Corporate India, your RTI time has come

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By Sanjay Jha
Executive Director, Dale Carnegie Training India

I WORKED FOR a foreign asset management firm, a high-profile multinational. I also saw how some investment decisions were taken; it will not be an exaggeration to state it was casino-style punting, literally on some psychic perception of the fund manager. Or, a secret rendezvous with well-connected brokers who carried crisp reports on promoters’ unrevealed plans. Insider trading reigned rampant, ostensibly under the umbrage of heavy-duty “equity research”. I wondered how investors could be so easily duped of their hard-earned savings. Barring the usual SEBI complaint, what recourse would they really have for the ‘public’ swindling of their mutual funds? It’s 2010, and there is still no answer. Despite Satyam.

Indian firms have an abysmal track record when it comes to social responsibility initiatives
Indian firms have an abysmal track record when it comes to social responsibility initiatives
Illustration: Anand Naorem

Doubtless, our RTI Act is an empowering legislation, perhaps independent India’s boldest move; as a democratic nation that has struggled on account of opacity, the transparency is laudable. Except for one glaring omission. Why is India’s venerated, Davos-visiting private sector an exception? Why have these supposed guardians of the best global practices studiously avoided coming under the RTI’s ambit? Why have our celebrity industrialist role models not even voluntarily debated on the subject? Perhaps, business ethics means never telling a lie unless you can get away with it.

In A Raja’s multi-billion telecom scam, how did some rogue private sector wizards conveniently sell spectrum space and what was their modus operandi for kickbacks? What about the poor tribal farmer who has no access to company shares or UID, and has been callously displaced by the new real-state shark — the corporate zamindar? How does he remonstrate against the private acquisition of his ancestral land without possessing title deeds? What about those green valleys and hilltops that have suddenly become an IPO proposition?

Indian companies have an abysmal track record when it comes to initiatives on social responsibility. Even those infrequent charitable initiatives are usually business-driven “back-end supply integration chains” that eventually translate into hard bottom line numbers in their annual reports.

As the media gets into a corruption exposure overdrive, you will find corporate spokespeople pontificate about why the government is a monster, while they are contrastingly puritan. Yet, they lobby extensively as an industry forum and also hire ‘expert’ PR conduits for those transactions. Deal making and return on investment is an art that a politician usually learns from a businessman. Raja and a certain Radia would know.

I would want to remind enthusiastic governmentbashers who believed that the CWG scam lowered India’s “brand-equity”. Sure it did, but did the business family scion with Cayman Island accounts personifying capitalism at its best, called Lalit Modi, enhance India’s reputation? Government-bashing has been high, but haven’t we given our business fraternity a clean slate too early?

Big Business is becoming India’s most powerful and influential lobby, much like their US counterparts but without the corresponding daunting disclosures. Getting them to be part of the RTI Act is an imperative. Corporate hypocrisy rules unchallenged in India. The least that Ratan Tata can now do is to tell us the identity of the industrialist who quoted a former civil aviation minister’s asking rate of Rs. 15 crore. Indian people have a right to know just as they did about CWG, Adarsh society, IPL and telecom deals. With great riches, please note, also comes great responsibility.

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