Vedanta: The fest may be over, but not the controversyPublished by MAC on 2016-05-26
Source: The Wire, Scroll.in, Guardian, Livemint, Telegraph
To boycott or not to boycott?
The Jaipur Literature Festival, recently held in London, was mainly sponsored by British mining company, Vedanta Resources plc.
Some groups and individuals, vehemently opposed to the company's Indian operations, had called on participants to boycott the festival (see: London Calling has words to say about Vedanta's literary sham).
This stirred up quite a bit of controversy both in India and England.
Below we reproduce some of the comments made after the event - two by writers who patronised it, and two by Indians who didn't.
The last article is from a Delhi's online magazine The Wire and covers issues around sponsorship of such festivals by companies other than Vedanta.
Nostromo Research comments:
We know of no evidence to justify John Elliot's suggestion in this article that the campaign group Foil Vedanta is covertly funded by unidentfied agencies. He also claims: "There have for many years been suspicions that international aluminum prodcers finance non-governmental and other organisations to mobilise local people and block the mining of low-cost Indian bauxite that would disrupt markets with prices maybe 50% below international levels".
In our view, this is arrant nonsense.
Readers are invited to read the MAC posting in October 2012 of an opinion piece by the noted Indian development economist, Amita Baviska, in the Indian Express - refuting a similar argument by Tavleen Singh, a Vedanta apologist (see: Are aliens conspiring to impoverish India?)
Says Ms Baviskar:
"Lamenting the closure of the Vedanta aluminium refinery at Lanjigarh, Orissa...Singh asserts that, if Vedanta had been allowed to mine bauxite from the Niyamgiri hills, its aluminium would have been 25 per cent cheaper than the world price.
"To preempt this competition, the international aluminium industry got Amnesty International and Greenpeace to oppose the project 'supposedly to protect the interests, and sacred hills, of forest-dwelling Adivasi tribes' ".
"...[I]t is impossible to say whether and how much Vedanta's cheaper production would threaten its competitors. The market for aluminium is volatile, with prices fluctuating from $3,100 per tonne in 2008 to $1,400 in 2009. With demand for aluminium rising in the last three years, Vedanta is as likely to have raked in higher profits as lowered them for the industry.
...[T]he total bauxite reserves in the Niyamgiri hills are estimated to be 72 million tonnes. It takes three tonnes of bauxite to make one tonne of alumina. Using 18 million tonnes of bauxite every year, Vedanta's 6 mtpa refinery would exhaust the ore in less than four years.
"The profits would be repatriated abroad and the area devastated for ever. If that's investing in India's prosperity, we can do without it.
"[I]nternational NGOs did not start the anti-Vedanta campaign. The resistance came from the Dongaria Kondh, whose entire population of 8,000 lives in the Niyamgiri range, and the Kutia Kondh who inhabit its foothills..."
She concludes: "If there is a 'foreign hand' out to undermine India, surely it is Vedanta".
It's a question of conscience: Thoughts on calls to boycott Vedanta-sponsored London lit fest
by Mahesh Rao
23 May 2016
Writer Mahesh Rao explains what exactly is at stake.
Last weekend, a group of academics, activists and writers issued an open letter to their peers who had agreed to participate in the Jaipur Literary Festival's London event, urging them to boycott the event on May 21 because it had been sponsored by the mining company Vedanta.
The letter highlighted accidents at the mining company's facilities and alleged that there had been irregularities in the manner in which environmental clearances had been obtained. The signatories claimed that "Vedanta's activities are destroying the lives of thousands of people in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Punjab and also in Zambia, South Africa and Australia".
Vedanta has strenuously denied these accusations.
On Sunday, writer Mahesh Rao, author of the acclaimed short story collection One Point Two Billion and the award-winning novel The Smoke Is Rising, wrote a Facebook post putting the boycott call into perspective.
'I sometimes wonder about the efficacy of boycotts. I do essentially think this is a matter of conscience for each festival participant to consider. We all have to ask ourselves frequently a question that in its bluntest form could be expressed as: "How disgusting am I prepared to be?"
