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CSR should protect environment and communities: Arun Maira

Jan 30, 2012

Talking to OneWorld, Arun Maira, Member of India's Planning Commission, talks about his book Transforming Capitalism-Improving the world for everyone and how corporate social responsibility could shape environment action.

“The business of business is only business no longer stands true," says Arun Maira. Businesses should realise not to let their operations degrade the earth and its resources; rather it should improve it.

Arun Maira is a Member of the Planning Commission chaired by the Prime Minister of India. He is responsible for facilitating the shaping of policies and programs relating to industrialisation and urbanisation in the country, and tourism. Prior to his appointment on the Planning Commission, Arun Maira has served on the boards of several large Indian companies, like Tata, Birla, Godrej, Hero, and Mahindra Groups. He has been a Member of The Confederation of Indian Industry’s (CII) National Council for many years, as well as Chairman of Save the Children, India. Read below the excerpts of his interview with OneWorld South Asia.

OneWorld South Asia: India’s footprint on the earth resources is 0.8 hectares per person in comparison to US’s 9.7 hectares per person. India consumes 1/12th of earth resources to that of America. Do you think India can rely on only CSR interventions, considering its diversity in terms of ethnicity, language and cultures to address socio-economic challenges?

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Arun Maira: Not at all and no one can. The traditional concept of CSR is changing which is, a person spends a certain amount of money from his/her pocket to do some social good. But the way he runs his business may have already caused damage despite its CSR intervention. That ways, you go on creating damage and on the side, you spend some bit for society. That way, CSR is not enough. The model of the economy has to change. The present model of economic growth will not, and cannot scale anymore. If we keep growing by more consumption and greater use of energy, we are just destroying the earth. The present CSR cannot undo the damage and therefore there is a need to rethink present business models.

In the US, each person owns more than one car. However, there are car rentals that can serve so many people for specific purposes like during weekends rather than each person buying a car just for a weekend and hardly use them. It’s not about producing more things, it’s about enabling people to use them in a more efficient and responsible manner. This model is an example to reduce business’ detrimental impact on the planet. It provides access to utility rather than compelling people to own resources.

Water is a scarce resource in India where most people, especially the unprivileged community do not get access to water for basic needs. In contrast, water is used for recreational and landscaping activities in most apartments. Therefore, personal lifestyles have to change rather than just relying on CSR interventions.

OWSA: There has been a mix of public responses to corporations’ interventions (both social and economic development). On one hand, we have Jamshedpur that is an example of good corporate governance. On the other, Tata Nano project in West Bengal and Posco steel project in Orissa were protested by public as both were viewed as exploitative tactics. What approach do you think corporations can apply to win the hearts and minds of the people to carry out CSR objectives?

Businesses must not always carry on maximising profit for themselves. They must act as trustees of the wealth of the society.

AM: Jamshedpur was built more than 100 years ago and that’s when Tatas got their land. Circumstances were very different then than they are now. The tribal expectations were then different than they are now. The tribals, now, are better informed about what’s happening in the world. Civil society organisations are more today than before. There is media today which wasn’t there 100 years ago. The consciousness regarding mankind and human rights is much more today so this is a very different world. We never are comparing like to like. If we talk about Jamshedpur running today and compare it with acquisition of land for a Nano or Posco factory. We are not comparing like to like. One can be sure that if Tatas did acquire land in Singur/Nandigram, they would run it like Jamshedpur. That’s not the problem. It’s about getting the land from the people. Given today’s situations, the approach should be ‘..lets ask the people what they want’. There is a need to have conversation and dialogue with people who are stakeholders of the project.

OWSA: “The ability to combine the skills of different types of institutions must be developed and institutionalised”. There are three sectors-government, NGOs, and business. What should be the degree of involvement, sense of ownership and relationship between the three sectors in a project?

CSR has got labelled as 2% on the side. It needs to be defined in broader terms.

AM: The amount depends on the kind of the project. Generally, in the context of business and if there are people around, then the matter is about legitimacy of the institutions to impose something on the people. The institutions shouldn’t be allowed to say, ‘we think, this is good for you.’ However the government can because it’s elected by people. Civil Society enables people to be heard and represent them. They have a role to be a good interlocutor on behalf of the people. Therefore, each sector has a defined role. The business should conceive of its project in the way that it’s good for the people and understand what the people want. And if there is a need to change a rule or law, government must be approached to change it.

OWSA: What are the issues and challenges of CSR activities faced in India today?

AM: It needs to be defined in broader terms. CSR has got labelled as 2% on the side. We need a new concept of CSR. Three years ago, there was a conference we led known as 'Death of CSR and Birth of Business Responsibility'. We need to look at businesses’ real responsibility towards community and environment.  Businesses should realise that their operations should not degrade the environment and similarly, it should not adversely impact the conditions of the community.  In other words, businesses should not cause damage to both the community and to the environment; and then CSR to undo the damage.

To conclude, no institution can change itself autonomously. There needs to be a conversation between institutions and people to discuss new norms.

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