Comment

Towards social responsibility

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I am conscious of the fact that I stand before you this morning by default. But to be chosen by one’s own fraternity to deliver a speech at the annual general meeting of the Chamber is indeed a rare honour – a privilege usually reserved in the past for governors, cabinet ministers and chief ministers. In light of that, how could I possibly not be tempted to speak this morning?

My problems began when I agreed to speak. For a few days I was in a state of suspended animation for I was in a dilemma as to what to say. I did not particularly want to talk about the need to grow; we all know that – you also know what needs to be done. What would one achieve by talking about it over and over again? I could talk on the fashionable subjects of today, which are corporate governance and the future of family businesses. The present hue and cry on these two issues reminds me of the demand for ‘social responsibility of business’ in the seventies and the eighties. Important as these issues are, solutions will automatically follow in the wake of further reforms. As one accesses capital, investors both domestically and from overseas, will demand more transparent and more accountable governance. They will compel companies to adjust to new standards and those that do not will not attract new capital. The writing is on the wall.

As for so-called family controlled companies, I am not clear about its definition. However, in the broadest sense, by and large everyone accepts that unless there is a degree of professionalism in their management the future for them appears to be dim. But here again let us not jump to conclusions, as we seem so often to do – the company which has obtained success beyond measure in the past year is Wipro. It is family controlled but professionally managed – a perfect blend of professionalism and entrepreneurship.

I am not going to say much more on these subjects except that I am all for more transparency and better governance. I would add a word of caution that in framing codes of conduct for ourselves, we must do so in a manner which suits our environment and circumstances, and not blindly ape the developed world where conditions are so very different.

The choice of a topic is therefore a difficult one to make. It would have been easy for me to paint a canvas for you of the last fifty years – denounce the Nehruvian ‘commanding heights of the economy’ concept of economic development, the mistakes made, stress the draconian controls imposed, talk of the arrogance of governments and paint a picture of ‘what could have been!’ I know that my words would have been welcomed for we were all at the same receiving end. The temptation is great to do so but instead I have opted to speak on a mix of politics and where I think the focus of development ought to be in the years to come.

I skip four decades and start with the ’90s – liberalization, economic reforms and globalization. All of us embraced this new mantra without understanding what it stood for; we were all relieved that shackles were finally being removed to obtain for us the elusive Golden Era promised at the time of our Independence. The first warning came from the ‘infamous’ Bombay Club which was immediately labelled as anti-reforms. We began to learn the language of globalization – free trade, free competition, freedom to invest. We welcomed it with open arms, not realizing that no such ‘dream’ environment exists anywhere in the world and that while nations talk free trade, they act to protect their national interests first. We were taught the language of free capital, return on net worth, return on capital employed, EVA, shareholder value and so on, but were not warned of the dangers of ‘capital’ striding across economies, roaming uncontrolled with a potential to destroy.

There are lessons here for us. We have seen that market-led economies generally do better for their people than planned economies – Russia taught us that lesson. People are better off and the quality of life more tolerable. But there are also serious problems with market-led developing economies as we learn lessons from what has happened in East Asia – in Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia – the social chaos that follows when one allows capital to wander without control. Sadly, till recently the IMF and The World Bank, in the words of George Soros, ‘prescribed the same pill for all sicknesses,’ for they had only one mantra irrespective of what that did to the political and social structures of a country.

Mistake not, India is on the move. There are problems galore but the doom environment after the Pokhran blasts has begun to be regenerated into an air of growing confidence in our ability to handle our own problems. Look at what we have gone through in the last 14 months – hostility, sanctions, loss of confidence by overseas investors, collapse of our stock markets, property prices down, political uncertainty leading to another general election – and yet it seems that things continue to happen. Is politics being downgraded in our thinking process, for there are signs that we must pursue economic policies which make sense, irrespective of politics? Look at the recent surge in the stock market, rising demand for housing, news of record crops, inflation at the lowest point – there is an air of confidence returning. This attitudinal shift is the most refreshing change that has happened in our country for many years. There is an opportunity for us here.