Will I court an influential person I detest because he or she might be useful to my career? Will I blurb a book that I’m not keen on as a favour to an agent or publisher? Will I speak at an event sponsored by a financial company that invests in blood diamonds? Will I accept a commission from a firm that is known to treat its employees appallingly? Will I write book reviews for and accept remuneration from a magazine that produces editorials that I consider toxic and divisive? Will I publish with a publishing house whose parent company is an international media conglomerate with a sinister agenda?
Some version of these questions are sometimes asked by all of us, in our position as consumers, producers, employees, citizens.
I think there are two specific things to note in this case:
1. Vedanta, and other similar entities, are directly responsible for a whole raft of exploitative and egregious violations which have been widely publicised.
2. In this case, we have numerous adivasi writers and activists appealing to participants to rethink their participation. They seem to me to be saying very legitimately: "Those of you who claim solidarity with us, show us an example of that solidarity by withdrawing from the festival." I read their appeal as an expression of this question: "Are you saying that a 'safe space' for debate on London’s Southbank is more important to you than a safe space for adivasi communites in the areas in which they live?"
So, in light of these circumstances, the question for each participant is quite straightforward in my view.
“Does my conscience allow me to enjoy Vedanta’s hospitality and participate in an event that it is using to soften its image and to attempt to whitewash the nature of its activities?”
The answer need only be a simple yes or no.'
The case against boycotting the Jaipur Literature Festival
23 May 2016
The campaigners against Vedanta at the literature festival in Southbank, London, this weekend undermined their cause by trying to shrink space for conversation and debate
On Saturday, 21 May, the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) came to London, in its third year at the Southbank Centre. More than 40 writers were to speak in 20 sessions and there was music. But a shadow hung over the festival—among the sponsors this year was Vedanta, the controversial London-listed company that had its environmental clearance withdrawn in 2011 by the ministry of environment and forests in India, and which has been the target of human rights and environmental groups over its record (The Foil Vedanta campaign has outlined those on its website and Amnesty International published a report, Don’t Mine Us Out of Existence , in 2010). Prominent investors have divested its stock.
The gram sabhas of Niyamgiri had withheld permission for mining in the area as per the law, but state-owned Odisha Mining Corporation recently sought Supreme Court permission to reconvene the gram sabhas, presumably hoping for a different outcome. Vedanta, too, would like to resume operations. Earlier this month the Supreme Court rejected the petition, saying reconvening sabhas would “tantamount to infringement of the religious, community and individual rights of local forest-dwellers.” The Dongria Kondh don’t want their sacred sites disturbed, and so it should be, if the principle of free, prior informed consent has any meaning.
Campaigners wrote to the participating authors, appealing that they withdraw from the festival. In the end, one writer withdrew; another said he was sad about the sponsorship but was in any case unable to travel due to health reasons; one writer-activist missed her flight. The rest came; some of us spoke about the issue in our sessions.
Soon after the opening speeches were made at the ballroom at Southbank Centre, I left for the author’s lounge to prepare what I wanted to say about festivals, boycotts, the role of companies and the rights of communities in a session I was to moderate that afternoon. As I left, several activists marched silently towards the stage, and once they reached the front, they faced the audience, raised their placards critical of the company, and raised slogans loudly, disrupting the programme that was to follow, a session on poetry.
Ruth Padel was one of the poets reading from her work at that session. She has a long record of supporting environmental and human rights causes. She said that when she accepted the invitation for the festival, she did not know that Vedanta was a sponsor. (Many of us didn’t). She decided to read a poem on environmental degradation, Apocalypse:
“… Planet Wildfire, degrading forests,
a global population which depends
on energy we are shriveling the earth to make,
the difference between ruin, which we can
rebuild, and rubble which we can’t.”
Leading up to her poem, she had spoken about lakes of toxic red mud left in Odisha by Vedanta, and said Vedanta is “contributing to the end of the world”, as well as to the villagers’ suffering in a major way. But it was difficult for many to hear her poem or her remarks, as the protestors were shouting slogans. Padel asked the protestors,wouldn’t they stay and hear what she had to say? But they said they wouldn’t; later she asked them if they had heard what she had actually said, and they hadn’t. She nonetheless tried to explain to the audience what the protests were about since she thought many in the audience would not know. “They were right to protest,” Padel told me. But they weren’t there to listen.
Barkha Dutt, the television journalist and author, whose session was also interrupted, asked the protestors if they were willing to talk, but they kept shouting and screaming, she said.
