The body count after the police firing in Tuticorin on May 22nd has reached 12- and, going by the news reports, may go up further. The activists who bravely challenged the Sec 144 prohibitory orders promulgated by the Collector the previous evening were raising an issue affecting the lives and livelihood of the Tuticorin citizens over two decades.
The body count after the police firing in Tuticorin on May 22nd has reached 12- and, going by the news reports, may go up further. The activists who bravely challenged the Sec 144 prohibitory orders promulgated by the Collector the previous evening were raising an issue affecting the lives and livelihood of the Tuticorin citizens over two decades. Hardly would they have expected the police force to rain fire upon them, using deadly bullets instead of rubber ones, aiming at the heads and chest instead of the legs, with no warning given before the shooting started. The High Court of Tamil Nadu has ruled that the corpses of those killed should not be disposed of until further enquiries are conducted. This powerful indictment of the police and its intentions extends to the Tamil Nadu State Government. The AIADMK which is in power,and the Chief Minister Edapadi.K. Pazhanisamy, cannot absolve themselves of their responsibility for the deaths. Can a one man enquiry that has been appointed give justice to the victims? Is 10 lakhs compensation the solution to the gross violation of human rights? Is it not shocking that the BJP National Secretary H. Raja has justified the police firing as unavoidable?
And, above all, underlying the whole sordid episode of police brutality in Tuticorin lies the fundamental question – why were the people protesting?
The saga of struggles against Sterlite Copper Plant
The protest which witnessed almost 15000 people out in the streets on that fateful day was the 100th day of a campaign demanding closure of Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper Plant. The plant was dogged by controversy from the very beginning. The original plan of setting up the copper plant in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra had to be given up following protests by the local inhabitants. It then shifted to Tuticorin, after a no objection certificate was obtained from TNPCB (pollution control board) in 1994. The operation of the plant brought in its wake much distress to the local people, who complained of respiratory problems, and irritation of the eyes. There were also complaints that the land and water resources were getting contaminated. The NEERI – ( National Environmental Engineering Research Institute) when called upon to give a report, submitted two contradictory evaluations. In the first one, it referred to ground water contamination, with arsenic, lead, selenium, aluminium and copper. It reported that the air quality was also severely affected. Strangely enough, in the subsequent report, clearance was given to the company to start production. In 2004, TNPCB allowed Sterlite to double its production. The Courts too kept passing the ball back and forth. In September 2010, the Madras High Court ordered closure of the plant citing environmental pollution and violation of various regulations. However, the Supreme Court stayed the closure order.. In 2013 March, a gas leakage led to further arbitration, once again an initial closure notice was issued, then amended in favour of the company, and the Supreme Court intervened in April to fine them 100 crores but declined to order its closure!
The current agitation is the culmination of a long string of protests, demonstrations and legal actions by the local populace, who have been complaining that emissions from the smelter are polluting the air and the water, affecting the health of residents and posing a risk to fisheries and agriculture. The residues increase the risk of cancer among the population.
Subsequent to the unpardonable loss of lives, the Madras High Court has stayed the expansion of Vedanta’s Sterlite plant, and the bench has ordered the company to engage in public consultations over the next three months before proceeding with any expansion plans.
Meanwhile, the Madurai Bench of the Madras high court is all set to pronounce its judgment in a case seeking a ban on the second plant, with the petitioner, Professor Fathima, having approached the court saying the company had obtained an environmental clearance by providing fraudulent documents.
The above saga of experience with Vedanta owned Sterlite company leads us to the basic question of how they obtained the necessary clearances?
NDA Government’s helping hand.
On May 26th the National Democratic Alliance government with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at helm had been sworn in promising ‘Ease of Business’ as one of its mantras.
On December 10, 2014, responding to the industries’ plea, the Union environment ministry put out a 'clarification' in the form of an office memorandum approved by the then environment minister. The clarification said factories inside the designated industrial zones would not need to consult people even if the zones had not got an environment clearance. In effect, notified regulations under the law were re-interpreted by a mere executive order in the name of providing a 'clarification' to the industry.
This came as a bonanza for several industries across the country, including Vedanta. The Confederation of Indian Industries highlighted this changed policy as one of the key reforms the NDA government had done for ease of business within a year of coming to power.
Thus the NDA government’s interpretation and amendment to green regulations makes it complicit in this whole process, of Sterlite getting permission for its expansion without having to obtain the necessary green signal from the local people.
In 2016 the National Green Tribunal found the December orders of the NDA government, which favoured Vedanta, to be illegal. It had to go to the point of threatening bailable orders against the environment ministry officials in the case to divulge information on the matter. Ministry officials claimed that rescinding the government’s December 2014 orders would adversely impact many projects.
Eventually, the NGT quashed the December 2014 orders. On the NGT’s instructions, the ministry had to pass fresh orders clearly stating that projects in industrial parks without environmental clearances needed to conduct public hearings. But, by then Vedanta had secured an extension of the green clearance to its expansion project in Thoothukudi without the need for a public hearing.
It is citing this 2016 ruling of the National Green Tribunal and other facts that came to light during the case, that the High Court has now ordered Vedanta to stop its expansion plans in track and go back to first consult the people.
But the struggle is still far from over. The capitalist class which has benefitted much from the Modi rule, is still in close embrace with the BJP. The Vedanta profit story brings out the relationship in vivid terms.
