Boycott call & response

Print edition : June 24, 2016

A protest against Vedanta's sponsorship of the festival in London. Photo: Foil Vedanta

IN an open letter, more than 100 writers, academics and students urged invitees to boycott the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) being held in Southbank, London, as it is sponsored by Vedanta, the company which, according to them, has caused environmental and humanitarian problems in India, Australia and Zambia. The letter, signed by Anu Ramdas, Naren Bedide, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Kavita Bhanot, Madhushree Mukerjee, Firoze Manji, Gladson Dungdung, Arao Ameny, Tariq Mehmood, James Michael, Akshay Pathak, Neetisha Xalxo, V. Divakar, Sruthi Herbert, Rafiq Kathwari, Mridula Koshy and Ashley Tellis, among others, asked them to stay away from the discussions and debates at the fest.

The letter read:

Dear All,

We are deeply shocked and dismayed to hear that you have agreed to participate at the Jaipur Literature Festival claiming to be “The Greatest Literary Show on Earth” which has “the world’s most hated company” Vedanta as its key sponsor. Are you aware that Vedanta’s activities are destroying the lives of thousands of people in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Punjab [in India] and also in Zambia, South Africa and Australia? Are you also aware that Zambian villagers are currently taking Vedanta subsidiary KCM to court in the U.K., accusing it of consistently poisoning their water over the last decade?

In 2011, Zambian High Court judge Phillip Musonda said he wanted to make an example of Vedanta for their “gross recklessness” in polluting the river Kafue without remorse, and highlighted “KCM’s don’t care attitude whether human life, which is sacrosanct in our constitution, was lost or not”. In 2014, Vedanta’s 69 per cent owner and chairman Anil Agarwal was caught on video bragging to businessmen at a Bangalore conference that he had bought the Zambian copper mines at a fraction of their value and was making $500 million each year despite declaring a loss in Zambia. The Zambian government reacted by auditing the mines, and discovered vast tax evasion schemes and asset stripping.

In Korba, Chhattisgarh, between 40 and 100 workers died at the Vedanta subsidiary BALCO’s aluminium smelter complex when a chimney under construction collapsed on them in September 2009. The subsequent judicial inquiry into the incident found Vedanta guilty of negligence and using substandard material and construction methods. However, Vedanta’s lawyers suppressed the report, which was leaked by activists in 2014.

In Odisha, a nineteen-year-long struggle by indigenous communities, Dalits and farmers led to a historic victory in 2014 when Vedanta was stopped from mining the sacred Niyamgiri hills for bauxite. Vedanta’s attempt to secure the mountain through State-owned OMC [Odisha Mining Corporation] was rejected by the Supreme Court again on May 6, 2016. Vedanta Aluminium Ltd built the 1 mtpa Lanjigarh refinery at the base of the Niyamgiri hills in 2004 and even expanded it sixfold, despite having no permission to mine bauxite from the hills above. Vedanta’s launch on the London Stock Exchange in 2003 was based on the impression given to financiers that they had permission to mine Niyamgiri.

In Goa, Vedanta’s iron ore mining subsidiary, Sesa Goa [now Vedanta Limited], was the largest company indicted by the Shah Commission in 2012 for illegal mining, including failure to obtain leases or environmental clearance, and exporting 150 million tonnes of iron ore from Goa in 2010/11 while only declaring 76 million tonnes, their agreed export allowance.

Not far from Jaipur, Vedanta is accused by an employee’s union of casualising and de-unionising the labour force at Hindustan Zinc Ltd by reducing permanent workers to 2,500 out of 18,000 workers.

The Maton Mines Mazdur Sangh [Maton Mines Workers Union] is also opposing Vedanta for poor working conditions and destruction of crops and houses around their phosphate mines. Meanwhile, on May 11, 2016, Anil Agarwal promoted Sterlite Technologies and announced its successful bid to run a second “smart city” project in Jaipur.

Vedanta has been attempting to create favourable public opinion by sponsoring the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), the Our Girls Our Pride gender project and even the oxymoronic Mining Happiness campaign, using celebrities and media houses to hush up its liabilities. But each of these attempts has been exposed by grass-roots groups and people’s movements pointing out Vedanta’s corporate crimes using social media and letter writing.

The Vedanta JLF at Southbank is yet another cynical attempt to distract attention from Vedanta’s crimes at a time when it stands exposed across India and internationally. Vedanta’s interests are directly opposed to the Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan Samaj and black communities it claims to be helping.

Literature doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As public figures, we believe that writers and artists also have responsibilities. It makes little sense to discuss books and ideas and the problems of the world in abstraction, while being funded by and publicising a company that has been and continues to be a gross violator of human rights across the world. We hope that you agree, and will withdraw from involvement in this discredited and damaging PR campaign, rather than lending your name to it.

Signed.

Vedanta’s reply

Vedanta Resources is a global company with world-class standards of governance, safety, sustainability and social responsibility.

The size and scale of Vedanta’s commitment to CSR [corporate social responsibility] and sustainability is one of the most robust in India: last year Vedanta spent $42million on community development initiatives and this year we have delivered long-term social and economic benefits to approximately four million people.

In order to create a shared understanding with our host communities, we base our approach on the principle of free, prior informed consent, whereby local communities have the right to participate in decision-making about access to natural resources.

We manage our environmental footprint according to the most rigorous global standards; last year, we invested $61.5 million in environmental initiatives and 88 per cent of our sites are now certified to the ISO 14001 environmental standard.

Last year we also signed the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) Pledge for access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene in the workplace, which begins with a three-year commitment…. We welcome a direct and open dialogue with any organisation or individual that has doubts regarding Vedanta’s commitment to sustainability and engagement with the communities where it operates.

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