Later, in a session on reporting from India, Dean Nelson, British journalist and South Asia specialist, spoke about his visit to Niyamgiri in 2006 when he interviewed three widows of anti-Vedanta campaigners who believed their husbands had been killed because of their opposition. “The sudden impact of wage labour was terrible—men developed drink problems, some said young women had been lured into prostitution,” Nelson told me. “Before, they had lived an idyllic life in the forest.”
When he went back to report the gram sabha vote which rejected mining, he was detained for several hours by the local police intelligence who wanted to know the names of everyone he had spoken to; they only backed down after a call to the ministry of external affairs. “The state government made its deal with Vedanta without considering the local people and then tried to bully them into submission to facilitate Vedanta. It took a lot of protest and international support for the Dongria Kondh to be allowed a voice,” he said. “I don’t think JLF should have accepted their sponsorship; it was the beneficiary of marginalized people being denied the free expression Jaipur exists to celebrate,” Nelson told me.
In the week before the festival, many of us received letters from a campaigner which argued why boycotting the festival was necessary. While the initial letter signed by activists and authors calling for a boycott focused on Vedanta’s record, this letter went on to criticize festivals in general, suggesting that festivals like the one at Jaipur peddle Indian exotica abroad for an elite audience. I disagree with that assertion. I have been to the festival in Jaipur twice, and I don’t see it to be particularly elite—it is free; last year, more than 300,000 people attended the festival, and only a few of them were foreigners or elite; hundreds, perhaps thousands, of school children attend each year; true, there are tickets for lunches and dinners and for attending music sessions in the evening, and presumably only those who are able to afford the tickets can participate in such activities. But it is possible for a poor student to attend the festival for all five days and listen to the world’s leading authors as well as India’s leading writers, including from many Indian languages, without paying a paisa for the events themselves. My most memorable encounters have been with young students, keen to write, brimming with ideas, who want to stay in touch, sending their essays and stories for me to read and react.
I had to balance the call for boycott of the festival, made by people who represented those that were directly affected by the activities of one sponsor, with my belief in making use of the platform to say what I intended to say. Is my use of that space more important than the space denied to people in India fighting such projects, I’m asked. My response is—would my non-participation, and not speaking about it to an audience that did not know about the issues, advance the cause of those denied their voice?
I do not believe in cultural boycotts. They often penalize the very constituency that needs allies in their struggle for change, and often it can be a liberal community in an authoritarian society. Targeted economic sanctions and divestment campaigns chosen strategically are a different matter. I recall that a few years ago, British writers were debating whether to boycott the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka because of the horrendous human rights record of the Rajapaksa government. I was on the board of English PEN then, and some authors asked us what they should do; our suggestion was that they should go if they wished to, but to use the platform to raise cases of missing Sri Lankan journalists and call for investigation and prosecution of cases where journalists and writers were being murdered.
You are complicit if you go along with the master narrative as a cheer-leader; you aren’t if you speak out. But some protestors at Southbank began to see the narrative in “us-vs-them” terms. If they had attended the session I moderated with the courageous Israeli writer, Gideon Levy (in which Barkha Dutt and Shatrughan Sinha also participated), they would have seen how powerful the voice of dissent is, and why it must be allowed to speak. Levy spoke powerfully about the need to speak truth to power—his career is a living example of that. He has been threatened, he has been shot at, and he is deeply unpopular among conservative Israelis because he humanizes the Palestinian tragedy and continues to embarrass the militarized Israeli state. I had asked him and other panelists if Israel and India pass Natan Sharansky’s Town Square Test—the test of a free society is if you can go to the town square and criticize the government without fear, and nothing happens to you later. It is about freedom of speech, but also about freedom after speech. Levy said Israel fails that test, citing the example of a Palestinian poet who is in jail because of her words, which the state says glorify violence.
When I asked Dutt the same question, she said India passed the test, though I disagreed. I pointed out how voices critical of the current development model are treated in India—either by being prevented from flying abroad, as in the cases of Priya Pillai and Gladson Dungdung, or being hounded out of Chhatisgarh, as had happened to Malini Subramaniam of Scroll.in. Other journalists have been threatened with violence; a few have been killed.
