Vedanta updatePublished by MAC on 2007-08-18
18th August 2007
The flow in media coverage of Vedanta Resources' annual general meeting (AGM), held in London early this month, hasn't stopped. Three of the more perceptive recent contributions appeared in the Wall Street Journal, and last Saturday in "il manifesto" - Italy's (non-party political) Italian communist daily.
Nick Robins also co-authored with Pratap Chatterjee a major article for CorpWatch, on the sixtieth anniversary of India's independence. This highlighted Vedanta as an example of the "legacy of collusion between global corporations and the expansionist [Indian] state" that, says the authors, "makes this year so poignant and full of enduring lessons". (Nick Robins was involved in putting together the MMSD project, sponsored by a raft of mining companies in the late 1990s. He is employed on selecting socially responsible investments for HSBC, the world's second largest investment bank which has major investments in mining and helped put together the initial funding package for Vedanta Resources plc.)
Also citing the Vedanta case as an example of "looting" India’s natural resources, Jay Mazoomdaar warns against "romantic primitivism", arguing instead for a government policy that reconciles both environmental protection and community desires for self-advancement.
Vedanta's subsidiary, BALCO, has sealed a new deal with the state government of Chhattisgarh, boasting that this will make it the world's biggest aluminium producer "from a single location". The claim came hot on the heels of strident criticisms voiced at the company's AGM over BALCO's increased (and dangerous and arguably illegal) bauxite mining in the state. It’s clearly yet another example of Vedanta's determination to present itself as indispensable to "the expansionist state" and thus deflect rising criticisms of the damage caused or created by its current activities.
Of a piece with this strategy has been the long-nursed plan by Vedanta's executive chairman, Anil Agarwal, to construct a "world class", eponymous university in Orissa. Now the state government plans to build a central university which would serve the needs of disadvantaged tribal students, coming from the areas where they will be most profoundly affected by new mining projects - including those of Vedanta.
Indian Activists' Rising Clout
U.K. Company's Plan For Mine Is Threatened By Environmentalist Ire
By JACKIE RANGE, Wall Street Journal
16th August 2007
NEW DELHI -- India's Supreme Court is poised to decide whether a British company has the right to mine in a sacred tribal forest, a case that underlines the complexity of undertaking large-scale industrial projects here.
The case's hearing by the court reflects the growing clout of activist groups in India and the bigger role the judiciary is taking in enforcing the country's environmental rules. Experts say legal challenges could become a greater hurdle for foreign and local investors as India's environmental lobbyists work together and gather influence.
Vedanta Alumina Ltd., majority-owned by London-listed metals-and-mining company Vedanta Resources PLC, wants the right to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills, in the mineral-rich eastern Indian state of Orissa. Bauxite is refined to produce alumina, which is then smelted to produce aluminum. Vedanta already operates an alumina refinery it built adjacent to the area it wants to mine, part of an $800 million project that also includes a power plant. The company opened the refinery in March, using bauxite from elsewhere.
The environmental and social activists who brought the dispute to the high court allege Vedanta didn't disclose that forest land was needed for the project and therefore didn't get prior clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests -- a violation of Indian law. A spokesman for Vedanta Resources denies this but declined to comment further on the case because it is before the court.
The activists also argue the project will do serious harm to the flora and fauna of the area, which includes rare orchids, elephants, barking deer and sloth bears. Vedanta declined to comment.
At a hearing in May, Vedanta argued that bringing mining to the area would create jobs, said a person who attended. The company also promised to forest other areas in compensation for the trees lost.
The court is scheduled to hear the Vedanta case tomorrow. Its ruling could stop the mine project, require Vedanta to find another area to mine or allow the project to proceed, legal observers say.
The legal battle comes against a backdrop of growing social discontent as India's economic growth of more than 9% leaves many behind. "India's much-fêted economic miracle is not only bypassing many of the most vulnerable communities such as dalits [low-caste Hindus], urban poor and indigenous groups, but is pushing them off their land, out of their homes and destroying their livelihoods," says Bratindi Jena, of the international nongovernmental organization ActionAid, which opposes the mine.
As a result, foreign companies flocking here to tap into the booming economy, as well as India's own fast-growing corporate giants, face increasing grass-roots resistance: Across the country, conflicts have erupted over projects ranging from mines to supermarkets.
