In July 2010, campaigners dressed as members of the “Na’vi” tribe—the indigenous community in James Cameron’s acclaimed film Avatar who faced persecution from humans trying to colonise the moon Pandora—were among protesters outside the annual general meeting (AGM) of Vedanta Resources in London. Their aim was to draw attention to the concerns of the Dongria Kondh tribal people and their protest against Vedanta’s alumina refinery in Lanjigarh, Odisha, and its plans for a bauxite mine. Earlier in the year, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Survival International, which campaigns for the rights of tribal communities across the world, appealed to Cameron by placing an advert in Variety magazine. “ Avatar is fantasy… and real,” said the advert, which gave a link to a documentary on the conditions facing the tribal people. “The Dongria Kondh tribe in India are struggling to defend their land against a mining company hell-bent on destroying their sacred mountain. Please help the Dongria. We’ve watched your film. Now watch ours.” The previous year Survival International made a short film called Mine:Story of a sacred mountain , narrated by the well-known British actress Joanna Lumley, that highlighted the personal stories of some members of tribal communities. “We’re in trouble. Nothing is right here,” one man tells the film-makers.
The protest drew attention from the local media and helped reignite a domestic debate in the United Kingdom on the scrutiny both regulators and investors give to firms listed in the London Stock Exchange.
“Of course, we weren’t claiming they were like the Na’vi, but it was at a time when the story was huge and the notion of people defending and having a spiritual connection to their land resonated with the way the Dongria Kondh related to their land and were determined to defend it,” said Sophie Grig, a senior campaigner at Survival International who has been involved in the London protests. Over the years, Survival International; Foil Vedanta, another independent grass-roots solidarity organisation that is pushing for the company’s delisting; and others have held regular protests and raised questions relating to the company’s social and environmental track record at every AGM that has taken place in London to date.
“Vedanta Resources: the world’s most hated company?” ran a headline in The Independent newspaper shortly after the 2010 protest. The piece was sharply critical of the apparently dismissive way in which the company treated the concerns of campaigners and those of investors such as the Church of England and state pension funds from Norway, the Netherlands and others. “There are many ways to measure best practice in social responsibility, but as a rule of thumb, if Bianca Jagger, Joanna Lumley, Michael Palin and the Na’vi are against you, you have a problem,” quipped Financial Times at the time.
For well over a decade now, since Vedanta Resources was listed in the London Stock Exchange in December 2003, protesters have been raising concerns in and around the British capital about the company and its global track record. The company has sought to portray these forces as instances of foreign interference. In an interview with The Economic Times early in May, Anil Agarwal, the founder and chairman of Vedanta Resources, mentioned “anti-development associations” and “fake activism”. In 2014, an Intelligence Bureau (India) report criticised protests against companies such as Vedanta, blaming them on “foreign donors” who “cleverly disguise their donations” to pursue the “strategic foreign policy interests of Western governments” to stall “development projects”.
Campaigners have rejected such accusations and highlighted how they have merely sought to bring attention to the concerns of local people, leveraging the opportunities London offers to press the case. “The suggestion that this is some foreign policy agenda is simply ridiculous,” said Sophie Grig. “We are only interested in listening to what people have to say on the ground and responding to their actions. We have no beef against mining companies until they violate the rights of tribal people. The campaign was run and won by the Dongria themselves.”
Survival International has continued to act as an intermediary between local communities in India and politicians in the U.K. and international bodies in Europe. In 2009, it scored a significant victory after the U.K. National Contact Point for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development guidelines (responsible for raising awareness of the OECD’s guidelines for multinational companies and implementing its complaints mechanism through a non-judicial process) upheld Survival International’s complaint that Vedanta Resources had “failed to put in place an adequate consultation mechanism fully to engage the Dongria Kondh” and that it had not respected “the rights and freedoms of the Dongria Kondh consistent with India’s commitments under various international human rights instruments”. (Vedanta Resources strongly condemned the report at the time, insisting it had met its commitments.) In April 2013, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Vedanta Resources could only mine bauxite with the consent of the gram sabhas of the impacted villages. Earlier this year, Survival International wrote to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people based in Geneva highlighting instances of tribal people “being attacked and criminalised for defending the rights of their communities”, including the ongoing harassment of the Dongria Kondh. “The Dongria report systematic ‘intimidation, abduction and wrongful incarceration’ of their leaders by the police. The Dongria believe the police are acting to ‘further the interests’ of Vedanta Resources, a British-based mining company,” the letter said.
