Saturday, 31 December 2011

Sustainability - The key agenda for 2012

Year 2011 sprang unexpected challenges for governance as a whole. Both - Polity and Corporate were seen at the receiving end as people marched onto the streets to vent their anger and frustration against a system that failed to maintain equity.

In the Middle-East, the epicenter of revolutionary protests, unprecedented turmoil prevailed as civilians challenged the might of firmly entrenched dictatorial regimes. The slogan ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam -"the people want to bring down the regime" - echoed throughout the Arab world. As governments in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt fell, it rocked other nations that immediately tightened control over possible uprisings.

In the US and Europe, spontaneously orchestrated 'occupy' protests targeted the increasing corporate influence on democracy. The rallying slogan "We are the 99%" mocked at governance mechanisms that abetted corporate fraud and greed resulting in concentration of money and power in the hands of few. It also drove the message strong and clear that faith and patience in governments are waning. 

Back in Asia, a popular protest in India against rampant corruption in government institutions captured the nation's imagination. Led by social activist Anna Hazare, the fight for a strong legislation to curb corruption and to punish corrupt bureaucrats and politicians reached its zenith as millions of people demanded for a Lokpal legislation - the anti-graft ombudsman. Though the intent of the movement was not to topple the government but it demonstrated the power of a non-violent protest - an unparalleled mass movement not witnessed in independent India.

But what forced civilians to take up the cudgels to change their destiny?

The 2011 Great Arab Spring was against dictatorship. It was a peoples' aspiration to control their destiny and govern themselves. The revolution has had the enormous potential to bring about political and social change that through other reformist methods might have taken years to achieve. It has its roots in Tunisia, where a university-educated 26 year old, Mohammed Bouzizi refused to pay bribes to government officials for improving his business prospects by shifting from a wheelbarrow to a pick-up truck. Bouzizi's cart was confiscated and he was beaten up. Upset at not getting justice, Bouzizi immolated himself. Just after a month, strong protests led to the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power.

'Occupy' protests were an outcome of government's inability to restore economic stability. Loss of jobs, rising prices of essential commodities and more importantly the 'financial uncertainty' that prevailed over most of the western capital markets accentuated the crisis. The sequence of corporate bail-outs at the expense of tax-payer's money also played havoc with peoples' sentiments. The protesters might not have been well conversant with the financial wizardry or the government's crafty policies but they made a valid argument when they asked - "Why let corporate go scott free for the mess it has created?" 

The 2011 Indian anti-corruption movement was a result of continued ignorance by government authorities to check corruption. The involvement of ruling MPs, top bureaucrats and corporate big-wigs in tweaking government policies, embezzlement of public money and abuse of political power to promote corporate interests set the background for urgent action to cleanse the system.

These movements are contextually disconnected and differently oriented but have strikingly similar motivations. Social and economic inequality, corruption and disrespect for human rights led to a build-up of a crisis of confidence in governance that reflected in various hues ranging from non-violent, peaceful, silent protests to violent civil wars. They are manifestations of underlying fractures in the social strata that  have been deepened by years of callousness and are now cracking under pressure. Its not about stability of governments or longevity of businesses. Its about looking at how sustainable our societies are. Dictatorships, corporate overdrive and greed, corrupt governments create bigger divisions between the powerful and the vulnerable and are unsustainable.  

These events in 2011 would have far reaching consequences in terms of setting a public mood to challenge status-quo and to fight for rights. It has added a new dimension to the existing complex environment in which governments and businesses now have to function. 

Governance structures need to be shielded from excessive corporate influence. Governments need to think twice before embarking upon grandiose plans and must act in a balanced way so as to safeguard interests of stakeholders. The public sentiments can be matched by bringing more transparency, by increasing sensitivity for human rights and by tailoring policies that bridge the social divide. 

Corporate needs to understand that accountability and transparency would be central to their business operations. Wanton exploitation of natural resources, skillful obfuscation of financial, social and environmental impacts would no longer work in their favor. 

As Adlai Stevenson - the noted US statesman of the sixties pointed that "We are living in one of the most  inequitable of worlds", sustainability - as an agenda, must be a top priority, for governments and corporate, if they want to survive.

G V P Rajan is Vice President (Sustainable Strategies) at and can be reached at

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