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BW Businessworld

The Fundamental Rights...

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Do businesses have any fundamental rights? Should businesses have any fundamental rights? Strange as these questions may seem, it is important to pose them at this point of our economic development.
Fundamental rights are important because they guarantee certain basics that are needed for realising the full potential of the individual. Though India became an independent nation on 15 August 1947, it was not until 26 January 1950 that its citizens — at least the educated ones — came to know about the exact fundamental rights that were being guaranteed to them by the Constitution.
Of course, the Constitution gave the Indian citizens many other rights as well. But the fundamental rights were written as a special category simply because they were so crucial for the growth and development of the Indian citizens.

Of course, when the Constitution was written, there were no fundamental rights provided for the corporate or business entity per se. Indeed, it would have been quite extraordinary if such provisions had been made at all. There is no constitution anywhere in the world that has anything called fundamental rights for businesses. Not even in the US, the country in which the business entity has overarching importance.
And even if there were precedents anywhere around the world, why would India need to create any fundamental rights for business in its Constitution? The fundamental rights for the citizens already guaranteed by the Constitution, when read along with the directive principles of state policy, pretty well cover anything that the country’s businesses could want.
The right to freedom, for example, explicitly states that all citizens are free to choose any trade, set up any business or follow any occupation. The right against exploitation and the right to equality are not just important for the individual, they are equally important for business entities. And the right to constitutional remedies is the final protection. These rights were designed for the individual — but they fit nicely for business entities as well.

So in this 62nd year of India’s independence, why is there any need to debate on the necessity of certain fundamental rights of business? Aren’t there a plethora of laws — both corporate as well as pertaining to specific industries and sectors — that lay down and clarify the rights (and duties) of business entities? And aren’t these laws enforceable in courts of law — the corporate equivalent of the right to constitutional remedies? And shouldn’t the fundamental rights for citizens also help businesses in the natural course of things?
Actually, there is a need to debate the necessity of fundamental rights for businesses for a few good reasons. First, since 1991, the country has moved towards a path of giving increasing economic freedom and independence to its businesses. But those freedoms have not been backed by the kind of fundamental guarantees that businesses in the developed world can take for granted. These might be unwritten guarantees, but they are an important part of doing business properly.
Then again, the Indian government is hoping for many years of 9 per cent plus growth rates — and it is depending largely on the corporate entities, both in the manufacturing and services sector, to achieve that ambition. But that growth rate is unlikely to be achieved year after year unless businesses count on certain very basic conditions and rights. And finally, none of the rights that are being focused on in the following pages are unusual or extraordinary or require any special effort. They are all essentially provisions that are already provided for the Indian citizen that now need to be interpreted keeping the business entity in mind.
What are these fundamental rights of business that we are talking about? The first one is right to infrastructure — to good roads, ports, airports and uninterrupted power supply. The second one is right against corruption. The third, right to rational taxation. The fourth, right to fair labour laws. The fifth, right to speedy clearances. And finally, the sixth — the right to an educated and skilled workforce, something that should naturally flow from the recently passed Right to Education Act.
These are the very basics that every business in every developed country can bank on. These are the basics that all developed nations guarantee to their corporate entities. In no other country is a corporate entity asked to create its own infrastructure, educate its own workforce even in the basics, or deal with complicated structures to open businesses.
This is our basic case: it is high time the government thought in terms of guaranteeing certain basic fundamental rights to our corporate citizens, much like it does for individuals. This is necessary to help India take its place among the economic superpowers around the globe.
Implement the fundamental rights for business — and you will have created a more conducive ground for business to flourish as well. You would have created the environment for 9 per cent plus growth for years to come.

(Businessworld Issue Dated 18-24 Aug 2009)