As for the festival and boycotts, here’s what I said: No corporation should begin any economic activity without the informed consent of the affected parties, and no force should be used at any stage. I speak with some experience—over the years, I have reported on, and observed, similar situations in Nigeria, Colombia, Indonesia, South Africa, and elsewhere, where companies have come into conflict with communities, and the state has sided with the company. Companies aren’t “good” or “bad”; their actions are. But I stressed that boycotts prevent voices from being heard. If the movement to boycott Israel on cultural and academic grounds succeeds, we wouldn’t have writers like Levy or scholars like David Shulman speaking at international fora.
I’m of course aware that my remarks won’t change anything. Ruth Padel reminded me late Saturday evening what Seamus Heaney has written—no poem ever stopped a tank, but poems do make people think. Stopping conversations at festivals is an attack on thought.
Festival organisers, of course, need to be far more conscious of whose support they seek. There is no exact science about it, and there is no objective list of companies which are “good” to raise funds from; festival organisers will have to assess the risks. The Jaipur Literature Festival is not alone in this context—other festivals, too, face these agonizing choices. The risk they must assess is not only to their reputation, but to the ideals that the festival supports—participation, inclusiveness, diversity, democratization, and free speech. I appreciate it isn’t cheap to run a festival; it costs money. But a festival that wants to uphold certain values has to be acutely conscious of who its supporters are. It isn’t an easy task, and the alternative—of relying on governments—poses its own dangers.
The campaigners have a legitimate role, in exposing corporate, societal, or government wrongdoing. But they do not have the monopoly of answers. If they are so convinced that the solution they believe in as the ideal one is indeed the best, then they leave no room for disagreement. Such certainty can be dangerous. It can lead one to believe that you are right and the others are wrong. And if the others aren’t for them or with them, then they can only be against them—and in effect, for the corporation—casting it in Manichaean terms. I would have thought they wouldn’t see the world in such clean binaries; this is the language of the land of Chup , not Gup, in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The activists were right to protest, right to call for a boycott, and right to picket. They would also be right to protest at a corporate annual general meeting. But they undermine their cause by trying to shrink space for conversation and debate.
We live in a fragile time for free speech—governments, corporations, religious groups, vigilantes and cultural conservatives all want to deny platforms to writers. Shrinking spaces where debates and discussions are possible is wrong. Activists who struggle for causes they consider important should know that they aren’t alone in their struggle, even though others in that struggle may pursue different means to get there.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. He is the chair of the writers-in-prison committee of PEN International.
Why I chose to attend the Alchemy festival, despite Vedanta's sponsorship
23 May 2016
The mining giant’s involvement in the Alchemy festival was shocking – but turning up and talking still seemed right. It’s what writers do
The Jaipur literary festival celebrates the freedom to write, speak, read and listen. It is the largest literary festival in the world, free to all, and it won an audience of 370,000 this January. Hundreds of thousands of young Indians go to hear the world’s finest writers and thinkers. Crowds of schoolkids, who arrive by train to catch their favourite authors and can’t afford accommodation, sleep rough at Jaipur station. And no one has to part with a rupee.
The programming, alert to new books from India and the world, explores sensitive debates while maintaining artistic and intellectual freedom. So it was a shock for everyone involved to find that one of the sponsors for a Jaipur residency at London’s Alchemy festival, staged by the Southbank Centre in London, was mining firm Vedanta, which has a monstrous global record on human rights and environmental damage.
The festival’s producer did not share with the two directors his decision to let Vedanta sponsor part of the London programme until after the programme was printed. They were horrified, and have promised that it will not happen again. As one of the poets who had agreed to take part in the festival, I too was horrified.
Vedanta’s takeover of copper mining in Zambia is a very dark story. An Amnesty International report details its environmental and human rights abuse in Orissa, India, where its operations were stopped: the tribes whose land Vedanta wanted voted against it. India’s supreme court has ruled against Vedanta’s challenge to that vote. Vedanta’s subsidiary Sesa Goa was indicted for illegal mining in Goa and mis-declaring export figures, and banned for almost two years.
When Vedanta’s sponsorship went public, writers were pressured to withdraw from the festival and the issue touched me personally on two counts. For tiger conservation, I researched wildlife forests in India and am committed to help environmental protection there. Vedanta also features in Out of This Earth, a book on aluminium mining and human rights by Samarendra Das and my brother Felix. I decided not to pull out but speak up on the day. Nobody was asking us to keep quiet.
