The buck stops here, here, here, here—and there

ASHWINI A. writes from Bangalore: Since the buck goes all the way to the top, those at the top cannot wash their hands off of what happens all the way down to the last man and woman. That’s the small but significant inference to make of a Supreme Court ruling, yesterday, permitting the prosecution of Hewlett-Packard managing director Som Mittal in the rape and murder of Pratibha Srikantamurthy.

When Pratibha, an employee of the BPO outfit HP Globalsoft had been abducted, raped and murdered by the driver of a cab hired by the company in December 2005, Mittal, then CEO of HP and now president of the industry umbrella body Nasscom, had arrogantly sought to behave as if neither he nor his company had any responsibility in the matter, since they had contracted out the transport of employees to an outside vendor.

“This has been a most unfortunate incident. It has nothing to do with the company. It is a stray, one-off incident. We are trying to strengthen the security for our employees in consultation with the police,” Mittal was quoted as saying by the New Indian Express.

When the metropolitan court in Bangalore, took cognisance of a complaint filed against Mittal, under sections 25 and 30 (3) of the Karnataka Shops and Commercial Establishments Act, 1961, for allegedly showing laxity in safety and security of women workers deployed in night shifts, Mittal moved the High Court.

When the HC ruled against him, Mittal moved the Supreme Court. With the SC ruling against him, Mittal will now have to appear in court where he will doubtless underline the watertight steps taken by the company to make the workplace safer but which had been unfortunately breached in the case on hand.

The apex court has not commented on the merits of the case, but in decreeing that the top man of the company cannot escape scrutiny even if the transport was being handled by lower lings and outside contractors, the SC has sent a silent but stern message: that companies and their helmsmen are responsible for the acts and actions of even those to whom they contract work when it involves their employees.

At one level, the SC ruling is a nice wake-up for BPO, IT and ITES companies across the nation which contract out non-core tasks to outside contractors. Diligent readers will fondly remember T.K. Kurien, the chieftain of Wipro BPO had chosen to similarly deal with the abduction and death of a young employee Jyoti Chowdhary in Poona.

At another level, it brings to the fore another touchy issue: where does the blame rest for the acts and actions of the hired goons of private banks, who physically rough up defaulters, mentally torture their relatives, and often times even cause the deaths and suicides? Like, for example, you-know-who.

Corporate chiefs detest being hauled up for acts of omission and lawlessness by their employees or agents but have no qualms in profiting from their actions. The SC ruling puts the onus of responsibility and accountability on the CEOs—something they are moving heaven and earth to avoid.

Also read: For Wipro, is rape and murder a Sigma Six number?