Following a panel discussion on Corporate Sustainability held in a five star hotel followed by a lavish lunch, my fellow panelist asked a very fundamental question, ‘Can Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) thrive without Individual Social Responsibility (ISR)?’ Even a month after this event, this question remained buzzing in my head. A company is a legal entity without a heart and a soul, which it borrows from its chief decision makers, who are individuals. In the absence of individuals who feel a sense of social responsibility, is it realistic to expect CSR to thrive and make a positive contribution? If ISR is a prerequisite, what could be its contours?

We are familiar with air-hostesses announcing at the start of a flight that in case of an emergency, one needs to fix the oxygen mask on his face before helping others; this reveals an important truth: you cannot help others when you are yourself dependent. Likewise, does ISR too need to be preceded by IPR, which in this case is Individual Personal Responsibility?

In determining individual responsibility, we need to recognize the different stages in the life of an individual, each of which comes with varying expectations. In an individual’s life, the first two decades could be seen as seeding time, the next four the harvesting period, and the remaining decades, living off the store. However, what remains common across the three stages are the three basic needs for a good life—leisure, relationships and money.

In the first phase of youth, leisure and relationships are not in short supply, with one feeding the other, though money could be hard to come by. In the next stage as earning money takes priority, leisure time is traded in for money. If too much of leisure is traded away, it is possible that relationships get starved. While this impact of reduced relationships may not be immediately felt, come sunset years, when time is returned to the individual, his personal relationships - and not the professional ones - make life meaningful and worth living.

Judicious use of water in our everyday lives could constitute one effective form of fulfilment of our individual responsibility towards a sustainable environment. File pic

While pondering over these issues, I stumbled upon the Better Life Index initiative of the OECD. This ambitious project launched in 2010 attempts to measure what makes for a ‘better life’. In the process it has identified eleven essential measures. While these parameters measure the quality of life in a country, with some poetic liberty, we can also look at it from the lens of an individual’s responsibility to make his life better. Coincidentally, Better Life Index also considers leisure time, relationships and money as critical measures. Hence could balancing the three conflicting priorities of time, money and relationship, without sacrificing any one, be the key to IPR that is a prerequisite for Individual Social Responsibility? For it does seem that youth without a need for money, a working age with adequate leisure, and a retired life rich in personal relationships are the indicators of a good life.

Turning to Individual Social Responsibility, can we take a leaf out of the Triple Bottom-Line concept advocated so often for the corporate world? In the last two decades, the Triple Bottom-Line concept emerged to supplement the inadequacies of focusing exclusively on financial results. John Elkington in his visionary book Cannibals with Forks highlighted the fact that by focusing solely on economic results we may be prone to incurring social and environmental costs that could result in the human race cannibalizing itself. To avert this catastrophe, Elkington recommended that corporate entities should flank their basic financial goal of profits with social and environmental objectives to remain resilient and sustainable. While the logic of Triple Bottom-Line is to make corporate entities enduring, the trigger for ISR could be very different. ISR looks to enrich the life of an individual by making it more meaningful and well-connected. But if the Triple Bottom-Line is extended to ISR, we can perhaps consider political, social and environmental responsibility as the three cornerstones.

Better Life Index considers civic engagement as a critical factor, which is measured by voter turnout in elections and the extent to which an individual can participate or have a role to play in the process of ‘rule-making’ or enacting legislation. Looked at from the point of an individual’s responsibility, we can say that the first aspect of ISR is an individual’s political duty to vote and contribute their personal insights to ‘rule-making’ in society.

ISR looks to enrich the life of an individual by making it more meaningful and well-connected. If the Triple Bottom Line concept is extended to ISR, we can perhaps consider political, social and environmental responsibility as the three cornerstones.

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Turning to the social front, the second aspect of ISR, we see two elements in the index from which we can borrow. One relates to the educational attainment of members in society, and the other to a highly visible need in India today, that of individual safety as measured by the prevailing assault rates and homicide rates. While the two elements mentioned above are outcomes, when viewed through the prism of individual responsibility, it translates to what one can do to enhance these social indicators. Recognizing this, can we include tax payments by an individual as one form of fulfilling individual responsibility? Tax payments could directly fund investment in social infrastructure for education and enhance the law & order system. Even though tax planning may be legal in today’s world, it is my personal view that low tax payments are not reflective of healthy social engagement; in fact, tax evasions are seen to be at the lowest where the taxpayer has a voice in how public revenue is spent.

Individual responsibility to environment, the third aspect of ISR, seems to be the most apparent and visible need recognized. For every urban resident, air pollution is a harsh reality he wakes up to every morning; for both urban and rural residents, continued water availability is increasingly turning to a mirage. It is a matter of time before the reality of drought catches up with all of us, even in the most sophisticated of cities. This is not an extreme view, as in Bangalore today, we can see public interest hoardings appealing to residents to stop using showers and return to the age-old practice of bucket and mug for bathing; the water so saved could provide ten other residents with drinking water. Given this concern in one sphere, adoption of voluntary simplicity by switching to a minimalist lifestyle that preserves air quality and ensures water availability may be at the core of individual responsibility.

Taken together, the logical fit between IPR and ISR is very apparent. A ‘time rich’, ‘money rich’ and ‘relationship rich’ individual will have the time to be politically engaged, the resource to be socially responsible and will be tuned in to an environmentally-friendly lifestyle that demands less money and releases more time to cultivate a ‘relationship rich’ life.

Does this line of reasoning sound idealistic? If you concur, it would not surprise me for I believe that the very desire for a better life is also idealistic. However for realizing a better life, we need to ask a more pragmatic question, which is whether these ideas are feasible for us to adopt in our daily life.