True to the spirit of Jaipur, the programme spotlit India’s Hijra, or transgender, community; it also made space for a discussion of boycotts between Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, whose column for leftwing newspaper Haaretz criticises Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.
The poetry happened downstairs in the Festival Hall. Anti-Vedanta protesters were invited onto the platform first. There was a lot of shouting, but afterwards I asked if they would stay to hear what I had to say. They didn’t, but before reading poems, I told the remaining audience these people were right to protest, describing Vedanta’s human rights abuses and the toxic red mud, byproduct of bauxite mining, which causes irreversible damage to human health, livestock and the earth. Other writers – south Asia correspondent Dean Nelson, author Nick Robins – also spoke out.
In a session on the East India Company, William Dalrymple, one of the directors, talked of corporate violence and political bribery. Tripathi described how tribal voices challenging Vedanta activities are sidelined: most recently that of Gladson Dungdung, a tribal activist, part of a global movement of communities resisting illegal land takeover by multinationals. Dungdung’s book Mission Saranda evokes a precious Jarkhand forest, a biodiversity hotspot where Vedanta will now mine. Two days after Vedanta signed that contract, Dungdung was prevented from flying here by Indian authorities to address a conference at the Sussex Centre for World Environmental History. Maybe he can speak at next year’s Jaipur festival.
Writers talk. That’s their point. “Do what you are going to do,” says a searing poem by Sharon Olds, “and I will tell about it.” Researching forests throughout Asia for a tiger book with frontline defenders of the wild, I felt I was merely writing words: those people were doing what really mattered. But after publication I realised that books can reach places other forms of action don’t. They complement the frontline activists, and those who confront Vedanta on the ground have to be very courageous indeed.
Here in London, many sponsors, from the Aga Khan Foundation to Typhoo Tea, supported the literary events: Vedanta sponsored only the music that began and ended the festival, and a dinner I didn’t attend. It has never sponsored anything in Jaipur. But what’s right here? Sponsorship, and its potential taint, is a global issue. Do you pull out or speak out? Boycott, or bear witness?
Mining a literary festival - A dubious sponsor for the JLF in London
Ruchir Joshi, The Thin Edge
The Telegraph (Calcutta)
29 May 2016
The basic facts of the controversy around the Jaipur Literary Festival's recent event at London's South Bank are as follows. Like other literature festivals such as Hay-on-Wye, and in the art world, Art Basel, the JLF has been expanding its 'brand' to go beyond its actual location and conduct festivals in different parts of the world. As in Jaipur, the organizers have sought and received the sponsorship of various companies and corporate groups, good, bad and downright ugly. In London, JLF's sponsors were the Vedanta group, famous or infamous, depending on your position, for ruthlessly expanding their mining operations across the world without letting any concern for local people or fragile ecological situations get in their way. Vedanta's sponsorship drew a response of wide protests on social media as well in the physical world, including activists storming the stage at the event, waving placards and raising slogans against the company and the festival which had taken their 'blood money'.
For many people the issue was simple. According to them, Vedanta are one of the worst international offenders in terms of bending local governments to their evil agendas, cruelly displacing local people, destroying local environments as they suck minerals from the ground, and then of disappearing from the scene, leaving behind vast, uninhabitable devastations. If Union Carbide and Bhopal were bad then Vedanta are a hundred times worse, and in much slower, relentless motion, and across many different parts of the vulnerable developing world. In short, no way should any self-respecting festival organizer be going anywhere near the toxically amoral group, their PR agenda of whitewashing their crimes, or their tainted money. And should a literary festival make the ghastly choice of associating with Vedanta, then no way should any self-respecting writer, intellectual or critic bring themselves to participate in a festival infected by Vedanta's earth-murdering cash.
For others, things were less black and white. One argument against a boycott or non-participation was laid out by Salil Tripathi (disclosure: he's a friend) who did participate in the JLF's South Bank event. Tripathi, who spoke at some length on the JLF stage about Vedanta's many vile misdemeanours asks, "Would my non-participation, and not speaking about it to an audience that did not know the issues, advance the cause of those denied their voice?" In this, Tripathi meant people like Priya Pillai and Gladson Dungdung, both of whom were not allowed to fly out of India to speak abroad about the devastation caused by international mining firms.
