Is India Inc ready to talk about discrimination?

When the whole world is struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic, another pandemic that has survived for centuries has stirred the US. It is discrimination. The murder of George Floyd (a Black American) by a white policeman has awakened the US and some other countries against racial discrimination. Protests across the globe are reported. Floyd’s murder is not the first case when a Black has died due to the brutality of white police personnel. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement started in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of African American teen Trayvon Martin in February 2012. The BLM movement got momentum in 2014 following the deaths of two African American -- Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It is not only the police brutality, Blacks suffer from various other types of discrimination. The CEO of the Business Roundtable, which is an association of the CEOs of America’s leading companies, issued the statement, which says: “Having spoken to many CEOs of America’s leading businesses, I know they share my conviction that this is time to act to address racial inequality. The pain our country is feeling should be turned into real change.” This and such statements by CEOs on Twitter supporting the protest lack credibility, because many experts believe that corporate America benefits from racial discrimination, although it pretends that it is against racial discrimination.

Similar to colour discrimination in America, cast discrimination is deep malice in the Indian social system. Dalits faces the highest level of discrimination against other groups in the cast hierarchy (upper caste). The 2016 report of the National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) reported figures for crimes against SC/ST in 19 metropolitan cities based on crimes reported under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. The figures are enlightening. In 2016, in Lucknow, Patna, Hyderabad, and Bengaluru 262, 241, 207, and 139 crimes were registered. One can well imagine the situation in rural India. The figures do not represent the true story, as most of the crimes go unreported. Members of Dalit and other socially or economically marginalised communities face unsurmountable difficulties in penetrating the behemoth establishment of police and law enforcement for reporting crimes because they are stigmatised and due to their lack of education. Often those establishments are dominated by members of upper castes and therefore, they support members of upper castes. Recent research shows that atrocities on Dalit have increased as Dalits are aspiring to go up and get some success. The India Human Development Survey data for 2011-12 shows over 27 per cent of Indians admit that they practice untouchability, which is illegal.

Another deep-rooted menace in Indian society is religion-based discrimination. The state of affairs is such that religion-based discrimination is palpable. For that, no statistic is required.

Like the corporate sector in the US, the Indian corporate sector pretends it is against discrimination but does not act to bring about necessary social changes. So far, it is engaged in producing rhetoric and policy statements. The corporate sector, being the most powerful organ of society, must contribute actively to bring about long-term social changes that benefit future generations. Unfortunately, it acts only to bring changes in culture and habits that help it improve its performance in terms of return on investment in the short to medium term. It is time, when we are prepar-ing to usher in a new normal, the corporate sector acted to bring about the ‘real change’.

CEOs and boards of directors should together develop a long-term plan for bringing in the ‘real change’. A few urgent actions that companies should proactively initiate with immediately are: Audit whether their anti-discrimination policy has percolated down and implemented at all the levels of the organisation and by all the partners in the supply chain; adopt no-tolerance for caste- and religion-based discrimination; provide equity training to employees; educate employees from marginalised communities about the whistle-blower policy and give them a voice; reimagine the corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy and allocate part of the fund and other resources for fighting against discrimination in partnership with Dalit NGOs and NGOs being run by minority communities, which cannot reach out to the company for fundraising.

If corporate India continues to pretend that it is against discrimination and do not act, India will not be a more prosperous, equitable, and sustainable society and a better new normal will not emerge. It has to walk the talk.
/> The writer is founder and MD of Nonlinear Insights and former professor of IIM Calcutta
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