Is greed good?


Businesses are having to displace locals to grow. What is the way out?

Harish Bijoor

Illustration: Samia Singh

IS DEVELOPMENT good? Is development bad? Is business good? Is business bad? And first of all, who defines development itself? What is development really? And how much of it do we need? More importantly, who decides how much we need and how much we don’t? And how many perspectives of development do we really look at when locating our mega-billion dollar projects?

I am asking these questions because the Tatas have planned a strong social audit to understand ground realities plaguing their mega steel project at Kalinganagar. They are not the first. Earlier, Ajit Gulabchand of the Lavasa Corporation made another effort after his group drew tremendous flak from the green activists in Pune. In Gujarat, some of the big guns are also making a similar effort to counter increased public outcry over environmental degradation. That an effort has been made is interesting. But I would be keen to know its impact. What will happen after the social audit is over? What is the solution then? How far can greed legitimately go? And where must corporates draw a line?

The key issue that confronts most development businesses that seek to establish mega-projects is that of displacing people from their origin homes — their land, their dwellings, the graves of their ancestors, their temples, their Gods and indeed, in many ways, their memories and their roots. To the tribal at large, all these are much more valuable than the lure of money and jobs and even food at times.

The stakeholders are therefore are all of three entities. One is the tribal, the second is the corporate business entity and the third is the government which is the facilitating entity that opens up the land area for big business. I would like to ask one simple, basic question: Are they all on the same ground? Probably not. And because there is a discord in this troika, there is a discord in India’s mega projects. As a result, many are still confined within the files on which the babus routinely mark notings before heading for their mandatory cups of tea.

Tatas have planned a social audit to understand what is plaguing their steel project at Kalinganagar

If I am to stack the three stakeholders in order of good social intent, the individual tribal would come first. The tribal is concerned about his or her personal good. And he is the most umbilically connected with the land in question. The government must come next. A government must take care of all the people who comprise its span of governance. Next on that list, I would stack the corporate business entity, which is mandated to be keener about its profits and its future than anything else.

And if this does not happen, like Posco and Arcelor-Mittal, Vedanta — sooner or later — will have to exit a zone they consider very close to their business growth. There is an essential clash of interests at the heart of these face-offs. While the tribal is very micro-oriented in what he looks at, the corporate is very macro-oriented. The government of the day therefore ought to be the middle-ground. The role of the government is to arbitrate and decide for collective good: Unfortunately most decide on the basis of vote banks and numbers.

And some governments decide on the basis of the corporate business entity and its needs. In scenarios such as these, the tool of social audit needs to be put into tight play. Tight social audits run neutrally are the need of the day. The responsibility for the implementation of such social audits before the commencement of projects in the hinterland does not lie with the tribal, who cannot afford it. It should lie with the government, but it does not. The responsibility now sadly lies with the corporate entity since it has the most to gain and the most to lose if things go wrong. Decisions of the future need to be taken on the basis of what is socially right. Nothing else.

The author is a business-strategy expert and CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc



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