Another argument against the mode of protests chosen by the activists goes thus: of course there should have been protests but no one should have shouted down the speakers, some of whom were actually trying to speak up against Vedanta; these kinds of protests from the Left are too close to the hooliganism and threatening behaviour we've seen from the right-wing culture-vigilantes, whether they be VHP-RSS goons, or the kind of thuggish behaviour we saw in Jaipur in 2012, from the imam of the Jaipur mosque who came to the festival with his followers and demanded action 'upto martyrdom' from them to stop the video-link conversation with Salman Rushdie; in the current political environment, it's far too easy to shut down the spaces for debate and free expression and far too difficult to revive them, so a festival like the JLF has to be defended, even if you find the organizers and their amoral sponsorship politics odious. Some of the people making this argument conflate bans (whether by government edict, Hindutva-fatwa or Jamaati ailaan) with boycotts and protests, going on to say that all of these are equally and undifferentiably undesirable.
Though not exactly in this camp, Nilanjana Roy (another friend) raises two points: given the grossly hostile attitude to free speech and wider culture displayed by the governments of the Congress, the BJP and all our various local suspects, any cultural festival will need to look for private (read corporate) funding; if you want, you can find something wrong with almost any corporate entity, Zee TV, Tata, DSC, Coca-Cola, to name just a few recent sponsors of festivals, but where and how do you draw a line beyond which you will not go? So a 'black-list' of unacceptable companies? A 'white-list' of ones that are okay? And by implication, perhaps even a grey-list, which is context-dependent? How do you choose your funders? To which Roy adds, "'Those' protesters [the right-wing types] believe in the rightness and justice of their cause as much as 'these' protesters do. But writers have many ways to protest - to speak at the venue, to stay away, or, even, as Gabriel García Márquez did with the Banana Company in One Hundred Years of Solitude, make lasting art from their anger."
A Bombay friend who deals a lot with raising sponsorships is much more caustic about us writers. "You author-types are a joke," he chortles, "it's so sweet and naïve of you to think you can 'talk about the issues raised by a sponsor' while participating in an event paid for by that company. The PR guy who's paid for it will just laugh, he's got his bang-for-bucks return, he will just say 'ha, you need us to pay for the platform where you can raise issues against us' and carry on undaunted." Given my friend's proximity to the most brutal film and music industries in the world he continues not to mince words. "We all have 'no-no' tags on certain potential sponsors. It isn't Vedanta's fault, their PR team is just doing what they need to. The fault lies with the organizers who took their money. How can William Dalrymple or Namita Gokhale say they didn't know Vedanta was going to be the sponsor? And then, that the company hadn't ever been found guilty of anything? But none of you have the requisite body-parts to be able to call them liars, do you?"
As it emerges that Vedanta were not only this year's sponsors for JLF's London event but also the ones of last year's, that one of the main organizers fudged this fact to at least two authors attending, who raised this problem, by saying "Oh, they're only sponsoring the opening party" (apparently not true, apparently the Vedanta logo was all over the place throughout the event), one does have to wonder how much exactly the triumvirate running the JLF cares about who picks up the tab for the proceedings.
As with life and literature, in this little kerfuffle too, contradictions abound. Literature festivals need to take place and to be paid for, hopefully not by private citizens and individual readers of books, but by some corporate-individuality which has unseemly-to-obscene amounts of advertising moolah to spend. Writers and critics should be able to 'perform' at these festivals at 'face value', simply concentrating on the books and ideas they are supposed to discuss; yet nothing exists in a vacuum, especially not for intellectuals who claim to have some social conscience, and who are supposed to have some serious social analyses. To be able to freely protest is a basic human right - or should be - and the corollary is that there should be a myriad ways available, a plethora of acceptable forms, in which these protests can manifest themselves - to limit a method or a form is in itself a censorship; yet, violence should be unacceptable; yet again, one person's emphatic shouting down or drowning out of the other is another person's physical assault, so this is always going to be a tricky patch of quicksand.
