Social Sciences, CSR and the emergence of the Citizen - a view

( A truncated version of this article appeared in The Alternative)

What does it mean for a corporate (for profit company) to be socially responsible? Also what does it mean for a citizen to be socially responsible? As such we seem to be living in a society where we see number of concerned individuals and a corporate class eager to 'improve living conditions' and participate in measures and efforts to fight poverty, corruption and provide access to a better quality of life. Nonetheless most, if not all efforts, at social intervention by civil society groups (the NGO's in particular that provide avenues for conscientious individuals to do 'something for the world of have nots, oppressed and dispossessed') and corporates do so without much recognition of certain lack of social and participative qualities whose absence greatly exacerbates, if not creates most problems of dispossession and disenfranchisement in the first place. For at several levels, part - if not most - of the crisis of poverty and hunger can be seen emerging largely because of the lack of work & professional ethic and in failures to recognise the deep utility of norms of public conduct. I'm not going into structural reasons which usually heaps all such issues of hunger, lack of access, opportunities, inequality, coercion usually on capitalism's door step. To contend why putting all the onus of such contemporary ills on capitalism does epistemic injustice to social science domain and also undervalues the worth and utility of incremental but substantial changes transpiring under conditions of liberal democracy, is a matter to be discussed seperately. 

What I contend for is operationalisation of a portfolio of attributes, outlook and conduct in the public sphere where notwithstanding our inherited identities like caste, community, faith as well as our social and economic status, newer disposition and practices are enabled.  The acquisition of such civil temperament and nurturing of ethical qualities mostly through but not limited to substantive education, enables social transformation and possibilities of social change. The buy-in and display of such civic and indeed a political consciousness no less, would of course be more on the socially and economically privileged though the marginalsed too need to be equally agential in this regard. Another key requirement here is the quality of trust whose cultivation and nurturing is inviolable for emergence of the newer being argued for here. Factoring these parameters and variables then I would say facilitate the emergence of a citizen.

Making such a surmise which to many may appear naive and simplistic is actually complex and to understand these complexities needs re-coursing to a systematic study of society via history, sociology and political science (social sciences) thru the prism of social theories. Such a study can generate social awareness and critical social consciousness through which a more defining quality of citizenship, can be engendered and practiced. For example social sciences can enable us to recognize the sacrosancy of the organic division of labour, as Emile Durkheim did, for effective functioning of the society. It is in this context of genuine execution of one's assigned role without fear or favour, of our responsibilities informed by an ethic -dharma as it were - that a quality of citizenship, though probably not all its aspects, emerges. But when members of the society fail to recognize this, a dysfunctionality sets in. So efforts to address the problems that emerges thereoff through welfare and activism alone without this fundamental recognition will perhaps not take us far. Of course this does not mean dismissing such well meaning voluntarist interventions as meaningless. It also does not mean maintaining status quo and endorsement of a society divided by social and economic chasms and expect everyone to carry on with their assigned duties and responsibilities for the sake of social cohesion. It merely becomes a starting point for further enquiry and exploration, of means to move further towards a just and equitable society. But a minimum shared consensus on attitudes, action, outlook and behaviour to operate in the public domain, I feel is mandatory. This kind of study which includes questioning, dialoguing and critiquing needs separate space and specialization. Here is where social sciences becomes important but which, alas, hardly gets much space and recognition in schools itself, leave alone in engineering and medical colleges where it needs to be equally emphasized. Below I elaborate these concerns adumbrated here.

Legislation of CSR
As per the new companies act 2013 legislated and passed by the parliament recently Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is now mandated by law which specifically suggests that all private enterprises netting more than Rs 5 crore have to set aside some 2% of their income for social and economic welfare that can include eradicating extreme hunger and poverty, promotion of education, gender equality and empowering women; ensuring environmental sustainability, imparting employment and the likes. In effect charity work or to be more ‘charitable’ to the companies (for charity is seen to be very condescending and patronizing ) social work by companies is compulsory by law.

