A look at the levels of accountability and responsibility in Indian society at different points in history and what we can expect on those fronts in the future.

Corporate social responsibility has become a buzzword in today’s business world and was even singled out for special treatment in the latest Companies Act 2013. But despite the formal importance attached to it, its actual visibility is limited in the present Indian context. The question that then arises is whether social responsibility – at the government, corporate and individual levels – has historically been lacking in India and whether we can expect this to change as we move forward.

If mythological accounts are to be given any weight, ancient India was characterized by high levels of accountability. There is no subsequent parallel to “Ram Rajya”, during which the best practices in governance and social responsibility were followed. The prime role of the State was to work for the well being of its citizens. There are many other references to good governance in our literature, including “Vidur Niti” at the time of the Mahabharata and “Chanakya Niti” at a later point in time.

In the country’s more recent recorded history, the State became fragmented and a feudal framework emerged. Then came colonization, the self-serving nature of which further wore out the fabric of social responsibility. Even in the post-colonial era, successive governments have been preoccupied with staying in power and maintaining their supremacy. In all of this, the needs and concerns of the governed or the citizens of the country were ignored.
A similar evolution can be witnessed in the business sphere as well. Prior to the industrial revolution, business was more craft-based and centered on the individual. The farmers, craftsmen and traders who ran their own businesses placed a high premium on honesty and ethics. The overhead involved in business transactions was low when ethical conduct was given the topmost priority. Individuals who were able to develop and grow their businesses donated generously to public causes and employee welfare.

Those were the times when a sense of civic responsibility was also high at the individual level. The joint family system expected that each member contribute for the well being of other members. Similarly, in the villages of the country, concern for the greater community ran high with civic issues addressed directly in village panchayats.

Our societal framework has changed over the years. With growing urbanization, nuclear families have become the norm. An increase in population density has made a lot of resources very scarce. The post-partition sociological changes of the country have brought out our survivalist instincts. In essence, this has caused a more self-centric culture to take root in our society and pushed civic responsibility to the background.

Thus, it can be argued that with the passage of time, the Indian psyche has gradually become more self-interested and materialistic across all spheres – government, corporate and individual. As a result, we see poor governance, unethical business practices, and a dire lack of civic responsibility.

The underlying principle of sound governance is an ability to demonstrate accountability and responsibility towards all the stakeholders involved. This important aspect of stakeholder theory is rarely addressed in the modern corporate enterprise where the prime stakeholder is almost always the shareholder.

Corporate social responsibility is designed to expand this concern towards other stakeholders, including employees and society at large. Farsighted enterprises realize that this is key to long-term sustainability and look for ways to improve their triple bottom line in terms of financial, social and environmental performance. Companies such as ITC and Hindustan Lever Limited provide models that are worthy of emulation in the conduct of their business.
Since this degradation has taken place across all levels, it is imperative to reintroduce accountability into the system. This can be accomplished by assessing the situation, as well as its players and processes in a holistic manner. In order to change the situation, all the players or stakeholders have to be made accountable through relevant processes, systems and institutions.

We cannot just blame the Indian psyche for a deficit in civic sense when this is also caused by a lack of proper systems. For example, in the absence of a sound waste management system and public dustbins, people have no option but to throw garbage in the open. Different environments may elicit different forms of behavior from the same people. They may litter or behave in an irresponsible manner in a crowded market, but follow more accepted social norms in a clean mall or restaurant. Thus, we need both better systems as well as more education to develop the individual sense of responsibility and accountability.

Can we hope for a positive shift in this direction as we move forward? Technology and social media may provide a means to this goal. It can help to create awareness on the one hand and enforce government and corporate accountability through public pressure and opinion. The process of change involves a mix of bottom up as well as top down methods. Bottom up, we build awareness and top down, we push for institutions and systems to fulfill their obligation to society.

Prof. Sushil is a professor at the Indian Institute of...