The Hindu

‘Two Is Company For Friends of Tibet’
by Preeti Mehra
(The Hindu | April 6, 2000)

Festival of Tibet logo, with mani wheel

It is perhaps for the first time in Indian corporate history that two top companies have taken a public stand on the ethical question of human rights. And that too on an issue that has international repercussions and can impact the business interests of the groups in overseas markets.

Piramal Enterprises Ltd and Reliance Industries recently lent their support publicly to a six-day Festival of Tibet in Mumbai organised by Friends of Tibet, India. A similar festival is currently on in Delhi. However, this time organisations among the Tibetans are sponsoring it.

But how did Mumbai get to rope in corporate majors for an issue that has ticklish diplomatic overtones and has been making international headlines for the past few months with the Karmapa's recent fleeing from Tibet and seeking asylum in India?

'It was a calculated decision. We are aware of the possible fallout, but we felt so strongly about the issue. And so will anyone who visits McLeodganj in Dharamshala and meets the students in the hostels who silently suffer away from their home in an alien land,' says Mr. Harindar S. Sikka, President, Piramal Enterprises Ltd, who has taken a personal decision to stop buying Chinese goods.

Mr Sikka, along with the company's Vice-Chairperson, Mrs. Urvi Piramal, her son, Mr Harsh Piramal, and daughter-in-law, Ms. Reshma Piramal, sought a meeting with the Dalai Lama two years ago. 'He exuded so much positive energy. We were enthused by his simplicity and his philosophy of life,' relates Mr. Sikka. And what touched them most were the children and adults who undertake the treacherous journey to India from Tibet by foot and lose their limbs to frost bite along the way.

Mr Sikka recalls the meeting with the Dalai Lama with utmost affection. 'There was light in his eyes and his innocent laughter took the cake. We were all so touched with what he said that we decided to go the whole hog and support the cause.'

The Tibetan cause, however, came to the industrial house via their daughter-in-law. Recalls Ms. Reshma Piramal: 'Three years ago I saw two films, Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun. Though the first one was fairly commercial, both moved me a great deal and made me cry a lot. Though I've been aware of Tibetans in India, I never knew the kind of suffering they had to go through. I was very keen to meet His Holiness and get involved with the cause. Later, when my husband, Harsh, and I went to study in the United Kingdom I decided to be a volunteer at the Office of Tibet in London. When I got back to India I joined Friends of Tibet.'

In fact, it was at her initiative that the Ambanis, who are their close family friends, too, lent their name to the festival and the cause. 'We wanted the festival to be on a large scale, because generally, if Mumbai does something, other parts of India will follow. Friends of Tibet are trying to work out smaller festivals in Chennai and Bangalore as well.'

'It was Reshma's energy that made it happen,' says Mr Sikka as he explains the Piramal groups commitment to ethics for the past 126 years since its inception. 'We have always been a low-profile, ethical company that wants a clean environment. Our Nicolas Piramal India Ltd plant in Pithampur has been accredited with an ISO 14001 certification and our Gujerat Glass Ltd is the only glass industry in the whole of Asia that meets environmental standards ISO 14001,' he says.

And then, as a natural extension, tags on the Tibetan cause. 'We always want to work with nature not against it. Brutality is against nature, hence we feel for the suffering caused to the Tibetan people.'

The Tibetan community is also pleasantly surprised with the stand taken by the two companies. 'We are offered money by many groups and organisations, but most shy away from lending their name in public,' says a Tibetan activist. They, of course, hope that others in India will follow suit.