Continuing with the contradictions. JLF in Jaipur is very different from the pop-up van of JLF-on-Thames. The first is an important festival in a city and country's calendar, where actually hundreds of thousands can, free of cost, avail themselves of literary discussion and debate, never mind that they can't all access the cocktails and meals where the grandees of the BJP and the Congress nuzzle each others glasses of bubbly, even as they conspire how to shut down free speech. The South Bank jamboree is a ticketed event and a different thing entirely - while JLF-Jaipur should be buffered, hopefully by public opinion, against chaos and anarchy, insurrectionary instinct suggests that no such protection need be afforded to any platform or event in the cosseted halls of the South Bank - if you buy a ticket to a show sponsored by a dodgy corporation know that you could have bought a ticket to rather fuller entertainment than you bargained for; if you don't like the heat, don't buy a ticket to the devil's kitchen.
As for the future of the JLF and other such festivals in India, a few concluding thoughts. Vedanta have perhaps done what they do - they've strip-mined JLF, they've extracted their PR profit, and now they will move on, leaving behind whatever damage for Jaipur, perhaps ameliorated by slatherings of financial balm. The fact is, arrogance and foolishness are diseases hard to leave behind - even as the controversy rages, one of the main organizers writes (about taking Vendanta's money): "[E]ven sinners are allowed into the temple." Leaving aside the sheer big-headedness of imagining JLF to be some kind of 'temple' (not to belabour the stupidity of equating Vedanta with some poor, individual 'sinner'), the answer to that is: they may be allowed to enter the temple, but they're not usually allowed to buy it. In any case, there's probably a queue, many sinners lined up to bid for the JLF temple, and we have to hope that the people in charge choose one that doesn't destroy the pile.
When Dodgy Donors Dog the Lit Fest Circuit
By John Elliott
25 May 2016
When the organisers of the Jaipur Literature Festival arrived at London’s Festival Hall on the banks of the Thames for a day of bookish discussions and debates on May 21, they were worried about how far protesters opposed to Vedanta Resources, their extremely controversial lead corporate sponsor, would go in order to cripple the event.
Two days earlier, protesters from Greenpeace had climbed pillars (left) that form the façade of the impregnable-looking British Museum and forced the first day of a big summer exhibition temporarily to close because BP was the sponsor.
As it turned out, there were few protestors at what is known as JLF SouthBank, the London spin-off from India’s highly successful annual festival in the Rajasthan city of Jaipur that attracts many tens of thousands of visitors every January and had 330,000 footfalls earlier this year.
There were only 20 or 30 demonstrators and they showed neither Greenpeace’s ingenuity and skill, nor a willingness to demonstrate calmly and engage in a debate on the issues. If they had done so, they would have found that a large number of people attending the festival agreed with their opposition to Vedanta, but did not see that as a reason to boycott a stimulating literary day.
“Angry, ugly and destructive”
They shouted and screamed and stormed into the main hall waving placards in the middle of discussions that they hoped but failed to halt. “Their cause was ok but behaviour (I was there) was angry, ugly and destructive – they rejected offers to debate issues, saying that would mean getting involved”, I commented on Facebook and Twitter.
Eventually their efforts fizzled out, thanks to quiet and patient police persuasion that steered them and their aggression outside the building.
That might have been the end of the story, but discussion has continued in the social media and in India, mainly because Vedanta, a London-based Indian-controlled mining, metals and oil and gas company, is regarded as possibly the worst of a very bad bunch of Indian and foreign miners. They care little for the social and environmental disruption that they cause, and they try to smother both the effects and the protests with heavily publicised social programmes and international public relations exercises such as sponsoring cultural festivals.
Foil Vedanta’s call to protest
This raises some important issues about the sources of financial sponsorships for such events, the access that protesters should have, and whether literary and other figures should fall into line and withdraw from a festival, depriving a large number of people (some 650 at JLF SouthBank) of hearing from them. Sponsors rarely have much influence – at JLF a company chairman might get a spot in one of the discussions, but little more.
There should also be questions about the campaign. There is no doubt that Vedanta, and its founder chairman Anil Agarwal, have been accused, and in some cases found guilty, of all sorts of environmental irregularities (which of course they deny).
But there should be questions about the financial and other backing that such a protest campaign receives. There have for many years been suspicions that international aluminum producers finance non-governmental and other organisations to mobilise local people and block the mining of low-cost Indian bauxite that would disrupt markets with prices maybe 50% below international levels.
