The tragedy of MoU explained by Sudeep Chakravarti

  • Manjula Narayan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Sep 20, 2014 11:55 IST

Sudeep Chakravarti’s new book offers a checklist of human rights for government and big business. This, he believes, will reduce conflict with local communities. A balanced book with excellent reportage from areas that have been flashpoints of resistance, Clear Hold Build points out that it makes economic sense for businesses to be considerate when it comes to issues of land acquisition, resettlement and rehabilitation.

How did the idea for the books come about?

I twigged onto the idea of working on business and human rights sometime in 2009. This was straight after the fracas with Vedanta; the POSCO issue had blown out; Kudankulam had started brewing; Tata Steel was still reeling from the episode in Kalinganagar; Salwa Judum was being talked about as being sponsored by business groups. I’ve stayed with the subject since then. I don’t approach it from a moral high ground because I find that counterproductive. I opted for the perspective of looking at human rights in terms of where conflict is generated because of misapplication of human rights or the lack of it, focusing on big ticket issues — land acquisition, displacement, resettlement, rehabilitation, CSR, the buzzwords that are often used as props for window dressing brochures for businesses and governments. I decided to look at marquee projects like POSCO, Vedanta or Tata but come at them from the human rights perspective and talk about how they were willfully hurting themselves as businesses.

Which were the most difficult cases to do?

All of them, in varying degrees. This story of economic policy implementation, acquisition of land, conflict rehabilitation is messy and violence-driven. Each player in this grand play of economic development is suspicious of the other and of whoever is coming to ask him questions. The villagers say, "Are you an agent of government, the police or the company?" The company wants to know whether I am an agent of a competitor? Government wants to know who is funding my book. Everyone is amazed when I say I am, because all I get from these books is royalty or an advance. So I’ve had to work at it at several levels with several audiences. It’s been that way with someone I’ve talked to in a village; it’s been that way with someone I’ve talked to in a boardroom.

But there are people thinking about it (human rights and business) and it is forming the application of business and economic policy. Development policy or the lack of it is really a major internal security issue — as grave as the Maoist rebellion, the north east, and issues in Jammu and Kashmir. I think people are waking up to that. I organically came into that space and there are not many people who have chosen to write about it engaging all sides, which is also why the suspicions and resistances have cropped up.

Clear Hold Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. Author: Sudeep Chakravarti. Publisher: Collins Business. Price: Rs 599 PP 278

Why haven’t people been balanced?

Because they have been rigid and stayed at the level of rant. Businesses too are arrogant. Their arrogance is vested on the fact that they think that their pitch works and they’ve depended on government often to see their business plans through. You ignore ideas of free, prior and informed consent, you talk of corporate social responsibility, but you are not socially responsible. How is it that you have TCS and a Tata Steel behaving so differently within the same conglomerate? How is it that aspects of Tata Steel which run fabulous initiatives through truly good CSR programmes are so callous when it comes to issues where people have died for land to be acquired for a project? There’ve been discordant issues. But not just the Tatas, numerous organisations have been burying unpleasant aspects. They want to come out smelling like roses?

But once this sort of thing happens, you can’t.

That is where spindoctoring and deal making comes in. I don’t think that works. I’m not expecting business to work on the concept of ethics, but at least on the concept of earnings.

You’re saying it makes business sense.

It makes imminent business sense. What is the business sense in putting $2 billion on the ground to set up a refining plant thinking a mining project to feed it will come through? You declare it in your annual reports assuming the government will come through. So you’ve actually misled your investors, shareholders, yourself and the community. If then the community chooses to propagate their cause and legally say you will not mine, who is to blame? Is it the tribal person? Or the government, or you who has signed an MOU and decided that each is going to come through for the other?

How can they assume this?

That is the tragedy of the Memoranda of Understanding. There is free, prior and informed consent between the businesses and the government and the bankers and suppliers of the project. Not of the project affected. When investor melas happen, grand announcements are made but have communities where these businesses are going to be located been consulted? There is no effective consultation process, which is why there’s so much conflict. Certain states have tried to get it right. Haryana is held up as a model for acquisition of land and for rehabilitation. The great mistake that people make is that they don’t gauge the socioeconomic cost that a blue print of theirs will have down the line to the local level and the reaction that can then accrue to them if it backfires.

Also read:Sudeep Chakravarti unravels northeast's bloody history

Today, there’s a globalization of activism and judicial review, which is as much as a globalization of finance and capital. This is true for globalization in the reaction too and you are now liable anywhere — where you raise money, where you are headquartered, where you are listed, where your banks are located, you are liable anywhere.

So the negative impact can be terrible.

Yes. Businesses are waking up to such realities. It is no one’s case and definitely not mine that you don’t need economic development. It’s the manner of how you are going about doing it.

I liked how the human element came out.

It was important to break though the statistics, apply names to numbers, faces to those names and stories to those faces and then you get the story. Otherwise, it’s a statistical analysis and I think we’ve been victims of statistical analysis from 1947. We’ve been tick-marking boxes and looking at numbers and not going by what happens to people, the real impact. I have my personal differences with someone like Arundhathi Roy and her lectures about the greater common good, and she writes passionately about what she thinks is the truth. To be fair, it is the truth for many people whom she claims to represent. It’s an emotional truth and it’s polemical in many ways but that is her chosen shrillness. I think there are stories to be told and without getting polemical — you talk to the person who is a player in the situation, for whichever side, and you get the story. It can’t be out of my beliefs and my megalomania. I don’t think that drives conflict resolution.
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