CSR principles enshrined in the Companies Bill 2012 offer businesses a chance to transform their poor record in community participation and development

Finally we are seeing some signs of life in the business of legislation. Not surprisingly, one of the early beneficiaries is the Companies Bill (2012) which shall replace a six decade-old antiquated law after Presidential assent. The Bill, which was passed in the Upper House this week, was earlier approved by the Lok Sabha in December 2012 and reflects a number of amendments to the Companies Bill, 2011, based on the recommendations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance. It encompasses important areas for the effective governance of companies including clauses on mergers, audit and auditors, appointment of company directors, aside from providing for constitution of a National Company Law Tribunal and a National Company Law Appellate Tribunal to fast-track company law cases and corporate structuring.

Crucial

Perhaps, the most important new element introduced in Clause 135 of the Bill is the notion of mandatory Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Colloquially referred to as the “2 per cent clause,” it has the potential to transform the landscape of CSR in India. Indian businesses have been loath to go beyond the “glorified worker towns” syndrome or providing employee services and benefits passed off as social interventions. Indeed, “Corporate India” has fared rather poorly when it comes to affirmative action in employment, environmental responsibility and in resource efficiency and revitalisation over the years. Therefore, a scheme that potentially transfers profits towards social causes, environmental management and inclusive development could be the much needed medicine for a nation with such deep socio-economic cleavages. This provision in the new bill must be welcomed and its efficient implementation must be ensured.

It is important that Clause 135 is complemented and supplemented with regulatory and institutional mechanisms to ensure that it actually results in a new paradigm of “stakeholder responsibility” and does not become another scheme where a paternalistic government is able to create another framework of patronage that the politician-businessperson nexus finds favourable for its dealings. This hypothesis needs to be carefully examined, particularly in the context of the upcoming general election, when political masters are at once beholden to corporates for election funding, and where constituency-level CSR commitments could be politically useful.

However, beyond the “profit for patronage” issue, there are some other aspects that must be discussed. The new law will make it incumbent for companies having a net worth of Rs.500 crore or more, or a turnover of Rs.1,000 crore or more or a net profit of Rs.5 crore or more, during any financial year, to spend at least two per cent of net profits towards CSR activities. While this seems uncomplicated, the efficacy in implementation may be in doubt for more than one reason.

The whole concept of CSR must, by its very definition, be a product of the fundamental need to price services, infrastructure and resources that societies provide businesses located in their proximity. By mandating a plain vanilla formula for allocation of two per cent of net profits towards CSR, the law will create a locational distortion, delinking CSR from community responsibility. Businesses must be responsible for proximate communities first, rather than being able to choose the destination of this commitment to society.

There is also a temporal distortion in the construct of CSR as spelt out by the Bill. Paragraph 5 of Clause 135 states that two per cent of the average net profit over three immediately preceding years must be allocated for CSR activities. In the case of most large companies of the sort that would be mandated to allocate net profits, business operations would have had a run-off effect on societies and would have fed off communities for more than three years. Therefore, must not the commitment to these communities and geographies reflect the impact of these businesses over their operation periods? And is there not a case for ensuring sustained “plough back” by the company in these geographies before diverting their commitments elsewhere?

Implementation

Even as we begin to debate how best to address these “time-place” distortions, it is certain that the CSR mandate must be made more robust, ensuring that at the very least it stands up to some simple tests of reasonableness and fairness. There are a number of ways to achieve this baseline objective.

First, voluntary policies that ensure a stakeholder approach to CSR is followed by corporates already exist and must be strengthened. The National Voluntary Guidelines on Social, Environmental and Economic Responsibilities of Business (NVGs) suggest nine core principles which businesses should follow. Principle 8 for instance, directly alludes to coherent, social impact measures and assuring “appropriate resettlement and rehabilitation of communities who have been displaced owing to their business operations.” Integration of NVGs, initiated by the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, in the form of more constructive guidelines for deploying corporate CSR policies, is a viable option.

Second, CSR policies must be determined organically, through demand-driven consensus. Instead of being the mandate of high-level committees, company specific CSR policies should flow from a transparent interface between community stakeholders and corporates. The process must be devolved below the level of the corporation, to the level of the business unit. Corporate leaders and civil servants in the national capital must not determine community engagement strategies. Community stakeholders and the business units concerned must. Allocations must also be made on the basis of how much different stakeholders can absorb.

Employee benefits

Concomitantly, employee benefits must not be passed off as CSR. Such tricks are already used by the banking sector, wherein mandated priority sector lending targets are often met through incredibly convoluted means, including issuance of no-frills/general credit cards for their own contracted workers. A “tick-the-box” approach is simply not legitimate.

The third suggestion also follows from this. A demand-driven process for articulating company specific CSR policies must be instituted at the district level. Consultations can be steered by public officials such as district magistrates, involving village and town leaders and representatives. Decisions could be made through majority outcomes, and the process must be recorded and filed. This sort of a process has the potential to create a public accountability framework for delivery of CSR far superior to legal provisions that we fail to enforce.

Audit

Fourth, as this culture evolves over time, CSR allocations must not remain consigned to bottom line (profits) commitments. Obligations to community stakeholders must be placed alongside the top line (receivables and debt) and must be considered seriously as the next step as CSR must not be an afterthought to profit accumulation. It must be embedded within the very fabric of large businesses.

Finally, there are multiple concerns around the audit of CSR and a discomfort with the lack of audit and oversight required for CSR activities. “Comply or explain” simply has not worked in the case of other existing regulatory frameworks that deal with corporate governance issues. It is time to realise that in India, only a few are in a position to ask, while nobody is in any hurry to explain.

(Samir Saran is vice-president and Vivan Sharan, an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based public policy think tank.)

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