CSR legacy
To be sure even before this welcoming legislation, many companies have already established a reputation for social work. The Tatas come to mind right away for many of their social ventures which have provided for the welfare of people in the entire country. Numerous enterprises, particularly IT based, post 1991 economic reforms have also made generous grants and carried out number of such CSR ventures supplementing (many would claim far exceeding, better executed and targeted) the interventions by the government for overall social and economic development of the country. In that sense the CSR aspect of the new companies bill can be seen as superfluous.

Problems with CSR
But if one were to take a much larger view of CSR and company affairs in India, there emerges factors that are quite disquieting. One criticism against CSR by many has been the fact that it merely is a brand building exercise and it is believed that CSR is a brazen attempt to legitimize one’s business. A more benign but a more long term perspective, popularized by Edward Freeman, sees CSR efforts as eventually resulting in providing greater market share for a company’s business. For any development ultimately means more purchasing power of the people. But even in this sense it can be then argued that no genuine benevolence or social concern guides a company’s social outreach or CSR programmes. It finally is seen as a scheme about ensuring healthier bottom lines and margins and no more than a business strategy which eventually reduces all into mere consumers. Further as Slavoj Zizek points out, such a scheme of production/consumption of products for profit and pleasure and the desire to do something ‘good’ for the poor, society, environment are to be seen as one total enterprise in contemporary capitalism. This penetration of market and consumption is what seems to be effectively sought in the dominant discourse of development.

Enforcing citizenship?
But be that as it may if companies are now to be compelled to be socially responsible by law, can a citizen to be compelled by legislation to be socially responsible? To be sure the constitution does mention about fundamental duties as well which includes respecting the laws of the land, the nations heritage, the environment and more. What if these were made mandatory and its violation inviting penalty? The apparent absurdity of such a dictum, it can be argued, is not significantly less than, at several levels, the absurdity of making CSR compulsory. But aint it a fact that in our country but for laws which compels us, we fail to discharge our responsibilities? Take the example of compulsory segregation of garbage now made mandatory in several cities in India. Likewise compulsory provisioning for rainwater harvesting in apartments and residences. Do we wait for the government to enact such rules and laws for us to be responsible?

The operating word here (or should I say missing word) then is citizenship. For any state or society to claim to be ‘modern’ (as we in India certainly claim so) hinges on certain ability of people to follow certain norms of social intercourse in the public domain for its smooth functioning. The use of public institutions, utilities, spaces provided for by the state and its effectiveness is possible when people cutting across lines of class and other social and cultural differences use them in ways without making exclusive claims on them or abusing them. Sociologist Dipankar Gupta points this out as a quality of inter-subjectivity where despite socio-economic and cultural differences people are able to participate in each others lives in the public sphere. So without the existence of formal rules and laws or the need for excessive supervision and policing, civic duties transpires in any society that claims to be ‘modern’. It hardly needs any stating that this happens in many west European and few East Asian societies. It is when people act in such collective interest, without re-coursing to compulsory laws that they can claim to be citizens. It is only then the state comes on its own and these qualities ensure (though admittedly does not guarantee) more functioning democracies. There is also the quality of ‘trust’ amongst the citizens on the one hand and between the citizens and state on the other that ensure meaningful use of public institutions and public spaces. As a result such societies one will find is less legislated and less supervised. And yes, civil society (I'm defining civil society here that includes institutions and practices existing between the state and market on the one hand and religion, cultural communities and family on the other. If seen this way, in the Indian context, where family, caste and religion continues to hold sway, along with the Leviathan of market and government, only a narrow civil domain exists) is robust in such states. In India, mostly NGOs dominate the civil society space and no wonder they are used inter-changeably often.

