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Oct 26, 2015

Emphasizing a human rights-based approach to inclusiveness in business

Viraf Mehta

Inclusive business is a debatable concept. If you consider the number of conversations we seem to be having in the country on gender and women, particularly in business, someone may talk about women’s empowerment and understand that in a particular way, while someone else may talk about women’s welfare. I recommend a rights-based approach. It begins with understanding a basic human rights framework, because how can we expect Indian companies to be inclusive without their first understanding the rights-based approach to inclusiveness, or exclusiveness?

The underlying word here is non-discrimination as a human right. We must first understandhow companies wittingly or unwittingly discriminate based on gender, age, caste, background, ability or disability, political beliefs etc. If exclusion in these categories by businesses is witting, then it should be prevented. If it is unwitting, then the companies should educate themselves in human rights.

The key is first to understand whether businesses are ready to understand a rights-based approach to inclusion. Apart from maybe a dozen companies, there is only a nascent understanding of the rights-based approach to inclusion, exclusion and discrimination among Indian businesses. Under these circumstances, any initiatives companies would take would be more tactical than long-term or sustainable and strategic.

In order to understand the role of business in preserving human rights, companies can refer to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a recently established global standard that describes corporate responsibility to respect human rights. It is the most explicit document available on this subject, with specific content that calls for six or seven things companies may do. Furthermore, while drafting our own National Voluntary Guidelines, we referred to the UNGP as well as the Indian constitution and articulated a guiding principle that outlines the significance of human rights.

Rights-based legislations such as the Right to Information and the Right to Education signal a move towards such a thought process, and companies are beginning to understand them. The National and State Human Rights Commissions need also to start playing a more proactive role in helping widen the understanding of human rights as an essential benchmark in responsible business strategies, not only by receiving and addressing complaints about companies that may have impinged on someone’s human rights, but also through civil society organizations and business schools. For example, if a well-known non-government organization working on education, children or women’s welfare engages with companies through partnerships, they should not feel shy to educate the companies on the long-term benefits and advantages of adopting a rights-based approach to those issues.

In India, important drivers for the adoption of inclusive business practices will be the youth, the emerging middle class, as well as the consumers. I don’t think people are just looking at companies as providers of goods and services anymore, who can stand aside and say that they only exist for profit. Business responsibility, therefore, is something that should be introduced at school level, rather than waiting till masters’ level to discuss principles of what constitutes good business practices. Young India will have a better understanding of human rights, and will be better positioned to develop and implement policies for a sustainable and equitable future.

The India Responsible Business Forum (IRBF) Index 2015 is an initiative by Oxfam India in partnership with Corporate Responsibility Watch, Praxis and Partners in Change, non-profits which look at corporate accountability and business responsibility.

 

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