We talk of political stability, what does it mean? To me it means that there is a government which can govern to carry forward its agenda of election promises. We criticize a government when it fails to do so, but do we ever consider what role we ought to have played in helping the government. In the past our representations were to governments comprising of political parties that had a majority in Parliament; the political party in power therefore, had the strength to pass the requisite legislation to support their policies. In today’s context, in which the future looks bleak for any political party to gain an absolute majority, it appears at this stage that the next government would also comprise of a coalition of parties. It is, therefore, very critical that we understand the processes which make a democracy function and begin to participate actively in it.

It is wrong to assume that to participate in a political system one has to get into politics. On the contrary we only have to be aware and conscious that a government consisting of coalition partners can only govern and legislate through a process of consensus. Under such circumstances we need to define the role we want to play in supporting those issues on which government and business think alike.

Lobbying does not mean bribery and corruption. It implies making available facts and opinions to the members of Parliament at the centre and members of legislative assemblies at the state level. They are the ones vested with the powers to enact laws. In the last 18 months we have seen how helpless a government can become when it has to deal with a number of partners in trying to legislate on important national issues. We must accept that we have done nothing to help the process. The time has come to change and we must actively lobby for what we believe in and not shun those that represent us in Parliament. We elect them to govern and rule; surely we have the right to expect them to be accessible to us to listen to our views. The fault is ours but it is never too late to change. I strongly advocate that this change takes place.

Let me very briefly recall my experience of interacting with them about two years ago. I unexpectedly received a letter from the Chairman of the Ethics Committee of Rajya/Lok Sabha requesting my presence on a particular day. Similar letters were addressed to three other individuals whom I shall not name. Frankly, I was not even aware that such a committee existed. So off I went to Delhi. I was the first to be asked and as I entered the room, I saw that the head of every political party in Parliament was represented. I was before them for nearly three hours, all alone. We discussed, candidly and openly, the main subject – corruption. I have in all my years never more enjoyed a meeting – it was fascinating. It was a great pity that the other three failed to show up and sent their representatives, who were thrown out in three minutes!

About the same time, five of us were asked to appear before the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Industry. We were received with great courtesy and politeness. We appeared before them for nearly three hours and at the end the chairman, who hailed from West Bengal, stated that it was a pity that there was no interaction of this type before legislation on major issues was being considered. What does this show us? There is a keen desire on their part to meet and interact.

To the best of my knowledge, no chamber has ever convened a meeting with members of Parliament. I submit that we start in our city and begin the change by setting up periodic meetings with members of the legislative assembly/our municipal corporators and compel our apex chambers to interact with members of Parliament. You would be surprised at their responses.

Let me now move to the subject of macroeconomics. I think there have been serious lapses in our thinking processes. While the development of our infrastructure is critical, as is the development of our basic industries, we have paid scant attention to the 500 million people who comprise ‘the bottom of the pyramid’. At this stage of our development in which the structure of basic industries like steel, cement and power exists, is it not important for all of us to focus on the needs of these people and identify ourselves with them?

If one could put Rs 100 per annum in each one of the pockets of these 500 million people, there grows a demand of Rs 5000 crore of additional goods and services every year. What an astounding potential; we would have a bursting, booming economy. The problem is how to do it? What goods and services do they need, and how do we make it possible for them to acquire them? Obviously the farmers, and in turn agricultural labour who carry the roots of our poverty, need to have larger incomes.

The renowned C.K. Prahlad stresses that the answer lies in making easy credit available to them and cites the example of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. I do not think that is enough and I believe that we need to study the entire food chain to determine ways and mean to make more incomes available to these people.

A simple study reveals that from sowing to retail marketing, the farmer gets a pittance of the final price that the product fetches. Let me give you some examples that are illustrative: The difference between farmer price and retail price (all in rupees) in Mumbai is for onions 8 and 24; potatoes 4 and 14; tomatoes 4 and 10; chillies 8 and 32; apples 8 and 40; oranges 8 and 36; paddy 4.4 and 14; wheat 5.1 and 15; and arhar dal 9.6 and 35.

