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Culture of callousness

7 Jan. 2012 11:13 PM IST

Are you responsible for things you don’t know? Of course not, snorts the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) — that would be so unfair.

Especially if you are pumping in corporate investment in an industry-starved state like West Bengal. In a public statement this week on the fire that killed 93 at Kolkata’s AMRI hospital last month, and the prompt arrest of its directors, Ficci demanded the immediate release of directors “not responsible for day-to-day operations”. Of course Ficci wished “to promote investment and accelerate economic activity” in the state, it said pointedly, and a “judicious, non-discriminatory and objective handling of the AMRI case will go a long way in restoring the investors’ confidence…”

Not possible, snapped chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who has demanded stringent punishment for the AMRI accused, and even compared them to terrorists.

Not surprising, given Ms Banerjee’s dramatic style in dealing with industry to rouse public sentiment. After the AMRI fire that killed the sick in their hospital beds as most doctors and nurses fled and guards refused to call in the fire brigade or allow volunteers in to help save patients, the anger on the streets was palpable.

Clapping the rich directors in jail helped control the fury of those who had lost relatives and friends thanks to the hospital’s criminal callousness and deliberate flouting of fire-safety norms.

But it has also, for the first time in history, given the city a bit of a communal stink. The arrested directors all happen to be Marwaris. Bengalis on the board, like Dr Soumendra Nath Banerjee, chairman, and directors Ashim Kumar Das and Dr Pranab Dasgupta, have not been charged.

Nor is the managing director, Prof. M.K. Chhetri, an accused. Because they had nothing to do with the administration; they were doctors providing medical care.

Never mind the nitty-gritty, the Marwaris — one of the oldest and most vibrant communities of Kolkata — feel discriminated against. Some have been resigning from boards of directors and charitable trusts, fearing harassment.

“Non-Bengali” industrialists have been talking of moving their investments and new ventures to Gujarat and other states. In short, the city of joy that made everyone feel at home was going the way of Mumbai and others, where “outsiders” felt hurt and persecuted.

But if doctors are not held responsible for management lapses, is it fair to jail elderly directors who had little to do with the everyday administration of the hospital? If we are to take corporate responsibility seriously, we must hold all the directors responsible — and give them all a fair trial, not keep them locked up in jail without bail to appease public sentiment.

For genuine corporate responsibility, the buck moves up the ladder and stops with the top honcho, covering everyone en route. Why are we still hounding Warren Anderson, almost 30 years after the Bhopal gas disaster? As Union Carbide chairman in far away America, he was not involved in the day-to-day administration of the Bhopal plant that leaked, so why do we still want to jail him for criminal neglect?

If we let off directors not involved in day-to-day operations of the business, we may end up punishing only the little people — timid clerks and lower administrative officers who take orders.
But letting off the powerful while making a scapegoat of some hapless lesser mortal has been our style. Take the case of Shikha Bibi, another recent victim of hospital neglect in Bengal.

About a month before the AMRI tragedy, Shikha gave birth to a baby boy in the Lalbagh Subdivisional Hospital of Murshidabad. Instead of antiseptic, she was “cleaned up” by generously swabbing her with acid, which left her horribly burnt, and allegedly killed her baby. The district health officials panicked, blamed a lowly ayah who was arrested while the nurses and doctors responsible went untouched. And the police have been threatening Shikha and her family, egging her to play along with their handy version of truth.

It is convenient to make a scapegoat out of a lone, disempowered, illiterate woman. If it were mandatory that directors and higher officials take the blame, then there would be more accountability. Why would the directors not know? Why can’t they take responsibility? Why be a director if you can’t be responsible?

Remember how in the 2G spectrum scam last year, Dayalu Ammal (Mrs Karunanidhi II) was not charged even as others, including her stepdaughter, Kanimozhi, went to jail? Dayalu Ammal, a signatory and director of Kalaignar TV, was spared because she did not know English and so did not participate in the day-to-day affairs of the channel. Maybe true. But the logic is dangerous. It defies the basic tenets of any responsible organisation, and the fundamental ethics of corporate responsibility.

In short, if you can’t take the blame, don’t take the cash or the glory of a director’s post. Be an adviser. If you are a technocrat or specialist, call yourself a specialist, not a director. Every retired big shot becomes director of several companies- it’s obviously not possible to be responsible for all.

If you want to lend your name or expertise, be an adviser or friend or chief of the pantheon staff for all I care, just don’t be director or manager and then feign ignorance. The age of dummy directors is over. Stakeholders should demand accountability.

But it is not just about directors. Avoiding responsibility has become the norm. There is a new illiteracy-where we can sign but don’t know what we have signed. MPs, babus, directors, CEOs, bosses and signing authorities of all kinds sign blindly.

Ordinary folk filing papers routinely sign on empty forms, next to an “x” marked usually with a pencil. Don’t bother to fill it out; there are lesser mortals who will do it. Even insurance forms.

If you wish to fill it out yourself or request that it be first filled out before you sign, they laugh politely-it’s routine, you are told; don’t worry, sign here. Mocking eyes insist that you ask no questions, if you are to be respected as an important person, as someone who has no ruddy time for such frivolous activity as actually reading the paperwork or filling forms you put your name to. So many papers to sign, so little time. Every step breeds a culture of irresponsibility. If we expect responsible corporate governance, we must begin at home, with the pen we hold over the blank form with an “x” on a dotted line.

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Antara Dev Sen
Culture of callousness
1/7/2012 11:15:08 PM
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Culture of callousness
1/7/2012 11:13:06 PM