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Trusteeship In City Management
The Ajanta Oreva group is the biggest and most resourceful business house emerging out of Morbi city with a turnover of more than Rs 1200 crores. It, therefore, had a definite responsibility to the well-being of the citizens of the city of Morbi, along the lines of trusteeship that Gandhiji preached. Its role in improving key infrastructure in a small city like that was important because this was quite surely a city that was cash-strapped, with weak city governance systems, comprising low-experience manpower whose training was inadequate.
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The Morbi bridge collapse is a classic case of dereliction of duty by a municipal body. The elected body should have accepted moral responsibility and resigned collectively. That the government has issued a show-cause notice for its dismissal is another matter. This colossal tragedy is a definite pointer to the need for urban governance reforms. However, on a somewhat different note, it is also a good example of defining the role of the wealthy in the management of cities and the need for enlightened and responsible corporate citizenship.
World over, big corporations have been involved with city development and management because cities are where the action is. As much as 51 per cent of the world’s 6.9 billion people, 3.5 billion souls, live in cities. By 2050 demographers think it will be 70 per cent, or 6.2 billion people. Cities are the funnels for investment, enterprise and innovation. We are already familiar with big names such as Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet, Richard Branson, Michael Bloomberg and many others who have carved out philanthropic funds to help non-profit organisations serve the poor. There are many who have involved themselves more directly by making cities more liveable.
Ely and Edythe Broad who live in Los Angeles have founded the Broad Art Foundation which includes an art library that has lent more than 8,500 top art works to 500 museums. Donald Bren, the American real estate mogul, has given to schools, Caltech and the University of California’s Santa Barbara and Irvine campuses, besides 20,000 acres of parkland to Orange County, part of which established the Black Star Canyon Wilderness Park. George Kaiser, an American oil baron has focused on his home city of Tulsa – with nearly $1.3 billion in contributions and grants to childhood education and community health programmes in the city, including gifts to local non-profits and social service agencies.
According to Forbes, in 2018, Kaiser opened The Gathering Place, a 66-acre park in Tulsa that’s the largest public park in the US that was built with private funds. Julia Koch, the widow of David Koch, has given over $700 million to medical institutions, including more than $200 million to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and some $300 million to arts and culture organisations, including more than $100 million to Manhattan's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Phil Knight & family of Nike has pledged nearly $800 million to Oregon university, including a $27 million donation to renovate the campus library, a $500 million commitment to establish a new applied science research centre and a $100 million gift to help finance construction of the school's new basketball venue. He has also committed large sums to the Oregon Health & Science University and Stanford, where he got his MBA.
The Ajanta Oreva group is the biggest and most resourceful business house emerging out of Morbi city with a turnover of more than Rs 1200 crores. It, therefore, had a definite responsibility to the well-being of the citizens of the city of Morbi, along the lines of trusteeship that Gandhiji preached. Its role in improving key infrastructure in a small city like that was important because this was quite surely a city that was cash-strapped, with weak city governance systems, comprising low-experience manpower whose training was inadequate. That enhanced the responsibility on their corporate shoulders.
In fact, the Oreva group describes its vision and mission on its website as: ‘Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others … we cogitate to achieve the highest level of customer satisfaction by continuously developing innovative product range to deliver value for money products to our valued customers ... The Human resource management at Ajanta Manufacturing Private Limited (OREVA Group) is a classic case study for every business school HR student.’ Clearly, the overall business-related customer approach of the company was quite different from their civic and social engagement vision.
In the very first place the Oreva group should have worked towards buttressing and refurbishing this historic and old bridge in Morbi as an act of charity, for the citizens of that city. It should have got a complete structural and safety audit conducted at its own expense and then worked with the city of Morbi to get it restored. That would have helped to improve its connect with citizens and burnish its branding. On the contrary, it developed a commercial interest in the project, began to negotiate terms with the city, and began tinkering with the contractual terms, with the intent to make money rather than to serve the society from which
they had become rich. This ended in their wanting to extract the best price for the deal. Had it undertaken this project on a non-profit basis, then even in the face of a calamity, there would have been sympathy for them. In a similar case, in 2018, the famous Benetton family that had made a global name for itself in the field of textiles and garments, lost face when the Morandi road bridge in Genoa, Italy, collapsed killing 43 people.
The Oreva group’s first admission of lapses in the maintenance and operation of the bridge came late – only after the police named the group’s promoter Jaysukh Patel as an accused in the criminal case and issued an arrest warrant against him. It is reported that Patel was missing since the bridge collapsed. It is only now that their lawyer has reportedly said, ‘Something happened at the Morbi municipality’s end, and some wrong was committed by the company. Ultimately, unprecedented damage has been done’ – before the Gujarat High Court, in response to a high court notice to the company on a suo motu PIL. In fact, even the High Court has reportedly observed that it appears that the company had been dictating terms to the municipality.
Clearly one can see from this horrendous tragedy that claimed 133 lives that, beyond the role of the municipality, even business houses have to contribute and give back to society, especially to the city to which they owe their growth. This has to be done on non-commercial terms. It is only when they have a selfless zeal to give without asking for anything in return will they earn respect, goodwill and get immortalised as those who helped the city to become good, rather than have their reputation tarnished because they desired to gain. If that change in thinking can take place, the Morbi tragedy will be a good learning for Indian corporates as they aspire to become global business leaders.
The author is a former Secretary to the Government of India
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.