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CSR in Gujarat: A misguided view

By Rajiv Shah
It is titled “Small but Meaningful”, and is subtitled “CSR in Practice”. Authored by Maheswar Sahu, an influential Gujarat cadre IAS bureaucrat who retired as state industries secretary in 2014, who claims to be “instrumental” in organizing Narendra Modi’s high profile Vibrant Gujarat business summits of 2003, 2009, 2011 and 2013, the book has Jeevan Prakash Mohanty, a researcher at the Energy and Resources Institute, as the second author. While poor production and print quality may seem jarring, making many to believe it is over-priced (Rs 1,100), a peep into the book would provide one with an insight into how independently and analytically some of our high-profile bureaucrats have been thinking.
One of the claims of the book is, it offers “case studies” of corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities of 11 business houses in Gujarat. However, what strikes one most, as one glances through each of the case studies, is that Sahu and Mohanty accept whatever information is offered to them by the 11 business houses. There is no critical examination of any. There is no analysis, let alone in-depth, of what impact, if at all, these business houses may (or may not) have made through CSR.
In fact, the very second page of the book loudly proclaims that the “information on CSR Best Practices has been provided by 11 corporates”, that the “authors and publishers are not liable for the correctness and authenticity of the information” (sic!), and that “no specific criteria have been used to select the 11 case studies.” There is reason to ask: Given this factor, why select the 11 corporates’ CSR activities and call them “case studies”? Yet, ironically, the section of the case studies is called “Analysis of Best Practices”.
Those who have been “selected” all operate in Gujarat –MNCs Cairn and Hazira LNG (Shell), PSUs Gujarat State Fertilizer Company (GSFC), Vadodara, and Gujarat Narmada Valley Fertilizer Company Ltd (GNFC) (PSUs), and industrial houses Cadila Pharmaceuticals, Reliance Group, Adani Group, and Ambuja Cement. Then there are Setco Automotives and UPL Ltd (formerly United Phosphorous Ltd). No questions have been asked about their CSR activities. Nor is there any effort to answer the wide criticisms that have been leveled against a few of them for destroying or polluting environment, or depriving local people of means of livelihood.
Carrying a message by Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel and a foreword by top tycoon Ratan Tata, the authors insist on a wider “role” for the state, especially bureaucracy, in influencing CSR, in order to “encourage socially responsible business practices and create economic disincentives for irresponsible corporate behaviour.” In fact, they advise the state to “identify” a “robust mechanism for implementation of the projects sponsored by corporates.” How the state should go about doing this, despite a huge chapter on Defining” and Theorizing CSR”, however, has been left to the reader.
The chapter mentions Mahatma Gandhi’s trusteeship concept, but just in passing. While it does point towards how “Gandhi influenced industrialist’s approach towards society and argued that the wealthy should be trustees of wealth, using only what was necessary for personal use and distributing the surplus among the needy”, there is little effort to analyze its validity. In fact, it seems to be rejecting trusteeship as an old concept in just two sentences.
Sharply undermining it, the authors say, “Gandhi’s theory resonated strongly with the ideas of trusteeship expounded in England and the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that later evolved into the concept of CSR.” Yet, in sharp contrast, at another place, the authors pay glowing tribute to Gandhi: “Industrialists GD Birla, Jamnadas Bajaj, Lala Shri Ram, and Ambalal Sarabhai, all believed in to be influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and his theory of trusteeship of wealth, contributed to Gandhi’s reform programmes, such as those targeting the situation of untouchables, women’s empowerment, and rural development.”
One is left wondering: If such was the Gandhian influence, why have the authors refused to elaborate? Or do they think that Gandhi wasn’t and isn’t important as far as CSR is concerned? Aren’t untouchability, women’s empowerment and rural development as relevant today as then? And why shouldn’t corporates involve civil society for these acivities?
There is a chapter on “The Rise of CSR and its Historical Context”, which ignores the history of CSR in India or Gujarat – pre-Independence or post-Independence. Of course, there is a sub-section of less than two pages, called “SCR in Contemporary India”, where the authors affirm that the history (before independence and till globalization) of business community’s “engagement and contribution to social development in India is not well documented”. Does it mean that lack of documents is enough reason not to give any details?
The chapter has no reference to how Gandhi may have tried to influence Gujarat’s and India’s renowned tycoons to act as “mahajans” of “trustees” of society at large, let alone analyze whether his effort bore any fruit. The authors merely say that in the post-globalization phase – i.e. after 1991 – the “corporates’ interest in social development was seen to be growing”, adding, they were “seen fulfilling social expectations.” Empty platitudes, one would say.
Yet the authors go on to add, indeed without any substantiation, “Indian companies are seen to be performing in non-financial arenas such as human rights, business ethics, environmental policies, corporate contributions, community development, corporate governance and workplace issues…” Is that so? Where exactly? And how?
On the other hand, seeking to trace CSR activities in the US and Europe, the authors give lavish details on what was the impact of industrial revolution on corporatism in the 19th century, the concept of corporate welfarism, the rise of unionism, the great depression, rise of CSR as a “concept” following the World War-II, impact of social movements such as those of Blacks on CSR, Milton Friedman’s intervention in 1960s calling CSR “anti-democratic” and “damaging to America’s freedom”, the impact of globalization on CSR, and the “global push” for CSR through international institutions.
At one point in the chapter, the authors say, “Socially responsible investment formally originated in the 1970s as an alternative investment option for investors that wanted to avoid stocks like tobacco, alcohol and, for some, oil”. Even here they do not recall how such initiatives took shape in India, even if they have not received the required publicity.
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