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Being evil pays. Does it pay enough?

By Devangshu Datta
Last updated on: February 05, 2020 17:08 IST
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Construction companies will make money building detention centres.
IT companies will make money on the enumeration of the CAA, NRC, NPR, notes Devangshu Datta.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/


In March 1971, about 100 employees of Polaroid demonstrated in front of their corporate headquarters.

They ceremonially burnt several cameras.

This group called itself the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement, PRWM.

It was led by two black American employees. The PRWM had a three point agenda: It wanted Polaroid to exit South Africa completely; it wanted the company to issue a statement that condemned apartheid; it wanted Polaroid's profits from its South African operations to be donated to support African liberation movements.

At that point of time, the American multinational corporation possessed cutting edge photographic technology that made it a world leader.

Its technology was integral to the South African Passbook system.

The Passbook was an internal passport that every non-white had to carry.

It carried all sorts of details about the individual, which had to be endorsed by the police and his or her employer.

Anybody caught without a Passbook risked a jail sentence and was subjected to brutal interrogation at the minimum.

Anybody in a whites only area, carrying a Passbook which did not authorise him or her to be that place was also liable to a jail sentence.

Polaroid sacked the two employees.

It also sent a mixed race team to investigate the South Africa situation.

It issued a statement saying it abhorred apartheid.

It made a partial pull out, stating that it would stop servicing government contracts, but it would continue to operate in South Africa.

It committed to equalising salaries and supporting various organisations working for people of colour.

Much later, it was learnt that Polaroid equipment was still being sold to the South African government through various local distribution channels.

Ambiguous or wholly evil? Many corporates have done much worse.

Polaroid was, as it happens, the first major multinational to exit South Africa.

Most stayed right in there for sound economic reasons.

White South Africa was first world in terms of per capita income, and it had a vast pool of skilled, cheap, coloured labour.

The profit margins were approximately twice that of other First World countries as a result of these factors.

By the mid-1980s, moral pressure had built up on corporates operating there.

Although Margaret Thatcher chortled that really 'teeny sanctions' were being imposed (her son Mark had business interests), corporates had started feeling the heat.

Oddly enough, it was another camera company, Eastman Kodak, which genuinely exited.

Kodak quit South Africa cold, refusing to allow its products to be sold there.

Other MNCs tried the effect of officially pulling out while allowing the distribution of their products.

McKinsey pulled out of South Africa when an up and coming Rajat Gupta stated he felt uncomfortable with that nation's colour bar.

Corporates tend to stay with undemocratic regimes and to enable them if there's profit to be made.

Polaroid enabled the South African colour bar with its technology.

In an earlier era, IBM helped Hitler set up the enumeration system in concentration camps.

Once America ended up at war with the Axis Powers, Big Blue doubled up by using its punch card technology to set up the internment camps for Japanese American citizens.

Siemens used slave labour sourced from German concentration camps during the war.

There are countless other examples of corporates supporting horrible regimes.

United Fruit, Shell, Rio Tinto are some of the better known cases.

In recent times, there's Cambridge Analytica and, arguably, Facebook.

Then there are all the companies working in face recognition, AI-driven autonomous weaponry and other technologies that enable evil regimes.

Corporates are supposed to maximise profits.

But how far will they go in that endeavour? It's a question Indian corporates need to ask themselves.

Starting with Aadhaar, there's a raftload of government schemes, which will generate profits, if moral considerations are ignored.

Construction companies will make money building detention centres.

Information technology companies will make money on the enumeration of the CAA, NRC and NPR.

Being evil pays. Does it pay enough?

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Devangshu Datta
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