Such ideas can easily be dismissed as unreal conspiracy theories, but I don’t think they are necessarily unreal. The power and reach of the anti-Vedanta campaign is incredible – the Church of England even sold a £3.8m equity stake in the company in 2010 in response to the campaign.
This is not to suggest that Saturday’s demonstrators were being misled, but they probably had little idea of who was funding Foil Vedanta, which led the protests and has been in operation since 2011.
The focal point of the complaints is Vedanta’s $1.7bn plans for open-cast bauxite mining (with a nearby aluminium plant) on an Odisha (Orissa) mountain at Niyamgiri that the local Dongria Kondh tribe regard as sacred and part of their heritage and source of livelihood. The project was stopped by India’s last Congress government after a vote by people living in the area, but there are now attempts to reopen the issue, presumably because the current Narendra Modi-led government will be more sympathetic to the company.
The Foil Vedanta campaign is far wider however than Niyamgiri, accusing the company of “destroying lives and devastating the land” elsewhere in India and in Sri Lanka, Ireland, Zambia, Liberia, South Africa and elsewhere.
In accepting Vedanta as the named top sponsor of JLF SouthBank, Sanjoy Roy, who runs Teamwork Arts, a successful and respected Delhi-based production company that organises festivals in India and abroad, clearly made a mistake. He failed to inform the festival’s two co-directors, Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple, both well-known authors, that he was turning what had been Vedanta’s more informal support into high-profile sponsorship. He must have known that they would oppose the move.
Roy did this in order to cover the costs of the event, which he has told me amounted to about £100,000 of which 60% came from Vedanta and far less controversial sources including the highly respected Aga Khan Foundation, India’s Tata group’s Taj Hotels and Apeejay, an Indian group that includes a chain of bookshops.
He has built up Teamwork over more than 20 years but had to divest a stake to financial backers to offset growing losses on the main Jaipur festival. This means he is under increased pressure to balance the books, and that has led the festival into some controversial associations.
Tata Steel, which has a mixed reputation environmentally and is criticised for 12 tribal people being killed during demonstrations at a steelworks site in Orissa in 2006, became a sponsor of the main Jaipur festival a few years ago and withdrew after facing some criticism.
The sponsor of the main event in January this year was Zee TV, a leading Indian tv channel, which led to JLF being drawn into a controversy when Zee was accused of tampering with a video film during student unrest at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University earlier this year.
There have been many other worthy supporters including the Getty Foundation and Harvard Humanities Center, and Dalrymple has said that “we have to try harder to find sponsors who don’t create division and dissension.”
There is of course a long history of sponsorships running into trouble, as Nilanjana Roy, an author and columnist, has reported in India’s Business Standard. In 2002, Germaine Greer and Jim Crace pulled out of the UK’s famous Hay-on-Wye literary festival. They were protesting against sponsorship by Nestle, seemingly an uncontroversial company, because of a powdered baby milk formula it was marketing in Africa.
In 2006, writers called for a cultural boycott of Israel in solidarity with Palestinian writers, teachers and film-makers, and this March over 100 writers called on the PEN American Centre to refuse support from the Israeli embassy for its annual World Voices festival.
And back in India, Vedanta and another much-criticised part of the Jindal family group has supported the Kalinga lit fest in Orissa, but protests are expected this year.
Hopefully JLF and Vedanta will now part ways because neither is good for the other – JLF provides the protestors with high publicity in their fight against the company, while the Vedanta label threatens to damage JLF which is becoming something of a national asset that needs protection.
Referring to diplomatic relations with the UK, Navtej Sarna, India’s new High Commissioner in London, described JLF SouthBank as “the single most important part of our soft power” when he opened the event.
Ideally there would be something like the UK’s Lottery Fund to provide support but, failing that, the Jaipur Literary Festival in Jaipur and London – and another spin off in the American city of Boulder – needs to be run by an independent not-for-profit trust that could hire Teamwork as the production company and impose strict sponsorship rules.
Unless something like that is arranged, one of India’s most astonishing and successful institutions will inevitably sometimes fall foul of critics who wish it no good and are envious of its success, and others who cash in on its urgent need for funds for their own purposes.
Hopefully, in future, the critics will be more constructive and open to debate than the crowd that failed to shut down JLF SouthBank last weekend.