One does not need much genius to imagine what would happen if a fair price were made available to the farmer. Look at the mind-boggling boost to the economy that is presently struggling with a lack of demand syndrome. The economy would burst and boom if one could give the farmers 25% more than what they earn today. What is needed is the technology of better yields, storage, distribution and marketing. If it is available and backed by financial packages for the farmer, one creates wealth which is equitably distributed.

I am convinced that the resurgence of demand will emerge from the rural areas. Present trends indicate that even for products that we have for years believed to be the preserve of urban demand, there are growing shifts to rural areas. I am not going to saddle you with figures but data is available for those interested.

One would not imagine that for products like cassette recorders, fans, pressure cookers, sewing machines, motorcycles, radios, wrist watches the demand from the rural areas is over 50% and growing. Something is happening and maybe our economic data is not reflecting the changes taking place.

Our chamber is fortunate to have amongst its members companies who not only understand this phenomenon but also have built it in their strategies for the future. They have ensured the availability in every village of India of a matchbox, a battery, a bar of soap, and now Coke/Pepsi. These are some of the new issues our chamber needs to focus upon.

Evolution is taking place in the social, political and economic life of India. The rapid spread of communication and easy availability of data through the Internet is making our people aware of a better life enjoyed elsewhere and is raising expectations. What Gandhiji had predicted is already happening. He had said that if life in the villages is not improved, the villagers would move into the cities. Look around any metropolis, is that not happening?

Over time the panchayat rule in the villages will not only devolve power to local hands but will force more transparency and better accountability. The common belief that the economy can only flourish in a climate of political stability is under question.

My plea today is to advocate a shift in our thinking processes. While we must continue to understand globalization, continue with reforms, control our deficits, expand our external trade, develop our infrastructures, be more efficient, improve quality and learn to compete with the world – these are issues of national importance and must be pursued, but they mean nothing to a person who has no job, a small income, no health care, no drinking water and no shelter. These problems cannot be ignored, for if they are I fear unrest of a like we have not yet seen. The business community cannot sit silently. We have the tools and the knowledge to help wipe out hunger and ignorance. Let us use them by a greater involvement and participating more actively in public affairs.

I strongly believe in the theory of sufficiency in a democracy. Simply stated, ‘If sufficient people are sufficiently interested and do sufficient things, sufficient things will happen.’ Let me end with a quotation from Robert Browning, ‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’ Let us reach for heaven, maybe we will get back to earth.

 

Keshub Mahindra

* An edited version of the address at the public session of the 163rd annual general meeting of the Bombay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 24 May 1999.

 

 

 

 

                 With intent to gag

 

AFTER over 25 years in journalism, I cannot escape either the premise or the conclusion that Indian media is entirely distorted by overt and covert forms of censorship which are integral to its very structure. Recent public revelations by senior newspaper editors about the pressures brought on them to censor/suppress several stories related to Kargil, to Operation Vijay and to the human and material losses suffered by India – while allotting considerable space to the gratuitous hot air of ‘strategy analysts’ – surely makes one disbelieve our status as an open and ‘free information’ society. Not surprisingly, post-Pokhran II and right through ‘Operation Vijay’, voluntary media jingoism which thrives on its own triumphal tone and the deliberate obliteration of all other voices, has been the preferred mode of mainstream media.

All the jump cuts in my own career in journalism have been provoked by the persistence of censorship. Joining the desk of the Madras edition of a leading national daily, I was soon its regular film critic for Tamil/Hindi/English films. Being an unabashed fan of former Filmfare assistant editor S.J. Banaji, whose acerbic approach to film criticism sought to raise the level of debate/discussion/reflection around cinema rather than pander to its natural cosmetic and consumerist tendencies, I too explored every critical mode in the 400 to 700 words format to treat it as a genre of pedagogical entertainment.

In less than six months my highly respected news editor, under pressure from the advertising department, handed me an edit room reprimand for ‘hurting the feelings’ of theatre owners and distributors who brought advertisement revenue to the paper. I was served a firman to ‘tone down’. This turn of events wounded more than just cocky, fresh-into-the-profession pride. It made me suspicious of the intentions of the newspaper business itself vis-à-vis ‘truth’, ‘quality’ and ‘excellence’. What about the ‘hurt feelings’ of audiences victimised by bad cinema, I asked? The silence was censorious.