In May, villagers opposed to South Korean company Posco's construction of a huge steel complex in Orissa seized three employees, assaulted two and held them briefly. Canada's Alcan Inc. said in April it would withdraw from a mining-and-refinery venture that had faced years of protests, though a spokeswoman denies that is the reason it pulled out. Reliance Retail Ltd., a subsidiary of India's biggest company, Reliance Industries Ltd., which is investing more than $5 billion in a national supermarket chain, has had stores attacked, as small traders fear for their livelihoods in the face of major retail competition.
Amid such opposition, "investors need to be aware of the potential for litigators to file public-interest litigation in the courts," says Seema Desai, a London-based India analyst with consultancy Eurasia Group.
Projects have seen opposition from a range of sources, from farmers to social activists to larger nongovernmental organizations. Ms. Desai predicts that "over time, some of the protesters or litigators will join hands in more organized ways, in which case it could become a big hurdle for investors."
Public-interest litigation, similar to class-action lawsuits in the U.S., is filed directly to India's Supreme Court because it is considered to be in the general public interest.
In court, environmentalists are already getting a sympathetic ear, says Gurdip Singh, a professor specializing in international and environmental law at the University of Delhi. Judicial activism has led to India adopting stringent environmental regulations, he says. The judiciary tends to see the environment as the property of future generations to be protected, and it treats the right to a healthy environment as a fundamental human right, Mr. Singh says.
The Supreme Court is "taking a big interest in things like urban planning, land issues, environmental issues," says Ms. Desai.
In taking on such cases, the Supreme Court is filling a gap left by the central government, which has been reluctant to strictly enforce environmental laws, says Anand Prasad, a New Delhi-based partner with Indian law firm Trilegal.
The Vedanta case centers on a report produced by an expert panel assembled by the Ministry of Environment and Forests on the direction of the Supreme Court. The report said use of forest land in an ecologically sensitive area like the Niyamgiri hills shouldn't be permitted. It suggested environmental clearance for the refinery should be revoked until an alternative mine site has been identified, and said that if the plans had been properly reviewed at the outset, the project would have likely been abandoned.
The refinery was completed and began operating after the report was issued. Vedanta Resources declined to comment on the report.
Write to Jackie Range at email@example.com
Lessons of Empire: India, 60 Years After Independence
by Nick Robins and Pratap Chatterjee, Special to
14th August 2007
Two villagers who left their mud and wood huts last month to travel to London -- Kumuti Majhi and Phulme Majhi -- were a stark contrast to the 212,000 wealthy Indians who visited Britain last year on shopping expeditions where they outspent Japanese tourists. The villagers' mission, rather than the acquisition of designer clothing or the latest electronics, was to try to save the livelihoods of their small tribe that grows millet, fruit and spices in the lushly-forested Niyamgiri hills in eastern India.
On August 1, 2007, the Majhis spoke out at the annual general meeting of Vedanta Resources PLC, a British multinational that is poised to dig a new bauxite mine that threatens the village of Jaganathpur. While Vedanta is incorporated in Britain, it is owned by Anil Agarwal, the world's 230th richest man according to the Forbes 2007 list, a former scrap metal merchant who was born in eastern India. (See Vedanta Undermines Indian Communities, by Nityanand Jayaraman.)
The timing of the Mahji's trip to Britain and the protests back in India have a much wider significance. 2007 is marked by a trinity of anniversaries that recall India's conquest, first struggles and eventual liberation from British rule. On August 14th, India celebrates 60 years of independence. Earlier in the year, commemorations took place for the 150th anniversary of the great rebellion against British rule in 1857 -- known in the UK as the 'mutiny' and on the sub-continent as the 'first war of independence.' This trinity of historic milestones is completed with the 250th anniversary of the pivotal battle of Plassey in June 1757, when the private army of Britain's East India Company (which was often referred to simply as the "Company") defeated the forces of the Nawab (ruler) of Bengal (in eastern India), ushering in first corporate and then imperial domination.
It is this legacy of collusion between global corporations and the expansionist state that makes this year so poignant and full of enduring lessons. Its history provides timeless lessons on how (and how not) to confront corporate power with protest, litigation, regulation, rebellion and, ultimately, corporate redesign. Many of today's corporate struggles are prefigured in the resistance to the Company's rise to power. Again and again, "the return of the East India Company" is used as a catch-phrase to describe the recent influx of multinationals into India, whether global mining corporations or foreign business more generally.