“This is a major multinational company that for years has operated illegal mining concerns, trashing the environment and forcibly evicting villagers and tribespeople,” said John McDonnell, the Labour Party’s Shadow Chancellor (spokesperson on Treasury matters) and a long-standing critic of Vedanta Resources, in May. After May 22, when the police fired on people protesting against the Sterlite Industries (a subsidiary of Vedanta Resources) copper smelting plant in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, killing some of them, he said Vedanta Resources was a “rogue organisation” and called for it to be delisted to remove the “cloak of respectability” the listing had afforded the company. However, along with the “cloak of respectability”, London has also created major vulnerabilities for Vedanta. It gives NGOs and others the opportunity to raise concerns with investors as Survival International and Foil Vedanta have repeatedly done. This, coupled with the U.K.’s strong community of NGOs and human rights groups and its robust and independent legal system have provided opportunities for people to challenge companies like Vedanta Resources.Questions in Parliament
Over the years, MPs have repeatedly raised questions about the company in Parliament, spurred on by campaign groups. In fact, much of the senior Labour Party leadership has been critical of the company over the years: in 2009, Diane Abbott, now the party’s spokesperson on Home Affairs, tabled an Early Day Motion (a means by which MPs can draw attention to issues in Parliament) calling for the Indian government to act to prevent “immense irreversible environmental damage” and the displacement of the Dongria Kondh people and to prevent the construction of a bauxite mine in the area. In 2015, McDonnell, then a backbencher, raised concerns about the death of over 40 workers in a chimney collapse at Vedanta’s BALCO plant in Korba, Chhattisgarh, in 2009.
There is a particular significance to protests in London, which is key to much of the funding for firms such as Vedanta, said Samarendra Das from Foil Vedanta. “The City of London, with its colonial era links to mining, attracts global mining finance that operates at a level beyond political parties. Behind corporate massacres by Tata at Kalinganagar [Odisha], GCM at Phulbari [Bangladesh], Monterrico Metals in Peru, Lonmin in Marikana [South Africa] and now Vedanta in Tuticorin [Thoothukudi] is the hidden hand of the City of London protecting its investments and global power.” In 2011, the U.K.-based Monterrico Metals paid out compensation without admitting liability following legal proceedings brought by a group of former Peruvian employees. In 2006, 14 tribal people were killed while protesting against Tata Steel’s Kalinganagar Steel Plant. In 2006, three people were killed in Bangladesh protesting against the activities of the U.K.’s GCM Resources in the country. The most infamous of all, though, is the killing of 34 protesters by the police outside a Lonmin mine in Marikana in 2012: the most lethal use of force by the South African authorities against civilians since the days of apartheid. Vedanta Resources, Lonmin, and GCM Resources are all listed in the London Stock Exchange.
Cases against Vedanta have wended their way through the U.K. courts. In October 2017, the Court of Appeal upheld a High Court ruling allowing a case brought by the legal firm Leigh Day on behalf of 1,826 Zambian villagers to continue to be heard in British courts. The villagers alleged “that their land and livelihood has been destroyed by the pollution from the Nchanga Copper Mine owned by Vedanta Resources Plc through their subsidiary KCM going into the Mushishima river”, the law firm said.Market reaction
However, it is the London market’s reaction to the latest developments in Tamil Nadu—including the order for permanent closure issued by the Chief Minister—that may prove most injurious to Vedanta. In the week after May 22, its share price dropped by 14.2 per cent, while the protest movement in the U.K. gained further momentum as more members of the Tamil diaspora joined those who had already been involved in protests over the Sterlite plant to voice their outrage. “There is a huge amount of anger within the Tamil community in London,” said Meenatchi Gopal of the U.K. Women’s Network, some representatives of which joined the protest organised by Tamil People UK and Foil Vedanta outside the Indian High Commission in London before moving to a location outside Anil Agarwal’s house. “We are waiting to see what happens, even after the decision to close the plant. How Vedanta responds and fights the decision remains to be seen,” she said. “People definitely recognise the importance of having protests in London and raising our voices. They recognise what happens here can matter greatly to the people on the ground.”