One couldn’t help concluding then that mainstream media had deep vested interest in superficiality and mediocrity. Having no mechanism for grooming young reporters/writers to look sharper and write better, the media merely took the line of least resistance to discourage and stifle anything out of the ordinary. Quickly disillusioned, I shifted my critical impulses to English theatre – where there was no danger of interference from commercial interests. However, there were so many self-important wives of IAS officers whiling their time doing ‘English theatre’, that I was destined to hear the phrase ‘tone down’, once again.

Though significant, all this was kid stuff. Less than a year into the job, in 1974, I volunteered to do some pieces for my paper on police repression in railway workers’ colonies during the all-India railway strike and the resultant blanket of fear under which the striking workers’ families lived. After extensive fieldwork, double-checking all facts and talking to a wide range of affected people, I wrote three pieces meant to be run as front-page anchors on consecutive days. All it took was one phone call from the news editor to the commissioner of police to seek his reaction, to kill all the stories. I was told the stories would affect the morale of policemen.

The sheer chicanery of this took my breath away. It still required a few more run-ins with the southern railway general manager at his daily press briefings to clarify for me the huge distortions in the media coverage of the nation’s biggest and most important workers’ strike. Even more pathetic was the total lack of editorial planning and preparation – its sheer attitude – to the coverage of the strike. Journalism seemed like such a casual, ad hoc activity, operating largely as a mouthpiece of authority. Here, ‘authority’ seemed to be the sole criterion for ‘truth’.

This was exposed with even greater vehemence just one year later when Indira Gandhi imposed the draconian Emergency and officially imposed press censorship. While many major and minor newspapers, to their credit, greeted this with ‘blank edits’, one must also add that in the newsrooms I knew, there was jubilation with reporters dancing on table-tops celebrating the fact that they no more needed to slog about ‘gathering’ news, that news would henceforth be ‘hand-outs’. Censorship was interpreted as making the reporter’s life more laid-back. That was when I first bid goodbye to full-time journalism.

Of course, the manner in which Emergency censorship was resisted and fought is a saga in itself. Proprietors, publishers, editors, reporters, columnists, cartoonists, photographers, typesetters – all did their glorious bit; not to speak of the sheer energy of the nationwide underground press (the Indian samizdat or literature outside censorship) that was written, produced and distributed in the most challenging of ways.

The post-Emergency spring thunder in ‘investigative’ journalism and the mushrooming of fresh media initiatives contributed to both glamorising the profession as well as setting it up, at last, as big business. Besides becoming cash cows, the big media houses also became an open plaything of specific political agendas, developing a candid nexus, and changing the very vision and direction of journalism in India. From idealism to secure careerism was a decade-long process. With cleverer investment strategies and circulation drives, with scientific mopping up of ad revenues and with brazen commoditisation of their ‘brands’, a new breed of newspaper proprietors emerged who have, in the last decade, comprehensively corporatised the journalistic profession. They don’t bat an eyelid today, in the Madras edition of a prominent national daily, when management circulates notes requiring journalists to wear ‘sober ties’ and ‘closed shoes’. Along with individual perks contracts, number-lock brief cases and swipe card registration of attendance, the journalist today could easily pass off for a marketing executive or the front office manager of a five-star hotel.

My own encounters with official machineries of control and curtailment of freedom of expression continued for the next two decades in all manner of farcical and severe ways – from being beaten up and having my cameras smashed by cops, receiving threatening calls, being accused of ‘seditious’ writing, being blocked by the army from meeting riot victims, having an artistic film I collaborated in axed by the government, and so on. I never saw it as particularly debilitating as it also motivated one to fight against it – often with positive results. As outstanding international journals like Index on Censorship reveal, there is hardly a decline in the quantum of arm-twisting and media manipulations the world over or as Noam Chomsky points out, it is anyway all part of a massive exercise in ‘manufacturing consent’.

