Thursday, December 28, 2006

Business as philanthropy

The CPI(M) should be credited with a revolutionary achievement. It has been successful in transforming business into philanthropy, and businessmen into philanthropists.

The earliest instance of this revolutionary transformation that I can personally recall is the acquisition by the state govt, in the early 1990s, of a large plot of land on the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass in Calcutta, for handover to a private business group to build a “5-star” hospital. Obviously, this wonderful act of benevolence by the business group merits land acquisition and handover, its in the public interest. And in such good work, what does it matter that the business group eventually sold the hospital to its overseas collaborator and made a neat profit (for its efficient mediation using its access to people who matter)?

Some years later, we witnessed another remarkable revolutionary transformation, with a real estate development company undertaking a “social” mission, by way of constructing some apartments for the low-income population (in a segregated, and already squalid section) as part of a large project for which, once again, public land was made available to the developer. For this great act of benevolence, the developer went on to receive a national award. He also went on to receive further, and continuing, awards of public land for his private projects.

Having established his philanthropic credentials, the same developer also blessed the city with its first “heritage mall”, for which valuable public land was given by the state govt (no matter that the city is starved of open and recreational spaces). Here one must buy a ticket to enter, and patronise costumed “ethnic” vendors, selling “street foods”. The poets, painters and intelligentsia of the city are often to be found inaugurating and gracing splendid functions in this mall, unfettered by any notions of public space in the face of private joys.

In the last few years, a whole new philanthropic real estate sector has emerged, all of whom have merited gifts of land.

Perhaps the sector where the revolutionary transformation is best manifest is in public transport. Private bus owners are doing a great favour to the masses by ferrying them across the city. Hence this necessitates organising the city's public transport system around meeting the needs of bus owners, rather than meeting the transportation needs of the people.

This should help us see the Singur issue in perspective. The Tatas are keen to engage in an act of great benevolence and philanthropy towards the people of West Bengal, by starting a car plant. (This imperative is so compelling that they are compelled to ignore what even The Economist says: “With India's transport arteries already so badly clogged, a boom in sales of low-cost cars could bring about a seizure.”)

For this benevolence, surely the state govt is justified in enabling that by giving them a huge tract of land? Not for this new breed of "social" businesses anything like the stupid market principles. They help people, so the state helps them.

Business itself has become philanthropy. And where earlier there would have been a little bit of "corporate social responsibility” by business houses, now the philanthropic houses do a little bit of business activity, making a little bit of incidental profit.

It is unfair and unjust that this revolutionary achievement of the CPI(M) has not been widely recognised or acknowledged.

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