First Person | Different Voices

Sectarian violence should be counted as one of the risks to businesses

Ghazala Wahab

For the last few years, Pinkerton and Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) have been bringing out the India Risk Survey. Based on the feedback from the industry, the survey draws a list of 12 grave risks that the industry perceives threatens peaceful and uninterrupted conduct of business. Perhaps, the idea is to convey industry’s insecurities to the government so that better and secure environment is created.

I first discovered this survey in 2012, when FICCI graciously shared the findings with me and invited me to participate in the discussion that followed the launch of the findings. The survey reflected the sentiments of the previous years, particularly 2011, leading up to 2012. In the decade starting 2010, the year 2011 was amongst the most violent as far as terrorist violence was concerned.

In July, Mumbai, the business nerve-centre of India, was once again racked by bomb blasts in which 26 people died and nearly 130 were injured. Two months later, there was an attack outside the Delhi high court. Eleven people were killed and 70 injured. Though there was no major attack in 2012, a series of low intensity bombs went off in various parts of the country.

Given this, it was natural for the industry, where huge investments were at stake, to feel anxious. Hence, in 2012, the risk survey, based on findings across India, listed terrorism as the number two threat with the total score of 10.43. The number one threat perceived by the industry was information and cyber insecurity. It aggregated a total of 10.81.

In the following years, terrorism and insurgency continued to drop in the rankings. In 2013, it was at number six, in 2014, it was rated at 10, where the top three spots were taken up by political factors, given that it was an election year. Hence, topping the charts was corruption, followed by industrial unrest in the form of strikes. Political and government instability was at number three; no surprise there. Interestingly, corruption topped the ranking in 2015 as well, with information and cyber insecurity coming in at number two and terrorism at three. While the number one position was taken by strikes and closure in 2016, the following two remained the same as the previous year.

The survey for 2017 has been released recently. In a replay of 2012, the top two positions have once again been taken by cyber insecurity and terrorism, though latter clocks the score of 9.37 to former’s 11.03. Curiously, with the score of 9.34, corruption features as the risk number three, despite present government’s assertions of a taint-free administration. Since the survey can be put in the context of political and economic conditions of the country, as in 2012 and 2014, it is safe to presume that in all other years too, the surveys were indeed a reflection of the business sentiment.

Hence, consistently for the last five years or more, India Inc.’s singular recurring concern has been cyber insecurity. This has got even more pronounced in the present year given the spate of cyber-attacks in the last few months alone, targeting business across the globe and not just India. In fact, after the recent attack end of June, which apparently emanated from Russia, several multinational companies went offline for a few days, instructing the staff to not log in their computers. Industrial espionage apart, cyber-attacks are also aimed at extorting ransom.

Interestingly, the government of India has been dealing with cyber insecurity by isolating the computers with sensitive information from the network, thereby turning the whole concept of network centricity on its head!

Yet, in popular perception, largely formed by the frequent pronouncements made by the government in the last three years, the single largest threat facing India is Islamic terrorism, whether of the Pakistan-sponsored kind or the ISIS. No international visit of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi is complete without an exhortation by him for a global fight against terrorism. Interestingly, in the India Risk Survey 2017, where terrorism is listed as the number two concern, industry’s fear stems from the violence perpetuated by the Maoists in central India — ‘Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) perpetrated by communist terrorist groups remains the most severe terrorist threat, primarily in the states of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Odisha’. But this is not the terrorism that the government talks of.

Isn’t it ironical that a government which claims to be committed towards creating an enabling environment for business remains so oblivious to the concerns of the industry?

Final thoughts on the survey itself — though comprehensive, it is repetitive, with factors like fire, accidents, natural hazards etc. All of these could have been put together under one head as accidents and natural disasters.

And to truly reflect the state of the nation, sectarian violence, whether religious or caste-based, should have been included as a risk. The social ramifications of the sectarianism and suspension of business following violence apart, the industrial effects are all too obvious in a society which historically has been built around economic interdependence.

Merely for illustrative purposes, beef-induced violence has severely affected the leather and meat industry that used to see annual exports of about USD 10 billion. Add to these the cattle traders, who form an important part of rural economy, or the number of people employed in these multiple sectors. Given the statistics alone, sectarian violence should trouble India Inc.