Vedanta's Bluff

B Sivaraman

Despite its meteoric rise, Vedanta has also come to symbolise corporate venality. But nemesis struck in May 2018 when thousands of people came out to protest air and water pollution caused by Vedanta's Sterlite copper smelting plant in Thoothukkudi (Tuticorin), Tamil Nadu and 13 protestors were killed in a dubious case of police firing which itself is now under CBI investigation.

In a speculative world of business where share price in the stock market counts much more than the actual value addition in production or increase in turnover, after Tuticorin firing and delisting from the London Stock Exchange (LSE), the value of Vedanta's shares on the BSE had a free fall.

Vedanta engaged top-notch advertising agencies like Ogilvy & Mather and Lodestar UM for an image makeover and came up with glossy reports with brazen lies packaged in attractive colour graphics, saying it was carrying out environmentally sustainable mining and ensuring all-round development of local communities. Vedanta was confident that its endless lies backed by millions would not only change the public opinion but also move the powers that be, and even convince the judicial bodies, to let it have its way. But the Supreme Court was not impressed, and it first refused in April 2013 to allow Vedanta to mine bauxite in the ecosensitive Niyamgiri Hills, and again in February 2019, set aside the National Green Tribunal's order to allow Vedanta to reopen its copper smelter plant in Thoothukkudi.

The troubles at Lanjigarh played no small role in Vedanta's decline. After the Supreme Court said "no" to bauxite mining in Niyamgiri, as an alternative to that, Vedanta managed to persuade the Orissa Cabinet to decide on a strategic deal to supply bauxite from Kodingamali mines of the State-owned Orissa Mining Corporation. But unlike the nearer Niyamgiri bauxite deposits, Kodingamali is 135 km away and the transportation alone would double the cost of alumina & aluminium products. Vedanta found a short-cut solution: shift the burden onto the shoulders of the workers!

Actually, to develop a pond for "red mud" effluents at Lanjigarh, Vedanta took the agricultural lands from the local people promising regular jobs for them in the plant. Out of around 3000 workers in the plant, 85% are locals but their services were not regularised as promised, and they were being exploited for extremely low wages as contract labourers, as the plant itself was not viable and was working at 50% capacity only, thanks to SC's Niyamgiri verdict. The contract workers organised themselves into a union, and along with locals, they have been fighting against the Vedanta for the last several years and the locals even disrupted supply of bauxite being brought from outside. Then the Vedanta plant managed to get the Orissa government to deploy a huge contingent of Orissa Industrial Security Force (OISF) inside the plant. Outsiders don't know what exactly transpired. When about 300 locals gathered for a routine demonstration on 18 March 2019, the OISF men brutally attacked them killing a dalit worker on the spot. In the ensuing clashes, one OISF person also died.

A six-member all-women fact-finding team from Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) comprising Mamata Dash, a social researcher from New Delhi, Puja, a lawyer-activist from Patna, Shobha, R, a theatre activist from Bangalore, Arundhati, V, a cultural worker from Kodaikanal, TN, Meera Sanghamitra, an environmental researcher from Hyderabad and Sharanya, an activist from Koraput visited Lanjigarh from 24 to 26 March. In a press release issued on 26 March 2019, the team revealed that Vedanta had grabbed the lands of local tribals and Dalits without mandatory approval from the gram sabhas, but making only false promises of regular jobs and education for children which it did not fulfil. The team also informed that men from a permanent CRPF camp located at Belguda village set up without the permission of the gram sabha have been evicting adivasis from the lands they have been cultivating for generations and terrorising the villagers, often branding them as Maoists.

The construction of the 'red mud' pond by Vedanta on the lands grabbed from them is also causing severe health problems to the villagers. On 18 March 2019, the villagers assembled at the gates of Vedanta with two demands: a school bus for their children to go to the DAV School set up by Vedanta and free education for them in that school, as promised. The workers, who have been working as contract labourers for more than a decade from 2005 onwards, also went on a strike that day demanding regularisation and joined the locals and there was this unexpected heavy crackdown by the OISF.

Ranjana Padhi, a noted social activist closely associated with the team and who was part of a public hearing (Jan Sunwai) held in Lanjigarh against Vedanta earlier, who shared the above conclusions in the full fact-finding report about to be released, said: "The bluff of corporate hypocrisy was exposed that day by the workers and local peasants, mostly Dalits and adivasis. A mini-Tuticorin was enacted". As one of the teachings of Vedanta philosophy goes: "Truth in itself is simple. We find it by cutting out the convolutions!"

Vol. 51, No. 42, Apr 21 - 27, 2019