Friday, June 19, 2009

More on Vedanta's plucked "Golden Peacock Award"

Awarded in haste, withheld
Over 170 organisations and individuals came together to highlight Vedanta's history of environmental irregularities to the Golden Peacock jury members, prompting a second look. Kanchi Kohli reports.

17 June 2009 - Some things make no sense whatsoever. On 12-13 June 2009, Vedanta Alumina Ltd (VAL), a world metals and mining giant was to receive the 2009 Golden Peacock Environment Management Award at Palampur, Himachal Pradesh (see here for more). The World Environment Foundation (WEF) and Institute of Directors are the two institutions behind the award. There is no way to understand this except as disregard - knowing or otherwise - of Vedanta's reputation.

A little education, then, for the benefit of these two institutions. In 2007, the Norwegian Council of Ethics had assessed its parent company Vedanta Resources and its Indian subsidiaries Sterlite Industries, Madras Aluminium Company (MALCO), Bharat Aluminium Company (BALCO), and Vedanta Alumina to judge whether the group was in breach of the council's Ethical Guidelines for investment. Following this, the Council had withdrawn its fundng, citing severe environmental damage and human rights violations linked to the group's operations in India.

While this was happening, a challenge to Vedanta's mining operations in Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa was pending before the Supreme Court of India before the forest bench. A monitoring body set up by this bench - as part of the T N Godavarman Thirumulpad v/s Union of India case - the Central Empowered Committee had recommended against the grant of approvals as the company had a history of irregularities in seeking both forest and environment clearances both for its refinery operations in Lanjigarh and proposed mining in Niyamgiri Hills of Orissa. Also critical was a strong movement against the mining by the Dongaria Kondh tribal community for whom Niyamgiri is a revered hill and deeply connected with their lives and livelihoods (see this earlier article).

The Supreme Court bench relied the Norwegian report even more than that of its own committee, and stated that it could not take the risk in handing over the mining operations to Vedanta. But the court, unexpectedly, had no qualms in allowing Sterlite Industries, Vedanta's subsidiary to work out a Special Purpose Vehicle with the Government of Orissa and Orissa Mining Corporation work out the best formula for mining. This was November 2007. (see here and here). All the modalities were discussed in court, and as an inexplicable formula the court granted its approval to Sterlite to mine in Niyamgiri Hills, subject to some conditions on 8 August 2008. It did not matter perhaps, that just about a month before in July 2008, the Martin Currie Scottish Trust Fund of Scotland also withdrew its 2.37-million-pound investment in Vedanta. This too was on the grounds of environmental and human rights violation by the company (see here).

Violations in other states

But Vedanta's stories don't start and end in the state of Orissa. Moving further to Tamilnadu there are two very stark and clear instances of the violations by Vedanta's subsidiaries. Sterlite's coppert smelter plant in Tuticorin is surrounded by fly ash and gypsum dumps. There are few villagers around who raise their voice against the air and water pollution being caused by the plant operations. There are days, says a local villager who did not want to be named, when they cannot open their windows due to the pollution, and some have chosen to live away due to the health hazards. This was verified around the site during inspection and discussions in May 2008 by Corporate Accountability Desk and Kalpavriksh members.

Official reports of the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) on Hazardous Waste Management in the years 2004 and 2005 respectively, also point to the violations by the plant. The SCMC report states amongst other things, "The industry, as reported to the SCMC during the visit, is also emitting sulphur dioxide far in excess of the permissible standards particularly when the sulphuric acid plant is not operating. "

In the Kolli Hills of Tamilnadu, Vedanta's subsidiary MALCO was pushed to suspend its illegal mining operations in November 2008. This was following a petition filed in the Madras High Court by Piyush Sethia of Speak Out Salem presenting evidence that its bauxite mines had no permission under various environmental laws. Kolli Hills are part of the extremely biodiverse Eastern Ghats ecoregion, also dominated by primitive tribal groups. The hills are said to be guarded by Kollipavai, the local deity. (see here).

In Chhatisgarh it is the turn of BALCO. There is photographic evidence of 2007 of the overflow of red mud over the embankment which has spread down the side of a rivulet nar the Balco-Vedanta aluminium complex . In the mines at Kawardha-Daldali (district Kawardha) bauxite mines, there are pictures of 2007 where trucks are running on dirt roads spreading huge amount of dust in and around the area.

There is more. A public hearing for the environmental clearance for the expansion of the Lanjigarh refinery in Orissa took place amidst stiff opposition at Belamba village on 24 April 2009. Locally affected people had highlighted that the existing plant was already polluting the area around and it was causing severe health problems to both humans and animals (See video at this link). The public hearing had to be left incomplete by the concerned authorities, due to strong protests.

Jurors challenged

Today, over 170 organisations and individuals have come together to highlight all of this and much more to the Golden Peacock jury members, what they did not see, or chose to ignore. (See list of Jury members here). A letter embedded with various weblinks or email attachments with research studies, photographs and videos has been sent to the jurors, officials of WEF as well as India's newly elected Minister for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh.

In all, this submission is no less than a comprehensive dossier attempting to highlight various well researched reasons to withdraw the award to the company and at same time initiate strong action. Addressed to the jurors, the letter seeks, "As jurors, you would have to explain how you chose to award a company that in the words of the Norwegian Government's Council of Ethics is clearly involved in "human rights violations." The dossier lays out a torrid controversy of fraud and financial malpractices shrouding this company. We hope, as jurors and persons of eminence, you would have the good sense to preserve your integrity by dissociating yourselves from this company in particular, and the Golden Peacock Awards, in general."

On 12 June, the Himalaya Niti Abhiyan (HNA) and activists from different parts of the country organised a protest outside the awards ceremony at Palampur, in tandem with the submission to the jury member with signatories from across the country. HNA also sent a letter dated 9 June to the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh requesting him to refrain from participating in the award ceremony. The letter also clearly rejects the sanctity of the award and it being conferred to Vedanta.

Following the furore, the jury has withheld the announcement of the award. Its members now contend that the full facts about the company were not brought to their attention earlier. Pending a second examination of the facts, it was announced that the award would be held back. None of the Himachal State government officials who were to attend the award ceremony did so.

Kanchi Kohli

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