In January the launch of Tata's Nano put Indian engineering onto the world stage. In September, the abrupt shutdown of the factory in Singur showed India was not an easy place to do business. Tatas have achieved many firsts for India in the last 100 years — the first steel plant, the first international hotel, the first exporters of engineering products from India against foreign competition, etc. And surely Tatas know how to do business in India. So it was dismaying that Tatas should have difficulties in obtaining land for a factory in Singur to produce the Nano. Tatas are not the only ones having such problems. Posco, Reliance, Arcelor Mittal, and others have also been struggling to obtain land for industrial projects in many parts of the country.
Lands have been acquired for industry before with less trouble. What has changed? For one, the scale of requirement has gone up as India’s industrialisation speeds up. At the same time the tribals and farmers whose lands are required have become more aware of their rights as a result of a growing human rights’ movement across the world supported by NGOs and the media. And their expectations are also changing. Whereas they used to be happy to get some cash and a job for someone in the family, now many want more. They want a share of the future growth in the value of the lands they are giving up. They want to be capitalists too, not just employees.
Industry wants freedoms from government regulations so that it can compete and grow. Elected governments can continue to give industry more freedoms only if people see the process as fair. When those who are displaced in the process of acquiring lands feel they are not being justly included in the growth of wealth, they will protest, and they will be supported by NGOs and political parties. But why should industry have to figure out what suits the tribals and farmers, some businessmen ask? Is it not the job of the government to get land for industry and to compensate and rehabilitate the people who are affected in the process? Surely, the business of business is business and the business of government is to sort out societal problems, these people say.
The 21st century dawned with an ideology of capitalism on the ascendant across the world and communism and socialism fading out. But also with a dawning realisation that chronic problems of environmental degradation, persistent poverty, and inequity between those who have the means to have more and those who have not must be addressed much more effectively. Capitalism must now transform itself to provide the solutions. Business corporations are the growth engines and beneficiaries of capitalism. Therefore, it behoves private industry to ensure that people see the process of capitalist, market-based, economic development as a fair process. Business leaders must engage with civil society and governments to co-create the new models that will enable capitalism and corporations to improve the world for everyone.