A just society is one where there is social, political and economic equality,” says Dr Mohan Gopal, director of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies. Dr Gopal, an eminent jurist and an academic, was speaking at the Tata group’s first residential workshop on affirmative action, which he sees as a cornerstone of the cause he is championing, and a just cause it is too.
Affirmative action could be defined as a policy designed to redress past discrimination against groups of people — on the basis of race, caste, gender, etc — through measures to improve their economic and educational opportunities. The Tata group’s affirmative action agenda is aimed at doing its bit to correct the discrimination blight as it applies to India, and that means the caste factor.
The two-day deliberations at the Northpoint Learning Centre in Khandala near Mumbai focused on the way forward for the affirmative action initiative of the Tata group and its companies. The participants — enthusiastic champions of the cause and in-house assessors of the initiative from several Tata companies — shared best practices, reviewed the work done so far and drafted plans for what remained to be accomplished.
The Tata group has, over the years, helped lift various disadvantaged communities, including scheduled caste and scheduled tribes, through initiatives such as Tata Steel’s tribal welfare programmes and projects supported by the Tata trusts. These activities predate the group’s affirmative action programmes of recent years.
The genesis of the current industry-wide movement was a commitment made by 20 noted industrialists, including Tata Sons Chairman Ratan Tata, in May 2005, to partner the government in enabling youth from scheduled caste and tribe communities to realise their potential. In April 2006, India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, also called upon Indian industry to actively engage in affirmative action.
It was proposed that the thrust of these initiatives should be in what was referred to as the 4Es: education, employability, employment and entrepreneurship.
In October 2006, the Tata Group Affirmative Action Forum was created, headed by Dr Irani, to catalyse the programme in Tata companies. The forum, currently headed by Tata Steel vice chairman B Muthuraman and comprising top Tata executives, is responsible for implementing what is known as the Tata Group Affirmative Action Policy.
The forum encourages Tata companies to offer employment opportunities to scheduled caste and scheduled tribe members, by exercising positive discrimination in their policies on the 4Es, and to do so without compromising on merit, quality or cost.
In line with this approach, most Tata initiatives in the area of affirmative action are concentrated on employment and entrepreneurial opportunities, positive discrimination in recruitment (provided everything else is equal), and the development of skills among the marginalised. Several Tata companies also consciously select vendors from scheduled caste and tribe communities.
With affirmative action gaining momentum in the Tata group, the forum has introduced an annual assessment and recognition programme that takes into account leadership and strategy, the achievements of the 4Es programmes conducted by the company, and their social impact.
Speaking at the workshop, Dr Gopal expressed his appreciation for the Tata group’s affirmative action efforts and said: “I hope that what you are doing will become a model for the world.”
Going beyond jobs
Group discussions at the workshop highlighted challenges and deliberated on proposals to step up the momentum of the affirmative action movement within the Tata group. There was particular emphasis on the need to create awareness about the campaign among Tata employees and to create a greater sense of ownership. Also highlighted was the need for all Tata companies to incorporate and articulate a robust affirmative action strategy, with a dedicated budget allocation to back it up.
In his address at the workshop, Mr Muthuraman expressed his satisfaction at the progress made by Tata companies in taking forward the cause of positive discrimination. Supporting a suggestion made by several participants for a website dedicated to the cause, he urged everyone to work towards establishing more skill development centres for marginalised communities over the next three to four years.
“I want to make sure that the Tata group creates a benchmark for affirmative action,” said Mr Muthuraman. “I am extremely happy to be here and delighted that we are taking these steps.”