Corporate social responsibility (CSR), or the fact of CSR becoming a sort of law, has bred a strange phenomenon (are all phenomena strange by default?) of companies going into self-denial mode. In what sense, one may ask. Do they behave as if they have no responsibility in the first place? Or do they outright deny the fact of their being corporations at all? If not that, do they act like the proverbial babe (or boy) in the woods—lost and confused about what their mandate should or must be, desperate to get essential information and smart advice, scrambling to get a handle on their resources, figuring out how best to get the best media mileage out of least spending, and generally buying time. All of these may apply variously to various companies at various points in time.

We are talking about a different sort of self-denial here. Let’s see.

So, to begin with, what would you make of a chocolate and candy brand that wants to be seen as a crusader of concepts such as ‘joy of movement’ and ‘active lifestyles’? Or a carbonated drink and sugary juices brand promoting running and presenting itself as a water conservationist of sorts?

Before you baulk at the incredulity of it all, before you break into a fit of laughter, and right before you feel indignation at the daring of such brands who seem to think we do not think, take out a couple of minutes to feel sorry for the brand in question. They have got it so off the mark that absolutely nobody will be fooled. A brand that disowns itself cannot possibly inspire trust. True? Right?

A brand that is putting a load of sugar in our bodies is also asking us to run so that we may burn the calories that we have earned thanks to all the sugar it has managed to sell to us. Is it then owning up to its responsibility or disowning its totally irresponsible product? You see, therein lies the irony and the vagueness, and the big fat lie (pun totally intended).

The irony is intact when a drinking-water behemoth offers to fight ‘extreme poverty and hunger’ by distributing hundreds of thousands of biscuit packets. They intend to reach out to a million homes (with biscuits presumably). (This official release was released on the eve of Independence Day. Another I-Day release from a multinational electronics company announces its ‘free India from hunger’ campaign where it is asking people to pledge their support towards ‘no food wastage’. Basically the campaign is meant to encourage people to eat only as much as they need. How, though, such measured eating by the haves will translate into enough food on the table of the have-nots is a bit of logistics that remains to be explained.)

Independence Day brings us to the lunches hosted throughout the country by companies to mark one or the other special day. These free lunches are of course for children from the ‘underprivileged’ strata of society. All very well, should we say? We all like our free lunches, no? (Just pass by a puja stall during the festive season – the queue for the meal  [bhog] is truly democratic, being made up of everyman. Not necessarily everyone in the queue is there to keep the faith.) For those who say there is nothing called a free lunch, well, what can one say to them?

One may not be far off the mark in thinking that these free lunches/excursions to a film show/leisurely indulgences are primarily feel-good exercises (the good feeling being mutual among the hosting company and the ones hosted). At the same time, can we deny that the sponsoring company is looking for or expecting media mileage out of the money spent on charity?

On another note (but related to the running theme of self-denial and irony), why are these natural resources companies not called natural resources-depleting (-devouring, if you may) companies? And pray, for what good actions are they conferred with ‘good corporate citizen’ awards, and with such alarming regularity too?

Come to think of it, there is hardly any one large corporation in India that has not received one or the other home-grown CSR award. They are all doing good work and India is doing good.

Good point, that. The numbers and impact studies given out by companies suggest that whole communities are undergoing positive (and drastic) transformation – they are becoming self-reliant, they are sending their children to school, they are all (men and women) learning to work and earn, they have access to electricity and sanitation facilities, they have medical facilities on call, they are aware about the earth and its needs, and so on. Basically, we are to believe that we are moving towards a sort of utopia—slowly, slowly, but surely so.

And what do the United Nations and a host of other development agencies have to say? That the world is nonetheless (not their adverb) teeming with poverty and diseases; also, global warming and Antarctic ice melting is increasingly irreversible. India’s development journey so far has been half-baked, to put it mildly. Be it the Global Hunger Index or the Human Development Index, India lags behind and how. The country can fare much, much better. The challenges – in terms of tackling mind-numbing poverty, diseases, ignorance, illiteracy, attitudes, etc., and above all, restoring dignity and confidence – are real and deep and cannot be met with token CSR statements and funds. Self-denial is selfish, and will also prove to be foolish in the long run.