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5 Feb 2015

Harpreet Kaur, South Asia Researcher & Representative, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Business and Human Rights in India – Time for a National Action Plan?

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Originally published in Global Rights Blog, Dejusticia 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States President Barack Obama have declared an era of “new trust” between their nations.  Obama had just wrapped up a three-day visit, the fourth meeting between the two leaders in just five months, aimed at strengthening  economic ties between the two nations.  Modi and Obama last year targeted a five-fold increase in annual trade to $500 billion.

The visit came on the back of the Vibrant Gujarat Global Investors Summit 2015 three weeks ago, where Modi promised global investors that India would become the “easiest” destination to do business by introducing new incentives and regulatory reforms.  And while the government endeavours to make India friendlier to foreign investors, it is also emphasizing its indigenous ‘Make in India’ programme promoting the country as a manufacturing haven.  In a nutshell, BJP’s election manifesto that emphasized a globally competitive economy, and brand India built on quality – Ek Bharat, Shreshta Bharat – Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas‘ (One India, Best India – Unity and Development for everyone– is in motion.

The legacy of The 1984 Bophal Disaster looms heavily on transnational development schemes in India. It killed at least 3787 with over 16000 deaths claimed. It is the world’s worst industrial disaster. 

I hope that ‘sabka vikas’ (everyone’s development) is true to its letter and spirit.  It is evident that human rights of the marginalised and disadvantaged (including indigenous peoples) have often been traded-off in the interests of rapid economic development, and in the interest of making smarter cities at the cost of people residing in rural hinterlands. While the new investments could bring in hope and opportunity for employment and financial security for many, the state must be wary of and set out regulations to prevent potential human rights abuses such as land grabs, environmental degradation, and related violations of the rights to health, social security, housing and livelihoods.

Prime Minister Modi himself emphasizes the need to work for sustainable and inclusive growth, however, activists and civil society has already raised human rights concerns. Among these:

  • Heath activists and organizations such as Medicins Sans Frontiers fear that Obama’s visit could accelerate ongoing pressure from the US on the Indian government to dilute its patent laws to help multinational drug makers, at the expense of affordable drugs for the poor.
  • There’s been a clampdown of the civil society space in the country, which was evident when government officials stopped a Greenpeace activist from traveling to UK allegedly due to NGO’s involvement in anti-national activities.  The NGOs and activists have condemned the allegations raised by the Intelligence Bureau report that accused “foreign-funded” NGOs of “serving as tools for foreign policy interests of western governments” by sponsoring agitations against nuclear and coal-fired power plants across the country.
  • The nuclear deal agreed upon between the two nations has raised concerned about accountability in case of a disaster or an accident. Providing impunity to the American plant suppliers, India confirmed it would create a fund (to be put up by the nationalized insurance companies and the Indian government) to address claims resulting from an accident. However, if the amount is found to be insufficient, will there be an alternative to the plant suppliers?
  • Concerns have been raised about eased industry regulations by the government in recent times.  At the Gujarat Summit, where both Indian and international companies committed to invest in the state, activists and organizations wrote to CEOs appealing to them to spare rural livelihoods and respect human rights.
  • Women from the Mevat District in Haryana. Unfettered development programs could exacerbate gender inequalities in India. 

    If the growth has to be really inclusive and sustainable, gender inequality in the country must be addressed.  As Shefali Mishra writes in her blog Why Obama And Modi’s Talks Mean Little For Half-A-Billion Indian Women, “India has more than half-a-billion women who can substantially contribute to the labour market, as entrepreneurs generating profits and build capital. However, so far prioritising them is seen merely as a social good and not integral to economic progress.”

  • Also, Amnesty International and others have called upon Obama and Modi to help bring justice to the victims of Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Even after 30 years, people continue to suffer from the impact of the disaster at a factory owned by US-based Company Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), that killed 20,000 and injured thousand others.

The economic development that the government is promising, and that a large majority of people in the country are hoping for, could spell disaster for certain communities if checks and balances are not put at the right place at the right time.

This, then, is the time to put those checks and balances into action by implementing the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights (UNGPs), endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011. The first pillar of the Principles’ “Protect, Respect & Remedy” framework recalls states’ duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business. India must bring in effective policies, legislation and regulations to prevent and protect the rights of communities that may be affected by development projects.

Developing a National Action Plan (NAP) on business and human rights is part of the State responsibility to implement the UNGPs.  Particularly, the government should act now to develop a NAP on business and human rights.   It may be argued that there already are laws, policies and regulations for responsible business conduct in India, but a NAP on business and human rights will allow government to articulate a coherent policy position on the subject.  It can also provide a constructive opportunity for robust collaboration, dialogue and trust-building among stakeholders.

The first movers to create NAPs on business and human rights have been governments in Europe, and realizing its importance, governments in other regions have too started working on them.   Among those that have committed to developing an NAP or are in the process of doing so, are Argentina, Brazil, Mozambique and the USA.

The warming diplomatic ties between the country which describes itself as the world’s oldest democracy, and its largest, are boosting the global economy.  At the same time, efforts must be made across nations and continents to promote responsible business conduct and human rights.