Economic development is a crucial human right

Updated: Jan 24 2002, 05:30am hrs
In today’s times, three issues —economic viability, environment sustainability and social responsibility — are seen as important bottomline business issues. Social responsibility now encompasses good corporate citizenship, of which human rights is an integral part. Very soon, the term HR would mean not just human resources but human rights as well.

Future perspective
Looking ahead into the future, I envisage that four factors would force businesses to factor human rights in every sphere of their activity and influence: information society, technology, shareholder activism and globalisation. Core values related to democratic institutions, environment, human rights, animal rights and so on would get reinforced with the emergence of the information society. The reach of communications and information to every nook and corner of the world will foster this process. Institutional shareholders will be looked upon to preserve and enhance the wealth they safeguard from vulnerability of a non-financial nature. Finally, an increasingly integrated global economy will force globally footloose companies to make sourcing and locational choices through a human rights filter.

Indian context
...I would venture to emphatically state that India has many gains in turning the international spotlight on business and human rights.

Economic development as a human right
First, Indian businesses must factor in growing international acceptance of economic development as a crucial human right.

The western world, primarily USA, United Kingdom, France and Germany, side-stepped human rights issues in their path to development. A whole range of exploitative industries helped support this development. Mining, oil exploration, agricultural plantations and forestry come to mind when I say this.

Exploitation of people and natural resources, combined with technologies in locomotion, communication and warfare, helped the western world subjugate countries in Africa, Asia, Central and South America. It is now fashionable to lump these countries together and put them in a common basket named: the Third World. Let us not forget the historic truth. There was a tradeoff between development and human rights. The First World resonated with productive activities and created wealth at the cost of the Third World.

However, there is huge change in attitudes worldwide. A similar tradeoff can no longer be imagined. New standards in human rights are being proclaimed. In other words, we have to play according to the new rules of the game.

Given this situation, India faces a situation with pangs of economic growth and development, on one side, and a new standard on human rights to contend with, on the other.

Global GDP currently is 30 trillion US dollars. GDP of high income countries is 23 trillion US dollars. Global population is six billion. Population in high income countries is 0.9 billion. In other words, just one billion people in the developed create an output of 23 trillion US dollars. At the end of the day, five billion people are out of the race, of which one billion are in India. Does this not tell us that economic growth and development is the most basic human right...

Enforcing international human rights standards
Second, India must proactively push for enforcing international human rights standards in business. India has much to gain on this score.

All of us are painfully aware of the conditions in which Indian in some of the Gulf countries work. The rights of a H1 visa worker in the United States who is given a pink slip has recently come into focus. The magnitude of these problems would only increase in the future, unless India presses for enforcing international human rights standards.

The developed world will see significant shortage of talent. Aging in the developed world is making skilled workers hard to come by. USA is already facing a shortage of skilled professionals. Germany, Japan and Australia are forecasting large shortages of professional talent. Thus, developed countries will compete to attract the right kind of skill sets — either through immigration or by outsourcing. India is uniquely placed to capitalise on this opportunity. Harnessing India’s professional resources to meet global demands has the potential to unleash a self-sustaining economic revolution....

Business-legal-government cooperation
Given this background, Indian business leaders, legal professionals and government officials need to work together on this front. As a country, we must promote a national agenda that pursues economic development as a human right, enforces international human rights standards and prevents protectionist trade barriers in the guise of human rights protection.

I am fascinated by the example of China. The Chinese mindset is oriented to feeding and finding gainful employment for 1,300 million people as long as minimum workplace standards are met....

Imperatives for Indian business
...First, businesses in India must recognise that human rights from the fundamental basis on which other rights, created by the legal and political systems, are built. Given this, the business community in India must redefine its role in the context of this widening concept and align human rights compliance with business objectives.

Second, the business community in India must rise to voluntarily adopt new standards of human rights in business and fulfil its obligation. Indian businesses advocate liberalisation and a significant reduction in the role of the state in the economic domain. This would be unacceptable if we in the business community do not voluntarily conform to norms of social responsibility.

Third, businesses in India must address human rights issues in a proactive manner. There is criticism that businesses adopt good human rights practices only after they have come under attack for human right abuses. Even when they do so, they tend to take a minimalist approach. They address issues of working conditions, such as child labour and forced labour, but shy away from the responsibility to support and promote fundamental human rights in the wider society.

Fourth, businesses in India need to see human rights in a holistic manner. This means that compliance efforts are not limited to just people and property protection issues. The prohibition against discrimination is at the heart of the concept of human rights. They should encompass the whole ethos of doing business. Addressing rights of consumers is an important component of this ethos. Consumer rights are synchronous with human rights. Businesses in India must be committed to delivering quality products and services with value for money.

Finally, responsible businesses in India must move to build social capital, inasmuch as they strive to build equity capital and human capital. Society will increasingly regard protection of human right as a condition of the corporate licence to operate.

I must add that there are several Indian businesses that are sensitive to these imperatives. NDDB comes foremost to my mind, when I say this. By creating entrepreneurs out of millions of small farmers, leveraging technology to address human and animal health, providing value for money to consumers of milk, milk products, fruits and vegetables, and by fostering a sense of commitment and belonging among employees. NDDB shows us how human rights can be aligned to business in a comprehensive manner.

(Excerpted from the address ‘Business and human rights’, by Mukesh Ambani, Vice Chairman and Managing Director, Reliance Industries Ltd, on the occasion of the First Anniversary Celebrations of the Society of Indian Law Firms held in New Delhi on January 18, 2002)