Remember, the money doesn’t belong to you!

At a lunch party in Delhi recently I was confronted by a woman in a pink sari who effectively pinned me down while she lectured to me on the importance of corporate social responsibility. No one came to my rescue for ten minutes and I began to fret. I wondered how to get away from her without causing offence. Then I remembered some advice from a Bengali friend who had mentioned that in such situations a white lie is one’s best ally. So, I glanced over my overbearing tormentor’s shoulder as though someone had distracted me. I whispered loudly, ‘Coming, coming!’ to the imaginary person. Then I lied brazenly to my oppressor, ‘Ah, what a pity, I am being dragged away’ and I moved on shaking my head reluctantly.

At first I felt guilty for having lied but soon I realized that I had done a good deed. The Mahabharata tells us about honest Kaushika, who is accosted by a gang of robbers, demanding to know where the witness to their crime is hiding. Kaushika unwisely tells the truth and promptly gets the witness killed. To his surprise, Kaushika ends up in hell where he learns that in this case his duty to ahimsa, ‘non-injury’ trumped his duty to satya, ‘truth’. In the same spirit I feel that that by lying I had saved my tormentor from the pain of learning that she is a bore. I am convinced that white lies are the basis of civilization.

What troubles me, however, is the presumption of the woman in pink. I ask myself why no one lectures doctors, lawyers, or even journalists on their social responsibility. Why rage only on the social responsibility of business? Business persons do seem to arouse much more hate, fear, and contempt. They are blamed for making us materialistic and consumerist, for promoting selfishness and greed. The market is reviled for debasing our taste through advertising, for making us buy things we do not need. Capitalism is denounced for alienating workers, for creating unjust inequalities, for corrupting the government and for ruining the environment.

It is true that in India our animus against capitalism has diminished in recent years as our economy has risen and we have tasted the fruits of reform. Communism’s fall has also helped. While people have begun to believe that markets deliver greater prosperity, they do not think that capitalism is a moral system. We still think that morality must somehow depend on religion. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is supposed to be the answer to alleviate the guilty conscience of business persons for having made a profit. CSR has a nice ring to it and it has been a buzz word for over a decade. There are CSR departments in companies, CSR courses in business schools and CSR reporters in newspapers. And yet, why does something so worthy and high-minded leave me profoundly uneasy?

The premise of the lady in pink is that that a firm is obligated to ‘give something back’ to those that make its success possible. Her image of a firm is a free rider, unjustly enriching itself at the community’s expense. Hence, good deeds are necessary to redeem firms and transform them into good citizens. But why should firms be obligated to give something back when they give so much already? Rather than enslave their employees, they pay them wages and benefits. Rather than steal from customers, they deliver goods and services that people value and pay for. Rather than ride freely on public services, they pay taxes.

According to my friend, Parth Shah, the CSR movement is trying to get the market to perform the function of the civil society or the state. Society consists of the state, the market, and civil society, and the individual is variously a citizen (of a state), a customer (in the market) and a member of a community. It is often difficult to define the separate the three domains. Historically, the state has protected life, liberty, and property. Civil Society, through voluntary organizations, self-help groups, religious communities and charities provided education, healthcare and supported the needy. Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated this vibrant social sector in his wonderful travelogue, Democracy in America and regarded it as the foundation of democracy.

Under the ‘fatal conceit of socialism’ (in Hayek’s words), the state began to usurp the functions performed by the market (the mercantilist state) and civil society (the welfare state). The fall of communism has forced the state to withdraw from the domain of the market, and many countries as a result have experienced unprecedented prosperity in the past two decades. The state still controls the functions of civil society and hopefully one day it too will gain freedom from the state.

 ‘The social responsibility of business is to make a profit,’ said Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winner, in a famous article in the New York Times. He explained that in making a profit a company creates thousands of jobs, both directly and indirectly through suppliers, distributors and retailers. It imparts valuable skills to its employees. It pays millions in taxes.  It improves the lives of millions of satisfied customers with its products and services. This is an enormous service to society. If some shareholders get rich along the way, does it really matter? Companies should focus single-mindedly on their competence, providing goods and services better than their competitors, and not get distracted by extraneous activity. A company’s social responsibility is to make profits legally, not to harm nature, and uphold the highest standards of governance.

 I find that many executives and businessmen do not value what they do and hence are attracted to guilt allaying, often hypocritical PR programs of corporate social responsibility. Managers must first take pride in making a profit. Second, they must remember that the company's money does not belong to them but to shareholders. So, the only CSR activities that are justified are those that increase profits.

