MAC: Mines and Communities

It just ain't football!

Published by MAC on 2010-11-22
Source: Nostromo Research (2010-11-27)

London Calling kicks Vedanta into touch

Vedanta's profits for the first half of its current financial year have disappointed the London-listed, Indian uber-miner.

In fact, since January 2010, the company has "under-performed" the British mining index by 25%. Just three years ago it was leading that index.

Not that this downturn has noticeably perturbed Mr Anil Agarwal. The simultaneously self-effacing & self -aggrandising chair and majority-owner of Vedanta is now mooting a stock exchange listing of his company's copper interests in Zambia.

He's also optimistic about gaining Indian government permission to take over the Rajasthan operations of Edinburgh-based oil outfit, Cairn Energy, claiming last Friday that he'd secured the £3.8 billion necessary from eight complicit banks: Barclays Capital, RBS, Citi, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley and Standard Chartered.

But, as the saying goes - "it ain't over 'til the fat cats purr".

The deal may yet face opposition from ONGC, ranked 18th biggest global energy company by Platts. This Indian state-owned oil and gas enterprise is already partnered with Cairn and doesn't seem happy that the rich Rajasthani oil fields will escape (Scot-free, as it were) into Agarwal's grasp.

Juggernauts, 1: Ved's Uni, Nil

Then, just last week, Orissa's High Court put the clamps on Agarwal's grandiose plans to establish a "world-class" university in the state.

This much-lambasted, vastly ego-centric, monument to the very standards the man himself so flagrantly ignores, threatened to squander land occupied by 22 villages and jeopardise their access to clean water.

The edifice and its surrounds would probably have infringed on a wildlife sanctuary; arguably breached India's coastal zoning regulations; and certainly violated the country's land acquisition laws.

To cap it all, the area chosen for this capacious fundament of academe is holy ground: site of the temple of Lord Jagannatha, "the symbol of love and world brotherhood". Each year, chariots are drawn through the streets, carrying representations of this Hindu deity: a spectacular event which prompted the English term "juggernaut".

(Ironically, Mr Agarwal says he regularly pays his respects to every Hindu place of worship, when travelling in his temporal chariot through the British capital. One suspects that Jagannatha himself has never been impressed).

Nonetheless, the court's decision isn't likely to halt Lord Capital in his tracks for long. Agarwal is reportedly now looking to Karnataka as a new location for his secular temple of learning.

Tyger, Tyger, burning dim

It's a hoary old adage that leopards never change their spots. In Vedanta's case, the tiger seems fated to stick with its aging stripes, tainted with illegality and accusations of corruption as they've been for many years.

Recently the creature added a new string to its tattered tail, appointing a UK citizen, Anthony Henshaw, as its "Chief Sustainability Officer".

Henshaw previously held a similar position at Cemex, the Mexican cement producer for which he worked between February 2007 and March 2010.

During that period Cemex was indicted for emitting nearly a million tonnes of carbon dioxide, and egregious amounts of lead and mercury, from just one of its Mexican cement plants.

As recently as last month, Cemex was also accused of having dumped huge amounts of waste into one of the most important rivers in the Dominican Republic.

One likes to think that, given the company's tarnished reputation, no-one carrying less dubious credentials was prepared to join the Agarwal sustainability "make-over".

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Dirty play - 1

Those who follow the minerals industry closely are well aware that allegations of corruption against specific companies become notoriously difficult to prove.

It's a no brainer if an executive is caught red-handed passing wads of dollars to government officials. Or (as recently with Rio Tinto) if a senior staffer receives millions of yen from local firms. And we can positively smell the stink when a contractor builds a palace for a dictator, while ordinary citizens are still visibly sunk in poverty at the castle gates.

However. there are numerous instances of an enterprise, manifestly profiting from wrongdoing by an underling, but those holding higher office not being rapped for complicity in the offence.

