Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Blood on the Balance Sheet

Last week's visit to Orissa still reverberates. During our travels last week, we drove past a bridge over the River Daya. River Daya holds a very important place in history. It is on the banks of this river that Ashoka, the mighty Magadhan emperor turned repentant seeing the destruction that his war on Kalinga had caused. As the clear waters of the river turned to a bloody red, Ashoka turned from war to compassion. As the corpses mounted on the banks of the river, Ashoka repented his meaningless war. Ashoka transformed from "Chandasoka" to "Dharmasoka". Evil Asoka gave way to Pious Asoka, and he then went on to be called "Ashoka the great".

Today, Orissa remains a battleground for different reasons. In Orissa, there is the tribal heartland untouched by modern advancements. However, if the news trickling in over the past few years is to be believed, Orissa is the new battleground between mining companies on one side and the defenseless tribal on the other. There have been Amnesty International reports of human rights violations of the tribals by a certain company in their quest for bauxite. Companies listed on the stock exchange, respectable companies where ordinary folks like you and me could be shareholders, these companies could be built over someones misery? The story is not about one company or one state or one country. The latest report is about a recent poster-child of the stock market, a path breaking micro-finance company who in their zeal for results played a role in many suicides of poor indebted villagers. It is said that their means of loan recovery were violent and brutal. This company was set up to enable and create an inclusive approach to development and it soon turned into the loan shark it was trying to replace, the village pawnbroker himself. The only difference between the two being this was organized business funded through the stock market by people like you and me. And then, who has not seen the headline grabbing news about the big Olympics sponsorship and the row it has created. A big corporation that took over a controversial company that caused the Bhopal gas tragedy and now refuses to acknowledge that as its doing. There are many instances of corporations doing the wrong thing, some thinking about the next quarter results and others thinking about long term empire building accumulating dubious blood stained assets, but all of them thinking about their story for the market analysts, thinking about their attractiveness for investors. All these companies think you, me and other investors will buy because we are only interested in return on investment. Isn't it time we set the record straight? Isn't it time we said "No" to investing in companies that plunder and pillage? 

This is the River Daya moment for all of us. It is time to replace the meaningless pursuit of "return on investment" with "social impact of investment". There are many clean companies out there, there are many businesses out there that truly mean to change the world for the better. Choose them in your portfolio, because they matter to this world, because they matter to your value system. Discard the blood stained corporations, you don't need bad karma. This is what conscious capitalism is all about, what shariah investments are about, what social impact investing is about......Think about it. It matters. Blood on your hands? Blood on the Balance Sheet? Say NO.

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