“ Building Partnerships, Strengthening Ties”
The friendship between Anil Aggarwal, the boss of the multi million dollar enterprise Vedanta, and the Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi was very much in evidence during his trip to London in April. While there was much shaking of hands among the business leaders and the political leaders, the media largely overlooked the agitation over pollution and environmental concerns at Sterlite’s copper factory in Thoothukudi going on at the time. The struggle had extended all the way to the UK just weeks before Modi’s visit, with groups of British Tamils protesting outside the Vedanta chief’s home in London’s affluent Mayfair district.
Agarwal was not in the least put out. He praised the PM, saying “1 lakh villages have got optical fibre connectivity in the last four years. Proud that @SterliteTech, one of our companies, is leading the Digital India vision. #BharatKiBaat”.
In a nutshell, business opportunities for companies like Vedanta have opened out beyond their dreams, by being a valuable corporate partner of the Modi government’s economic agenda. Simultaneously, Vedanta has been criticised as one of India Inc’s worst violators of environmental and human rights regulations.
From 2000 to 2010, the company’s alumina and bauxite mining operations in Lanjigarh district and the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha sparked widespread protests and cemented Vedanta’s reputation as a polluter and offender of tribal and human rights.
In 2007, Norway’s state pension fund relinquished its holding in the company over what it described as “environmental and human rights violations”. Three years later, prominent investors such as the Church of England the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust also sold their stakes for similar reasons. Its green clearance was pulled by India’s environment ministry in the same year for “violating forests laws in Orissa”.
To overcome and paint over its reputation, in recent years, Vedanta has emerged as a crucial financial backer of prominent Indian cultural events, from literature – the London edition of Jaipur Literature Festival – to documentary film-making as well as socially-conscious programmes.
The CSR business opportunity
To change the image to a more benign one, the mining tycoon turned to the world of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and public outreach.
Vedanta set out to announce ambitious CSR programmes. Long-promised but never-completed community projects such as a massive cancer and research centre in Chattisgarh and a “world-class, billion-dollar” university in Odisha were promised. It prepared to launch a new “Our Girls: Our Pride” campaign that would raise awareness for underprivileged girl children, their health, education and nutrition. Vedanta also proudly announced that its various companies in India had spent over Rs 300 crore on corporate social responsibility that financial year, nearly 3% of their combined profit, which was above the mandatory 2% most Indian companies are required to spend.
In 2014 – which was incidentally the same year it was stopped from mining bauxite in the Niyamgiri Hills – Agarwal pledged 75% of his wealth ($3.5 billion or about Rs 23,000 crore) to charity. On multiple occasions since then, he has noted that a substantial portion of this would go back to “investing in India’s human resource” and working to better the lives of children below the age of seven years.
The untold part of the story
Unsurprisingly, many of Vedanta’s outreach initiatives have been seen as an attempt at white-washing the allegations against it and improving its poor image.
In 2012, it sponsored a short-film competition, which asked for submissions on the the impact of the company’s social development projects. In what proved to be an embarrassment for Vedanta, two members of the film competition’s jury, actor Gul Panag and director Shyam Benegal, pulled out over objections raised over the company’s poor track-record on environmentalism.
Scratching each other’s backs
Over the last four years, Anil Agarwal and his mining empire have deeply embedded themselves in the Modi government’s development agenda. A month after the 2014 general election, Agarwal told reporters that the “entire world” was “looking forward to the Modi government”.
Since then, Vedanta has been a staunch supporter of the Centre’s flagship development programmes. In October 2014, the mining boss announced that the company’s ‘Maryadaa’ campaign would join Modi’s call for ‘Swachh Bharat’ – all the company’s townships and employees would join in a cleanliness drive – and that group firm Hindustan Zinc was already in the process of constructing 30,000 toilets in rural Rajasthan in collaboration with the state government.
While most Indian conglomerates often pledge CSR fubds towards flagship governance programmes, Vedanta has a finger in nearly every pie. In partnership with the WCD Ministry, it plans to modernise 4000 anganwadis as nand ghars, and focus on children’s health, education, and skilling of women.
Agarwal has also taken personal interest in other projects seen as near and dear to India’s prime minister. In late 2017, in London, transport minister Nitin Gadkari disclosed that Agarwal had “taken responsibility” for beautifying the Ganga river front in Patna.
In May 2017, Vedanta became among the first organisations in the United Kingdom to adopt the Modi government’s pet Ujala scheme, which involves replacing all old lamps with energy-saving LED bulbs. Coal minister Piyush Goyal, who was in UK at the time, at the time presented Vedanta and the Indian high commission in London with a set of LED bulbs at a launch programme. He said “UJALA offers a great business opportunity in the UK, which can also become a base to foray into other countries in Europe. We can start with the London-listed Vedanta Group and I don’t see any reason why UJALA cannot become a way of life in London!
Justice for the victims
With protests continuing to rock Thoothukudi , and spreading to other parts of TN, it is to be hoped that the repression let loose by the state will not go unpunished. However, the issue that took the lives of the protestors has a wider canvas. The insidious ties between corporates and governments that work to the benefit of both but against the interests of the common people has to be exposed and fought. Development alternatives that favour the working sections have to be created. These are larger challenges. Only by addressing them can we achieve a modicum of justice for the victims.