And the Mahji's journey follows in the footsteps of others who have travelled to London to seek redress from corporate abuse. In August 1769, for example, two Armenian merchants, Johannes Rafael and Gregore Cojamaul arrived at London's docks. The two were rich men and had made their fortunes in India's most prosperous region, Bengal. However, Rafael, Cojamaul and two others had been summarily arrested by the Company's chief executive in Bengal, Harry Verelst, who then held them for more than five months under guard. When they were released, they found that the Company had pressured its puppet, the Nawab of Bengal, to change the rules of the game and ban all Armenians from the Bengal market. Sailing around the world to where the Company was headquartered, Rafael and Cojamaul appealed to its board of directors, complaining of their "cruel and inhuman" treatment.
The striking continuity of protest over the centuries is largely buried in today's celebration of India's surge to economic prominence. Tata's acquisition of Anglo-Dutch steel group Corus earlier in the year has been seen by many as symbolizing the end of Britain's era of industrial supremacy. Tata had already bagged the UK's iconic tea blend, Tetley, and its automotive arm may be lining up a bid for Land Rover. Writing recently in the Financial Times, Malvinder Hohan Singh, the chief executive of Indian pharmaceutical company Ranbaxy, caught the mood: "500 years ago, a company was formed in London that directly led to British rule in India [and] there appears to be some concern that there is evidence of a reverse trend."
This theme of reversal has also influenced India's popular media, most strikingly in a TV advertisement for Rajnigandha pan masala. Set in London, the ad shows an Indian tycoon stopping his car in front of the East India Company's headquarters and announcing to his secretary that he wants to buy the firm: "They ruled us for 200 years, and now it's our turn."
But while the media celebrates India's rise as the new economic emperors, they would also do well to reflect on the history of the world's first major multinational.
Down with the East India Company!
Established on a cold New Year's Eve in 1600, Britain's East India Company is unarguably the mother of the modern corporation. In a career spanning almost three centuries, the Company bridged the mercantilist world of chartered monopolies and the industrial age of corporations accountable solely to shareholders. The Company's establishment by royal charter, its monopoly of all trade between Britain and Asia and its semi-sovereign privileges to rule territories and raise armies certainly mark it out as a corporate institution from another time. Yet in its financing, structures of governance and business dynamics, the Company was undeniably modern. It may have referred to its staff as servants rather than executives, and communicated by quill pen rather than email, but the key features of the shareholder-owned corporation are there for all to see.
Beyond its status as a corporate pioneer, the sheer size of its operations makes the Company historically significant on a global scale. At its height, the Company's empire of commerce stretched from Britain across the Atlantic and around the Cape to the Gulf and on to India. From its headquarters at East India House on London's Leadenhall Street, the Company managed an extensive import-export business. Trading posts were established at St. Helena in the mid-Atlantic, where Napoleon drank Company coffee in exile. 'Factories' were also established at Basra and Bandar Abbas in the Middle East. But it was in India that the Company's impacts were most profound. Some of India's major cities grew on the back of the Company's trade, not least Bombay (Mumbai), Calcutta (Kolkata) and Madras (Chennai). Beyond these coastal ports, the Company established a huge land empire, first as an opportunistic quest for extra revenues and later as an end in itself.
Always with an eye to the share price and their own executive perks, the Company's executives in India combined economic muscle with its small, but effective private army to establish a corporate state across large parts of the sub-continent. Plassey was the turning point when the Company's forces defeated the Nawab of Bengal and placed its puppet on the throne. This is often regarded as the contest that founded the British empire in India. But it is perhaps better viewed as the Company's most successful business deal, generating a windfall profit of £2.5 million for the Company and £234,000 for Robert Clive, the chief architect of the acquisition. Today, this would be equivalent to a £232 million corporate windfall and a cool £22 million success fee for Clive.
Yet, the Company's footprint did not stop there, but stretched on to South-East Asia and beyond to China and Japan. Penang and Singapore were both ports purchased by the Company in an age when territories could be bought and sold like commodities. And if India was the site of the Company's first commercial triumphs, it was in China that it made its second fortune. The Company's 'factory' at Canton was the funnel through which millions of pounds of Bohea, Congo, Souchon and Pekoe teas flowed west to Britain, Europe and the Americas. In the other direction came first silver and later a flood of Indian-grown opium, smuggled in chests proudly bearing the Company chop (or logo).
