South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Published in The Hindu on Oct. 21 ::

“During 2014, major companies from emerging economies will face increasing questions about how they are seeking to implement the responsibility to respect human rights. They will need to provide solid answers,” declares the London-based Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB).

The organisation explains, “We work to shape policy, advance practice and strengthen accountability to ensure the activities of companies do not contribute to human rights abuses, and in fact lead to positive outcomes.”

Sudeep Chakravarti, the author of this book, billed as some hard lessons of business and human rights in India, signs off saying the 2014-plus agenda of the IHRB “ought to keep businesses, the government of India, various state government and human right practitioners busy for years.”

Clearly, and rightly so, he is not very optimistic of the agenda of transforming the ground realities. Still he has done a good job of documenting human rights violations, ranging from pollution-related health disorders in Cuddalore to the plight of the “developmental refugees” across the country to police firing time and again at project sites.

“Clear.Hold.Build” is actually a counter-insurgency strategy in which “the security forces ‘sanitise’ an area of opposition using any means at hand, dominate that area with exhibition of force, and then build upon that advantage,” explains the author.

Most land acquisitions for industrial projects seem to follow such a pattern – but the strategy seems to succeed say, in case of reservoirs in Gujarat or Madhya Pradesh, where opposition is organised on democratic lines and armed squads are almost completely absent. But in areas where the ruthless Maoists have managed to drop roots for various reasons, sanitizing, holding and building turn out to be quite dicey.

Miseries of displaced

As Fredreric Bastiat, the 19h century French political economist, wrote, “Under the pretence of organization, regulation, protection, or encouragement, the law takes property from one person and gives it to another; the law takes the wealth of all and gives it to a few…under these circumstances, every class will naturally aspire to grasp the law…”

How one categorises the Naxalite rebellion depends on one’s perspective. But the fact of the matter is in a free for all like what Bastiat describes, such irruptions are more likely than not, perhaps. Talking about the miseries of the displaced, Sudeep Chakravarti says in states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal, and in parts of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, the situation resulting from administrative callousness does pose a serious internal security threat.

He has travelled across the length and breadth of the country to give us an intimate account of the various crisis points. “…corruption, abuse and exploitation, lack of governance and justice, and a sense of abandonment,” all this and worse on horrid display. The resource curse, as it is called, has not spared many, it seems.

While the greed of the political class is known, one tends to give the corporate sector the benefit of doubt, saying it just reluctantly plays along, not having too many options. But this well-documented work proves conclusively the private sector could be a very active player and hence clearly is complicit in this ugly phenomenon. Even the much talked about Tatas don’t emerge unscathed, whether Singur or Kalinga Nagar.

The sparsely attended meeting of the CEO forum for Business and Human rights at Bangalore in April 2013, speaks volumes of the attitude of the industry. Gopalakrishnan, formerly of Infosys, argues there that human rights disclosures by business “have to be in stages … it should not be seen as judgemental, but developmental…There has to be pressure, but the pressure would be more if it comes from inside …” Clearly no one is in a hurry. Meantime more would suffer in the name of development.

Activists should be grateful to Chakravarti for the pains he has taken to give us a very good synopsis of what is happening across the country. There are a couple of sticking points nevertheless.

He writes at length about the Kudankulam protests. Very much on predictable lines, how they are braving the state, etc. But he does seem to hype a bit police excesses. A greater lacuna, though, perhaps is the fact that he fails to explain why the protests should remain confined to the fishermen community. How is that none of those in the neighbourhood seem concerned too very much with the possible radiation and other types of dangers of the nuclear power plant, he doesn’t try to find out. He doesn’t point out either that all kinds of politicians used to make a beeline to Idinthakarai for photo-ops but rarely followed up. Chakravarti’s reads more like a statement from Udhayakumar and his associates. Difficult to say whether similar obfuscation mars his other accounts, but Kudankulam puts you on guard.

Much more than that, the never-ending ‘I’s are extremely annoying. At every page you can see a reference to himself, his encounters, his travels and travails, food and lodging and so on. How does it matter where he stayed or what he drank? Anyway when the entire book is his, what is the need for ‘when I saw this or entered that?’ The overhang of overzealous reporters seems to dog him everywhere and seems to detract from the otherwise indisputable merits of his research.