the drip-drop of the water from the trees never ceases. It is soothing, almost mesmerizing.

The wonder of this place is that is a feast of vision and sound but also of heavenly aromas of food: the overwhelming smell of feni, the pungent odor of Goa vinegar and the lustful noseful of seafood. Apart from the hedonistic cornucopia that is the very essence of the place, there are other, more mundane aspects: good roads, polite drivers, great bars, good restaurants. It is fun to wander through the towns, villages and beaches during the day and eat a simple dinner at home or find a buzzing place to dine in.

This time, however, the pleasures of Goa were tinged with a black penumbra. It turns out our bucolic little village is full of greedy and envious neighbors. We’ve tried to reach out to them but their world is so different. The amount of money we spend going back and forth from Goa in a year surpasses their annual earnings. If we were white foreigners, nobody would hassle us; if we were rich, we would have people to contain them. Being neither, we face the hostility of neighbors, who are nice to talk to; it is clear they have a hidden agenda. And they operate stealthily through the Panchayat.

In our case, they cannot complain in terms of religion or caste: my wife is a Goan Catholic; I am a Hindu Brahmin. Between Pereira (my wife’s maiden name) and Desai (also a Goan name), we easily blend in, especially because we live the local life. The problems our neighbors are causing us are petty but stressful. One neighbor is a policeman; he had a wicket gate leading into our garden from his yard and enjoyed a free run of our property. We sealed off the gate. Now he is extracting revenge. He has filed a complaint in the panchayat against the boundary wall we are seeking to repair. He even brought in his loutish fellow cops to threaten us. Another neighbor started an ambitious project to build an additional floor but ran out of money; a third has cattle in his living quarters and the family is always at war, using loud voices and sometimes even physical combat.

All these years, we’ve ignored them, valuing the physical allure of the village. We’ve weaved that attraction into a pastoral experience. I was hoping to write poetry like William Blake,; instead I am constrained to write a Marxist tract. Now that we are sprucing up the property for our daughter’s wedding in the next few months, we’ve had people coming out of the woodwork, objecting to walls; this, that and the other. All complaints go to the Panchayat; there are inspections, without any reference to the alleged transgressor.

In the past few weeks, we’ve had all manner of harassment from neighbors. They are of a completely negative frame of mind. One neighbor complained that we had encroached into his property; another complained, and he lives across the street, that the wall would block the breeze in his house. A third simply said we could not do it unless we built ten feet into our property, giving him the land for free.

We come to Goa to get away from it all. We stay at out second home, mind our own business and reach out to the locals. There is, however, such a simmering pot of envy that you can neither touch nor swallow for fear of burns. We have decided to fight it. Never mind religion or caste, the hostility has to do with socioeconomic differences. Though nowhere rich by global or even the new Indian standards, we nevertheless pay our caretaker more than the per capita income of the village…we probably spend more than that on dinner, when we go out.

That is the truth. But I see no reason why they would gang up on us, except because they believe they can wring a few thousand rupees out of us. Apart from the fact that I would not even part with a penny, I am shocked that these people have such a skewed view of the world: the idea you can gang up to extract money from your better-off neighbor.

As my daughter says, “Man, Dad, they picked the wrong guy.” And indeed they did. My wife is from Goa and I am Goan by choice. We have the resources to tie the Panchayat up in litigation for the next 10 years. Our taxes are 122 rupees a year because that’s really what residents can afford. I have no qualms in using my financial clout to fight harassment. On the other hand, despite the pathetic real estate taxes, the village is clean; everyone manages to dispose off their garbage and there are no smelly bins of the type you find in Delhi’s villages. We know because even in the capital we live surrounded by a village that is immensely wealthier and depressingly dirtier.

So there we have it. We live in this bucolic village; we spend more money in a day than the local residents do in a month. But we could become victims of the egregious envy of our neighbors, who are simply hoping to make a buck by slowing our renovation. I told members of the Panchayat, who came to visit us, that we will support the local orphanage (imagine: in this little impoverished community, there is one). But we have no time for envious and greedy neighbors. And we will move heaven and earth to insulate ourselves from the petty machinations of the neighbors. It is class warfare, plain and simple.