From the beginning, the Company's monopoly control over trade with Asia had been disputed by its competitors back in Britain. But it was with the Company's acquisition of unprecedented economic power following Plassey that it came to be seen as a more structural threat to political liberty back home. For the editor of London's Gentleman's Magazine, by April 1767 it had become the 'imperious company of East India merchants.' For this normally sedate magazine, the prospect was bleak and boiled down to "whether the freedom or the slavery of this island will result." Not surprisingly, perhaps, this fiery article was concluded with a defiant cry -- "down with that rump of unconstitutional power, the East India Company." Six years later, as American patriots organised to counter the threat of the Company's newly won monopoly of the Atlantic tea trade, Rusticus' writing in east coast newspaper, The Alarm, also made clear his opposition: "Their conduct in Asia, for some Years past, has given simple Proof, how little they regard the Laws of Nature, the Rights, Liberties or Lives of Men." Looking back, the uprising that eventually led to America's independence was sparked as much by hostility to corporate monopoly as it was to taxation without representation.
The Company's malpractice also featured heavily in Adam Smith's Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Written in the wake of the Company's speculative 'Bengal Bubble,' Smith dissected the corporation as an institution and evaluated the factors that led to its own particular crisis. Uniquely, Smith was emphatic in downplaying the actions of individuals as the root cause of the problems. 'I mean not to throw any odious imputation upon the general character of the servants of the East India Company,' he wrote, stressing that 'it is the system of government, the situation in which they are placed, that I mean to censure.' The problem was one of corporate design.
For Smith, the Company held the secret to one of the greatest puzzles of his time: explaining the distribution of benefits from the rapidly increasing integration of the world economy. "The discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope," argued Smith "are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind." Smith's belief was that the full potential of this dramatic opening had not been realized, owing to a combination of colonies and corporations. For the natives of both the East and West Indies, "all the commercial benefits have been sunk and lost" in a series of "dreadful misfortunes." In Asia, the agents of this pain were the Dutch and British East India Companies, monopoly corporations that he condemned as "nuisances in every respect." Not only did people pay for "all the extraordinary profits which the company may have made," argued Smith, but they also suffered from "all the extraordinary waste which the fraud and abuse, inseparable from the management of the affairs of so great a company, must necessarily have occasioned." Smith was certainly an enemy of the over-mighty state, but he was also opposed to the over-mighty corporation, arguing strongly against the market power of monopolies and the speculative dynamics of stock-market listed firms.
Perhaps what infuriated the Company's contemporaries most through the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was its impunity, its ability to shrug off the consequences of its actions. For an insidious corollary to the Company's speculative drive for market dominion was its willingness to engage in immense crimes safe in the knowledge that domestic and international remedies were not in place. A large part of the problem lay in the legal void of the time, with courts in both Europe and Asia wholly ill-equipped for bringing corporations and their executives to account. This did not stop the Company's contemporaries from trying, most notably Adam Smith's friend, Edmund Burke.
It was Burke who first exposed how the Company had 'radically and irretrievably ruined' India through its 'continual Drain' of wealth -- a phrase that would haunt the next 150 years of British presence in India. In 1783, Burke introduced to make the Company accountable to the British Parliament, arguing that its corporate charter carried intrinsic duties: "this nation never did give a power without imposing a proportionable degree of responsibility." It is said that when one of the Company's oldest Directors, William James, read Burke's bill, he died of shock. When Burke's measure failed as a result of an unholy alliance of Court and City, he took up a hopeless struggle to impeach the Company's most senior executive in India, the former governor-general, Warren Hastings. Burke was merciless in his critique, on one occasion describing how Bengali women had been violated by the Company's tax collectors: "They were dragged out, naked and exposed to the public view, and scourged before all the peoples they put the nipples of the women into the sharp edges of split bamboos and tore them from their bodies." For seven long years, the trial continued, ending as expected with a grateful House of Lords acquitting Hastings of "high crimes and misdemeanours."
To get the founder of liberal economics and the father of modern conservatism both struggling to tame the Company says something for the bipartisan threat that the corporation posed to Britain during the Enlightenment. And Smith and Burke were joined by many others -- poets, playwrights and pamphleteers -- who expected future generations to take a similarly hard look at the Company's performance. "Historians of other nations (if not our own)," wrote the poet Richard Clarke in 1773, "will do justice to the oppressed of India and will hand down the Memory of the Oppressors to the latest Posterity." In the introduction to his long satire, The Nabob, or Asiatic Plunders, Clarke urged his countrymen "to perpetuate an honest indignation against these enemies of mankind."