 Individuals, however, should engage vigorously in philanthropy. It is immoral to spend the company’s money but it admirable to spend your own money on charity. It is a theft against Reliance’s shareholders if the company embarks on building hospitals, but it is admirable if Mukesh Ambani does. Hence, Tatas do their charity work through their trusts. CSR should be relabelled ISR, Individual Social Responsibility, and each of us, as individuals ought to feel the need to give back.


 Gurcharan Das is the author of  ‘The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma’


I'm currently reading your

I'm currently reading your book 'The difficulty of being good'. Congratulations for such a great book.
In the above artice I find the following lines notable
'A company’s social responsibility is to make profits legally, not to harm nature, and uphold the highest standards of governance'

Well said. But do you think it is practically possible to ensure that every corporation follows the above laws. I dont think so(atleast not in India today). Isn't it the Corporation's(Sorry I'm taking it as a human) dharma to negate its vices. E.g. A corporation which causes a lot of harm to the environment(and there a many!) can engage in a CSR activity to protect the environment. Atleast until we have the ideal world where every coporation is following the above mentioned laws!

Dear Sir, I write from

Dear Sir,

I write from Malaysia. I am dropping a line to say that I have read 3 of your books - The Elephant Paradigm, India Unbound and the Difficulty of Being Good.

I thoroughly enjoyed them - especially the last one.

Thank you.

I run a company in Malaysia that is in the business of "Spreading the Spirit of Entrepreneurship".


I will come to my

I will come to my question.

Darupadi married Arjuna ,this is the legal status and it is only due to mother kunti telling them what ever they have brought they should share .

How can yudhshthar stake her & when there was debate in sabha and Bhishma explaining and later karna explaining , but issue of dharma was discussed but only arjuna had right to stake her and this issues is not debated
I also read Shivaji Sawant Yugandher & Mrituyanjay , and I also read your book ,in fact i almost re read Mrituanjay second time along with your book and it makes interesting reading ,I understand bhandarkar insititute in Poona has huge crtical work done on Mahabharata and you have made some reference of this work .
We may not know each other but we met at manglore airport ,
earlier i was Country President of Alstom T&D ( ArEVA T&D) and also MD
Ajay Dhagat

resp sir, Your article

resp sir,

Your article always gives me some different approach of thinking and i don't want to miss any one of them,

The issue you have discussed here is very interesting and i found quite touching in my situation.

I have completed M tech (mechanical) from IIT-ROORKEE, and i already established a firm providing CAD-CAM designs for SME's at INDORE since last 6 years, right from first year of my B tech. degree,

I am passionating about my work and as a result of that, it has good revenue,

the problem i feel while doing the things against the flow, people i found at IIT, always discourage a growing entrepreneur, and we have to bear criticism and comments as you wrote in the article

“They are blamed for making us materialistic and consumerist, for promoting selfishness and greed”.

CSR should be relabelled ISR, Individual Social Responsibility, and each of us, as individuals ought to feel the need to give back.


Suyog maheshwari
M tech (Mechanical)

Dear Mr Das Excellent

Dear Mr Das

Excellent perspective to the concept of CSR. I don't have words to describe this article. Its always a pleasure to read your articles which are invariably rich in intellect and new perspective on contemporary issues.


Gaurav Tongia

sir, what's your view on the

sir, what's your view on the recent practices by some companies to inflate their CSR b making hospitals and all schools but the ultimate goals remains the same, making profit by saving taxes?

Very well said !!!

Very well said !!!

The distinction between

The distinction between corporate social responsibility (CSR) and individual social responsibility (ISR) is well made.

Sir, Many a times it is

Sir, Many a times it is difficult to be good and do social service. Strictly in confidence and taking guard against being charged for Contempt of Court for being seen as interfering and obstructing in the course of justice in connection with a legal proceeding, the lawyers restrain themselves from assisting the court, as the Court may demand Vakalatnama or the litigating parties may presume the act to be furtherance of selfish motive by lawyers, even when the lawyers freely and voluntarily intend to assist the court in an unrelated matter. Recently, while waiting for my case, I felt that in the on-going in the High Court, the government counsel was presumably not updated on certain corporate law provisions and I hesitated in pointing it out to the Hon'ble Court. In a consumer court, I took initiative to point a National law forum judgment to district consumer forum and the president asked me to first bring Vakalatnama. Since, I was appearing in another matter, I just sat down and apologized to the court.

I agree that CSR is a bane

I agree that CSR is a bane for company shareholders, and is recent phenomenon that needs to end. However, the needs of the underprivileged are so dire in India, that anyone that joins the social help bandwagon is welcome. Seen in that lens, CSR in India can be justified till atleast we reach a respectable per-cap income level.

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