With the new Companies Bill being passed, a lot of discussion veers into the actual effects of the Bill. Keeping in with this, the National Foundation for India (NFI) held a discussion with members of civil society, the corporate sector and the government in attendance. 

Several leading civil society leaders have expressed their concerns about the limiting nature of the activities listed as CSR activities under Schedule VII of the Companies Bill as passed by the Indian Parliament.

Keping this in mind a panel discussion on “Companies Bill 2013 and Its Implications on Indian civil society” was organised by the National Foundation for India (NFI) on 5th September, 2013. The discussion was attended by an array of people from many different fields and 50 representatives from civil society were present.

The discussion was very invigorating especially due to the panel and speakers. The panel comprised of Amitabh Behar, Executive Director, NFI, Harsh Jaitli, CEO, Voluntary Action Network India (VANI), Syeda Hameed, Member of the Planning Commission of India,Rajesh Tandon, President, Pria, Pooran Pandey, Executive Director, UN-Global Compact, and K K Upadhyay, Head- CSR, FICCI.

While most agreed the Companies Act is a welcome step to foster close partnerships between the corporate organisations and the voluntary sector, many raised concerns about the limiting nature of the CSR provisions. Schedule VII of the Act lists out nine activities which can be included by companies in their Corporate Social responsibility policies. Most of the activities recommended are service delivery in nature, while issues such as activities for governance improvement, accountability, and human rights etc which play a key role to upheld democratic values in a society have been left out.

Amitabh Behar from NFI and convener of Wada na Todo Abhiyan, emphasised the broader fact of shrinking financing mechanism for the civil society and the need to support activities that are critical to uphold democratic principles in the country along with welfare service delivery.

Dr. Rajesh Tandon talked about the larger implications of the Act and said there are many other provisions apart from the CSR bit that has taken care to facilitate business to play a more constructive role in nation building. He emphasised on the fact that corporate citizenship does not only include the CSR aspect of a company but the whole functioning of the company itself. He called upon civil society members to deeply engage with the corporate sector not only on aspects of CSR but also in other areas that affect our society.

Syeda Hameed called upon civil society to take up a higher trajectory to engage with corporate houses and offered full support of the government to bring in a fruitful tripartite partnership between the Government, civil society and the private sector.

Though Harsh Jaitly of VANI walked on the other side of the debate, and talked of the many ambiguities in the CSR provision, saying that these should be clarified in the detailed guidelines. Pooran Pandey of UN-Global Compact welcomed the Act and called for the civil society to participate in enriching the draft guidelines before it gets finalised. He caleld the Companies Bill a “boat the civil society” should not miss to partner with the private sector. Dr. KK Upadhaya termed it as a welcome step and urged to bring an attitudinal outlook towards the corporate sector to foster better partnerships. He said, finding out good companies, good people and establishing a platform for regular interaction are critical to take this good initiative ahead.

There wasn’t lack of debate in the conference. One participant termed such provisions as a conspiracy to turn the civil society from its role of “social transformers” to “social contractors”. Some others also raised the issue of specific provisions that might lead to regional imbalances in CSR investments depending on industrialization status of the region.

The discussion ended with a note that while civil society is still grappling with the potential implications of the Companies Act, the policy makers and the corporate sector need to ork together to make the most of the opportunity.

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