Football aficionados will know what we mean, drawing on several such examples from that other "Great Game". Think of the grossly impertinent handball by Uruguay's Luis Suarez, which cheated Ghana of a well-deserved victory in this year's World Cup semi-finals.

Then take the opening match of the1990 World Cup, when Benjamin Massing savagely felled Argentinian super-star, Claudio Caniggia, thus contributing to a Cameroon winning goal. Who in Cameroon would admit to this flagrant foul? Yet it was clearly visible to millions across the globe.

It's undeniable that Vedanta has profited from similar miscreancy in its own fields of play.

Pro-company goons regularly intimidate opponents of its Lanjigarh refinery operations in Orissa.

Only a week ago, the tribal peoples' organisation, Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti accused members of the Central Reserve Police Force of harassing and beating up villagers in the locality.

But, as usual, Vedanta simply stood back, Pilate-like washing its hands of any responsibility.

Dirty Play - 2

There's also what might be dubbed "soft", or "creeping" bribery. This is where legitimate (or at any rate legal) attempts to sway the public mood, morph into the buying of influence from opinion-makers.

Almost every major corporate enterprise crosses this shadowy dividing line at one time or another. But, surely, there's only a difference in degree, between a PR outfit junketing free booze to pliant journalists, and an alleged war criminal spiriting conflict diamonds into the lap of a super model?

Which brings us back to Vedanta, and what it's been up to of late, trying to mitigate the reputational damages within its own worst conflict zone .

Last week the company inspired a "public" petition to Orissa's High Court, seeking to overturn a decision by the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) that its expansion of the Lanjigarh alumina refinery was hors de loi.

We use the term "inspired" advisedly. Those submitting the case included several NGOs manifestly bankrolled by Vedanta.

What's less well known is that the media which uncritically reported the petition is also funded by the company.

Here's what one of Orissa's leading independent journalists, Gladson Dungdung, told us when he learned of Orissa Diary's coverage of the "event":

"I used to write for a few news portals of Orissa, and when the Orissa Diary was launched, they asked me to write. I was writing for them on regular basis without any remuneration, assuming that they are working for the cause of People.

"However, after a year they stopped publishing my articles and I wanted to know the reason, therefore I visited their website. I was shocked to see the advertisements of Tata Steel and Vedanta (you can still see these on their website).

"Later on I noticed that they stopped publishing the news, reports and articles related to displacement and [are] now publishing all kinds of news and report related to Tata and Vedanta. Though I have no figure of how much they are bagging... from these groups, of course they are getting huge sums of money from Tata and Vedanta".

We can't claim unequivocally that the companies are passing fistfuls of rupees over the editorial desk.

More likely they aren't.

But, as the MAC website spelt out four years ago, in an article entitled "Extracting Intellects" - citing both Tata and Vedanta at the time - corporate subversions these days don't have to be so crude.

A slanted editorial here; a university endowment there - and the job is done.

It's a refinement of corruption that's rendered all the more insidious by virtue of its stealth.


Sources for this article: Vedanta gets cash for Cairn buy: Evening Standard, 19 November 2010; Vedanta University permit stayed: http://www.minesandcommunities.org/article.php?a=10536;

Agarwal pays obeisance to London temples: Businessworld (India) 25 July 2009 ;

Vedanta Hires Exec To Oversee Environmental Issues : PlanetArk, 8 November 2010;

Cemex in Mexico: http://www.minesandcommunities.org/article.php?a=8513

Cemex in Dominican Republic: http://www.minesandcommunities.org/article.php?a=10485

Rio Tinto China bribery case: http://www.minesandcommunities.org/article.php?a=10056

Orissa's High Court petition against MoEF decision; accusations against Vedanta "goons"; and the bankrolling of NGOs: http://www.minesandcommunities.org/article.php?a=10531

"Extracting Intellects": http://www.minesandcommunities.org//article.php?a=6500

[London Calling is written by Nostromo Research. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily held by any other party, except where directly quoted. Reproduction in whole or in part is welcomed, provided full acknowledgment is given to Nostromo Research].

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