At the same time, the global resistance to all this too has acquired collective vitality and momentum. Today, I have come to regard ‘official’ censorship and infringements of the rights of freedom of speech as evils that can be named and fought. They no longer afflict or threaten or cripple you with some medieval fear. Today, you know you are not isolated and alone in resisting and opposing such limiting tendencies. You also see it as an essential tussle – the battle to open up and expand the limits to ‘free speech’. There is also a whole new area of as yet ‘open’ information pipeline on the internet that makes one imagine a future democracy of information and knowledge.

The real ‘censorship’ – if it can be called that – the real curtailment of ideas/thought/expression in the era of ‘open markets’, comes from another quarter – private owners of media. The shifting of media monopolies from governments to private mavericks has led to a global ‘Murdochisation’ – the rapid and predatory cannibalisation of a variety of forms of print media into stereotyped products of, not information, but entertainment. This certainly represents an extreme distortion of the idea of ‘freedom of speech’. The supplanting of broadsheet content with tabloid content – what is being described as ‘broadloidisation’ – is truly an exercise by media monopolists in cramping mind and thought quite unprecedented in the history of the print media.

When governments exercised their awesome control and hold over news/newsprint/ads/taxes, journalists and their organisations fought do-or-die battles to win major space for the cause of ‘freedom of expression’. Today, the media barons have taken over and are redefining media content in whimsical and vandalistic ways, reducing the profession to an extension of advertising. But, now, there is nothing the journalists or their associations can do about it. The battle for ‘openness’ and ‘freedom’ is, by definition, reserved against repressive state machineries with vested interest in denying ‘freedoms’.

But when Johnny-come-lately media moghuls – who also now style themselves as ‘editors-in-chief’ – get into the act to define the prime concern of their brands as ‘sunshine’ or ‘froth’ or ‘celeb leisure’ or ‘f&f’ stories, there is nothing journalists can do anymore except silently participate or, equally silently, opt out. In my personal case too, this was one assault on my sensibility that I could protest against only by resigning – when the management pushed to redefine my role as ‘arts editor’ to some sort of a loosely defined ‘glamour editor’. Characteristically, as in such cases, there was absolutely no support from anyone in the editorial fraternity of the group, except the three young colleagues in my department who resigned en masse.

Unlike on earlier occasions, this was a bloodless exit. A journalist colleague explained it to me: ‘The media is no longer a brave vehicle for free information. Today its prime business is "selling space". So it is the owners who will decide what they will sell in that space. It’s like as if from a shop where I used to sell religious literature till yesterday, I suddenly begin to sell pornography. Only, I might spend some time and money to project pornography as truly spiritual material.’

So, if media satraps devise strategies for mopping up ad revenues from global cosmetic giants through a blatant projection of semi-clad models, beauty queens and luxury lifestyles on the front pages and, even more aggressively, in the glossy, multi colour ‘Saturday’ supplements, it really heralds the end of an era in which information and informed opinion/comment/analysis was held sacrosanct. It signals a full-blown commoditisation of information, which is directly antithetical to the press’ claims of ‘freedom’. We should not forget that, as for the ‘arts’, the first freedom of the media too is its freedom not to be a business.

Once media barons opt to treat news and ‘intelligent’ coverage on par with candyfloss confectionery, it follows they too are liable under laws of trade and commerce (like MRTP or quality control) and should not be sympathised with in the name of ‘press freedom’. One would be hardpressed today to defend most mainstream media vehicles on grounds of championing the cause of an open society. If at all, they are only busy narrowing (even restricting) space for dealing with issues of vital concern to our society.

It is this form of ‘internal censorship’, galloping like a virulent cancer through the entrails of our media, that I find more deadly and devastating today. It is contributing to a voluntary flight of concerned writers/thinkers from the mainstream media which is, maybe, more pernicious than jailing journalists. Prisons and draconian laws we can fight through political, legal and syndicalist equipment. But we entirely lack any equipment to fight the rapid, and deliberate, moronisation of the media. The old form of censorship only stamped across the paper. This one stamps across the practise, the very soul, of the media. Obviously, a new form of non-profit minded media ownership has to emerge before we can even being to postulate ‘freedom of expression’.

 

Sadanand Menon

* First appeared in Media Voice, September 1999. Printed with the author’s consent.

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