Changing business and citizenship paradigms
In the Indian context following the failure of the state, civil society particularly manifest in non-governmental organizations (NGOs) becomes more instrumentalized and performative. It becomes the means and the space for seeking more accountability from the government on the one hand and also for well meaning individuals to prove their citizenship and for corporates to prove their social responsibility, on the other by participating in this domain. (Many NGOs are funded by corporates) But my question is whether we need to prove our citizenship and corporate responsibility through such overt and formal assertions. Though let me add I’m not trying to be cynical or dismissive of such efforts. Any voluntaristic effort are certainly to be welcomed and are laudable. But what for example would you say about a company which in the first place manufacture products that genuinely adds value to a customers’ well being rather than providing them products thats more on fizz and providing a false sense of well being? What about a company that refrains from undertaking ventures that will by its very nature be destructive of a regions flora and fauna and the sustenance it provides for people in the region? A company that may not set up hospitals, schools and colleges (CSR ventures) but does takes pains not to pollute the land, air and water in the vicinity of its manufacturing unit? A company that treats its workers well and does not hold itself back in giving them remuneration that is not just ‘market determined, pays its taxes to government, does not advertise making exaggerated claims for itself and its products?

Likewise what if citizens without the need for being prodded either through civil society movements or state diktats, display acute civility in the public sphere? These acts of ‘social civility’ emerges not because of rules, laws and legislations that seek compliance but through both an understanding of inter-subjectivity, of their own social location and how living style, social attitudes, consumption patterns has ramifications in a socially and economically divided world. As a response to these, people (certainly more the privileged than the poor ) then, alter their social outlook and practices, consumption patterns suggesting a political awakening of a different kind going beyond casting their votes. In other words an acute citizenship obviates the need for a very instrumentalized civil society programmes. As it happens in the case of many NGOs, an highly organized network and administrative paraphernalia is also set up to facilitates interfacing with the government for ensuring legal and constitutional backing to bring change in people’s living conditions, but which are caused in the first place by a self absorbed, callous and indifferent members of a society who have not transformed into citizens.

Possible ways forward
Therefore there remains a case for engendering change more in our social and political thought and social practices, an issue to which many (though not all) NGOs are ambivalent about. So how do these changes in thought and social practices can be attempted to brought? Like I started off by suggesting, a strong social science curriculum in all our schools and colleges is more critical. For what is lacking is not so much the lack of schools and colleges in India which are also increasingly being accessed by the poor as much. Here again most of the NGOs and activists happen to bog themselves down with ensuring functional aspects of learning i.e. children’s’ ability to read and write proficiently and display mathematical skills. Needless to say while these literacy skills are paramount and a key to ensure some kind of empowerment , it nevertheless appears that the poor literacy skills of so many children across the country bothers many of us more perhaps because it may not help them to secure well paying jobs and prevents them as emerging as prospective players in a market economy. How many and often do we really seek their transformation as citizens? Mere literacy and numeracy skills and educational qualifications that ensure better employability is in itself not going to transform the public sphere. That is why we find even the kids from the most privileged schools and colleges displaying a very callous civic and social attitude despite being very well proficient in literacy abilities and well placed for fancy university placements and jobs. What is needed is critical consciousness and social awareness of a kind which seeks to understand the reasons for gross inequalities, why we disregard public institutions, norms and rules. Our own, culpability in it through uncritical, un-reflected social attitudes, practices and consumption patterns continues because this lack of citizenship and civic-political awareness is yet to become part of our “commonsense”.

Let me conclude by quoting Peter Buffett, the son of the legendary business (and philanthropic ) icon Warren Buffett no less. He pointed out recently that though there are plenty of statistics that indicates the rising inequality, more destruction of lives and communities, the current economic system creates vast amounts of wealth for a few. These very same few make heroic claims to “give back.” To quote, “ Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left.”[1]

Further, “ ...It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.” And he adds, “... Often I hear people say, “if only they had what we have” (clean water, access to health products and free markets, better education, safer living conditions). Yes, these are all important. But no “charitable” (I hate that word) intervention can solve any of these issues. It can only kick the can down the road... I’m really not calling for an end to capitalism; I’m calling for humanism.”