Businesses have responsibility of protecting human rights, climate
Business ought to look at society around them with new glasses, other than the mandatory CSR and the UN-envisaged ESG, if they sincerely look forward to inclusive development
The Constitution of India guarantees the right to a good environment through Article 49-A, which makes it clear that “The State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country.” A tribute for this comes from the UN, which endorses that India is one of the few nations to do so. However, we are in a time when we ought to treat the environment as something more than it being a constitutional right. Following a Bombay High Court judgment, which stated that treating mangroves was the fundamental right of the people living in the coasts, there has been an altogether new look at the subject of environment.
“The destruction of mangroves offends the fundamental rights of the citizens under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. In view of the provisions of Articles 21, 47, 48A and 51A (g) of Constitution of India, it is a mandatory duty of the State and its agencies and instrumentalities to protect and preserve mangroves,” said the High Court in its September 2018 judgment.
Intellectual level discussions come in whenever the environment is discussed in the context of Constitutional rights, though when one talks of it within the human rights framework, the entire perspective changes. Eyeballs prop out as the impact on human beings – that is you me and everyone around us – is considered or discussed.
Let me present a small case study pertaining to human rights and the environment in the society where I live. There is a beautiful place called Parsik Hills in Navi Mumbai. The local city planner allotted some 200 plots for residential, commercial and social purposes on top of the hill. There are close to 100 plots where people are living or have established their businesses. This is supposed to be Navi Mumbai’s answer to Malabar Hill that boasts of with posh habitats.
All of a sudden, around April last year the residents were woken up with a jolt as heavy machines started cutting the hill slope. Enquiries revealed that there was some beautification project underway. As the matter was brought to the notice of environmentalists like us, out of curiosity, we visited the construction site. To our utter shock, and dismay, we realized that full-grown trees were chopped and burnt and flower pots were being lined along the newly constructed pathway.
In an instant, we alerted the State government and the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC). The life of the people living on the hill was endangered as the hill was being cut in the middle, we told the Chief Minister, who subsequently directed the Thane district collector and forest department officials to check. The local media published some hard-hitting stories. Enter Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission (HRC). The rights body takes suo motu cognizance of the media reports and issues notices to top officials, including principal secretaries of the environment and forest departments, municipal corporation, city planner CIDCO and the police commissioner seeking their response. The police inquiry brought out startling facts! The hill slope was given away by the government planning agency to a private builder through a leave & license agreement for a total annual fee of a mere Rs 100! That was preposterous, to say the least.
As per the conditions that were laid down, the builder could only to undertake plantation and that there shall be no pucca construction or advertisement sign boards. The builder violated all these by digging the slope, laying a pathway and putting up two massive sign boards. The municipal corporation told us in response to an RTI application that the builder had violated the agreement with CIDCO, which was informed about the breaches. Now the HRC also has taken a serious note of the issue and directed the CIDCO top brass, including its managing director, to file an affidavit explaining the action taken against the builder for his ‘blatant’ violations. While the case will be heard later this month, there is a good precedent, courtesy of the HRC, which has taken cognizance of threats to human lives due to this environmental destruction.
Let us view this in the context of the moves to add human rights as compliance in business practices. Praveen Kumar, DG & CEO, IICA (Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs), under the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, was in Hyderabad last week at a joint event with FTCCI. Kumar told the gathering that after CSR and ESG, a new compliance called Human Rights in Business is emerging on the corporate horizon, globally. It is very important. IICA is taking baby steps but over a period of time, this will be a full-blown subject for corporate training, Kumar said.
“Business is important. Making profits is also important. But, compliance will not reduce your profits,” he said.
It is true because it is the business that drives growth and not the government. If the business grows, the country also grows.
Many new-age practices are coming into existence such as CSR and ESG; environmental, social, and corporate governance, also known as environmental, and social, governance.
“It is a framework designed to be embedded in ways to generate value for all organizational stakeholders. It is very important. IICA is developing training programmes around it now. A few years down the line, we may encounter situations where the disclaimer on future products may read that this product is ESG-compliant,” he explained. Great!
Now, let us look at various human rights aspects. The subject is vast. Right from making drinking water arrangements to a work atmosphere for employees to taking care of the society that the corporates operate in are all covered by human rights.
For instance, if you are a highway construction company, your work is bound to impact the people staying around roads. Chardham Highway work ruining the Himalayan villages, the Chamoli disaster and the Joshimath tragedy are all subject matter of human rights. If your project leads to displacement of local people and their sources of income and if you do not care about their welfare through CSR, it is bound to turn into a human rights issue. CSR spend is supposed to be two per cent of the profits that you make, but human rights come into the picture that day you get possession of the land that has been acquired for peanuts.
As I said, Human Rights in Business is a vast subject and let there be a thorough discussion on it by taking all stakeholders into confidence, particularly the people affected by new projects. The creation of Mumbai started with the displacement of the local settlers, the Agri (salt pan) and Koli (fishing) communities and the Navi Mumbai project inherited this tendency. In both cases, human rights were thrown to the winds.
Let’s hope Praveen Kumar’s prophecy of Human Rights in Business begins to take shape soon. It requires guts more than vision and political will to enforce this.
(The columnist is a Mumbai-based media veteran running websites and a YouTube channel)