Here's a review of the book The Corporation That Changed the World- How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational, by Nick Robins, that I had done a little while ago:
Nostalgia, it is said that, never hurts. For the victims, however, it is painful, though sometimes blunted. Walking down the memory lane of history, though hurting, has become a necessity, for lessons are to be learnt and to take a solemn vow not to repeat the gory mistakes of the ancestors. Writing a book on history solicits a lot of research and analysis of facts and subsequent empirical verification of the authenticity, in a social perspective. History is not chronological listing of events of the past; but is collation of happenings in the lives of people. Nick Robins has done all these in the narration of the events during the life of East India Company.
There exists a plethora of books on the history of East India Company. But none have looked into the life of The Company from the "Corporate's Social Responsibility" perspective. The author has attempted from that angle with a view to fill that void, as stated in the Introduction, and has been successful. The book is neatly organized with nine chapters. The narration is simple and elegant. A small number of maps and tables are used; however, a few more pictures and tables would have added more charm. He has taken enormous pains in collecting information pertaining to the East India Company and referred to a host of published material, which are listed in the Notes.
The appealing fact about the book is that it is plain in narration and a sort of neutrality has been maintained. For a serious reader, however, the condescending albeit dull pain of the authour is clearly visible. For, there was an intelligent design in the formation of the East India Company and the motif was a simple six-letter word called "Profit". Nick Robins has been successful in convincing the readers of the disastrous effects of corporate greed to Societies - inland and afar.
Formed in London in the year1599, by a Royal Charter, with an intent to "astonish Europe" by its consignment of Asian wealth to the London docks and until it was formally wound up in 1858 again by a Royal Charter, immediately after the "Sepoy Mutiny" or The First Indian War of Independence in 1857, the East India Company being cited as the most opulent company of the world, inflicted unparalleled damage to India and impoverished it to the extent that recovery be made distant. The author takes us through the formation of the company and its role in London, India, China and Indonesia eruditely. Entering India as a mere parcel of trading merchants, the transformation of the East India Company as a formidable martial Government in India has been described in the book and for the sake of clarity in presentation he traverses chronologically back and forth between and within chapters.
The company's directors, it is said that, aimed to flourish by espousing high standards of corporate practice with righteousness embedded at its roots, corruption was ever present in its practice and operations, but had always been kept at a manageable level. When confronted on issues of excesses by certain democratic voices in London, the rhetoric that "trade and trade only was their business" and some despotic alliances at home culled the murmurs of opposition. However, the critics of East India Company ensured that their voices are heard against the process of globalization and cohoots in London. Nick Robins quotes Adam Smith's concern on the company's practices as "whatever is gained by the monopolising company, in the high prices at which it was enabled to sell, or the low prices at which it was enabled to buy, was all lost by its dilatory, negligent and wasteful management". Taking cue on this, the author elegantly puts forth his argument that corporations are not self-correcting and there is nothing in their design to call a halt to further market expansion, or desist from political interventions that rig the market in their favour. He further emphasizes that there is an urgent need for external mechanisms to bring corporate malpractice to account. Highlighting the need for a more granular analysis, he points out that markets move at the margin, and the key to the drain lies in its impact on relative patterns of consumption. He asserts that in India, the drain depressed consumption and diverted its already small savings rate, while enabling Britain to live beyond its means, to consume, trade and invest at a greater rate than its own internal economy would allow. Making note of the present day Indian economic scenario, he states that those parts of India which have been longest under British rule are the poorest today, picking out Bengal, Bihar and Orissa for particular mention.
Special mention needs to be made of the critics of the company's practices in India, like Edmund Burke, Karl Marx and Adam Smith. As early as in 1785, Burke viewed the company's governors and their creditors as inexpugnable tapeworms that eat up the bowels of India.
The author quotes Edmund Burke as the real champion of India's identity, for, Burke believed that each society had its own intrinsic value which should not be sacrificed to the interests of profit or power and that history is not a civilizational contest between primitive and progressive nations.
In the process of narrating the rise and fall of East India Company which paved the way for British rule in India, Nick Robins argues, citing the company as a pioneer mega-corporation (multinational or MNC in today's parlance), that the need of the hour is to downsize corporations as greed for profit is the underlying phenomenon in any corporate and when a company is small the damage that it could inflict is relatively limited. He pooh-poohs the advocacy of corporate reforms like imbibing corporate accountability and social responsibility in the cultures of giant corporates, as in most cases, corporate responsibility becomes another term for enlightened self-interest - that good conduct towards customers, regulators and communities help to generate a "licence to operate".
Summarily, the voyage of reading this powerful book is immensely pleasing, with no dramatic pauses. The conclusion is poignant. The story of East India Company is ultimately a tragedy, the tale of an institution that generated great wealth, but also great harm, an institution that was ultimately doomed by the flaws in its corporate design.