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The emergence of Indian business as a confident, powerful competitor on the playing field of global commerce was confirmed by the prominence of Indian companies and culture at the 2006 World Economic Forum in Davos in January. Fareed Zakaria reported in Newsweek40 that 'no country has captured the imagination of the conference and dominated the conversation as India in 2006'. The omnipresent slogan 'Incredibly India: the Biggest Democracy for Global Investors' attempted to whisk the red carpet from beneath China's feet, as the presence of the Indian business people and Bollywood music and dancers dominated the conferences and social events.
Subsequent state visits to India by US president George Bush, France's Jacques Chirac, Australia's John Howard and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to talk business in February and March 2006 confirmed India's 'star' status.British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw affirmed the increase of trade with India as a priority for the UK in 2006 in a key government white paper launched in March.41 It is being courted by America, for the pivotal role it could play in negating China's likely dominance in future decades.
India's well-educated labour surplus, its booming internal markets and carrots dangled to business such as tax breaks, tariff reliefs and exemptions from certain labour and environmental regulations in 'special economic zones' across the country work to attract foreign investors, just as promises of exotic spices, glittering colour and noisy adventure entice tourists from all over the world. Tesco,42 which controls of 30% of the UK grocery market, is one of the latest big names to be looking to expand into the Indian market.
Although home to over a billion people, India's 'corporate welfare' efforts to attract investment have built economic wealth on a narrow base, largely in New Delhi, Mumbai and the IT centre of Bangalore. Looking beyond the boom of foreign interest in 2006, which is underpinned by news of strong economic growth of 7.5% in 2005, the rest of India tells a different tale.
In a country as vast and diverse as this, where 17 major languages, 22,000 dialects and all the world's major religions are represented, it is the welfare and standard of living of the 75% of the population that live in rural areas that are reflected in India's low position of 127 out of 177 countries in the 2005 United Nations Human Development Index.43 Over 300 million people in India live on less than a dollar a day. Water scarcity is considered the most pressing environmental issue followed by air pollution and loss of biodiversity. Fourteen per cent of the population still do not have sustainable access to suitable water source and 20% are undernourished.44 Caste and gender continue to play a significant role in determining social status and lifestyle.
The infrastructure for government in India is stretched over 28 states, each with its own governance structure and each typically burdened with a history of corruption cases and a culture of inefficiency. Recent high-profile efforts by the government to address wider social problems include an anti-poverty deal, launched in February 2006, which aims to provide income for 60 million rural households45 and a joint programme implemented with assistance from the US to increase efforts to eliminate child labour, announced in March.46 However, the annual total the government spends on public health amounts to 200 rupees, or US$4 per capita. A bustling civil-society sector attempts to fill the gap; for example, SEWA (Self Employed Women's Association),47 a trade union-based national organisation originating in Gujarat, continues to roll out health, education and food security programmes assisting some of the poorest rural communities.
As the prominence of Indian business has sky-rocketed, a parallel spotlight has been focused on corporate social responsibility (CSR) issues in the country. The perception of the role of corporations in social concerns is said to be undergoing a shift away from the traditional ideas of philanthropy-inspired by modern interpretations of religious philosophies promoting collective responsibility and the compassion and leadership shown by Mahatma Gandhi, Guru Nanak, Mother Teresa and others, setting up separate 'foundations'48 to address particular health or education needs has been a time-honoured premise of Indian business.
But the prominence of activists such as author Arundhati Roy and Amit Srivastava of the campaign group India Resource Center has grown in recent years along with an awakening to the negative social and environmental impacts of the business operations courted by their government's 'corporate welfare' programmes. Even the latest mainstream Bollywood blockbuster Rang De Basanti49 delivered an inspirational message encouraging activism against powerful corporate interests and corrupt political collusion, albeit through song and choreographed dance.
The future of corporate responsibility in India must involve a wide variety of participants, from the high-altitude executives in Davos to the low-caste entrepreneurs in Gudalur.
40 Fareed Zakaria, 'India Rising', Newsweek, 6 March 2006; www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11571348/site/newsweek.
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