A Legacy of Loot
Yet, in spite of Smith's profound analysis and Burke's passionate rhetoric, imperial interests won out against principle, consigning India to an empire of scorn and extraction. The drain of wealth was simply too attractive to renounce -- even though one lone MP did call for Britain to withdraw from India back in the 1780s. Combining commercial domination with control over Bengal's tax system, the Company was able to restructure the richest province of what had once been the Mughal Empire for its own ends. Textiles were shipped back to London, paid for by Bengal's own taxes, and peasants were forced to grow opium to be sold exclusively at below-cost prices to the Company, who then engineered its illegal export into China. If force and fraud were the tools by which the Company turned the terms of trade in its favour in India, it was opium that eventually had the same effect with the Qing Empire. For millennia, Europe had exported bullion to Asia in return for luxury goods, and when the Company was formed in 1600, Britain accounted for a paltry 2 percent of global output, compared with India's 22 percent and China's percent. By the time Britain finally departed India's shores three and a half centuries later, its national income was more than 50 percent greater than that of its former colony. And it was the East India Company that acted as one of the chief agents in engineering this great switch in global development.
"What is happening today with the rise of India and China is not some miraculous novelty -- as it is usually depicted in the Western press," writes historian William Dalrymple in the August 2nd issue of Time magazine, "so much as a return to the traditional pattern of global trade in the medieval and ancient world, where gold drained from West to East in payment for silks and spices and all manner of luxuries undreamed of in the relatively primitive capitals of Europe."
Centuries after the Company's demise, its physical presence in India continues to impress: Its remains stretch from ruins of its fort at the pepper port of Tellicherrry on the west coast, to the grandeur of Chennai's Fort St. George on India's eastern shore. The mark is greatest in Kolkata, a "company town" of immense proportions.
But the Company's powerful legacy also endures in India's public memory as an inspiration to the nationalist struggle for independence. For India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, the Company lay at the root of the oppression that he fought. "The corruption, venality, nepotism, violence and greed of money of these early generations of British rule in India," Nehru thundered in The Discovery of India, "is something which passes comprehension." Looking back at the Company's conquest of India, Nehru noted "it is significant that one of the Hindustani words which has become part of the English language is loot."
Traditions of Domination and Resistance
Today, after a decade of economic liberalization in India, this critical analysis continues to lie close to the surface. For many Indians, the Company's story has two profound morals: first, that multinational companies want not just trade, but power, and second, that division and betrayal among Indians enables foreign rule. The East India Company was a profit-making company that generated not only great wealth, but immense suffering, most notably in the horrific Bengal famine of 1769-70. Just as corporations today should be judged by the impacts of their core business rather than their often peripheral donations to cultural events, so the East India Company has to be assessed on the basis of its underlying activities rather than the occasional philanthropy of its executives.
Far from being a dusty relic, the East India Company exemplifies the constant battle within corporations between the logic of exchange and the desire for domination. Two centuries on, it demonstrates that the quest for corporate accountability is a perpetual exercise in directing the energies of merchants and entrepreneurs so that their private passions do not undermine the public interest. The lesson from Smith is the imperative to keep corporate size in check while globalization is fostering ever-increasing commercial concentration. And from Burke, we can take the essential importance of placing corporate conduct within a framework of justice, establishing legal mechanisms to hold corporations to account.
At its heart, the Company's business model combined speculation at home with aggression abroad. It was Karl Marx, writing in the 1850s as the Company limped towards its end, who pithily captured the drive that lay behind its remorseless rise to power. It was not any imperial project that had led it on, he wrote, but rather the Company had "conquered India to make money out of it."
Just as in the days of the Company, India remains the place where corporate practice meets strong resistance, such as ongoing protests to bring justice for the thousands who were poisoned or killed in the 1984 deadly gas leak at Union Carbide's Bhopal factory, or the movement in the 1990s to prevent Enron's Dabhol natural gas power project in Maharashtra from going on-line.
Challenges to multinational projects continue across the country today: In March 2007, after police shot to death 14 people protesting against investment plans of the Salim Group of Indonesia, the chemical hub in West Bengal Nandigram was cancelled. Nor is it just foreign companies that have faced fierce resistance. Protesters have targeted India-based billionaires including the Tatas who planned to set up a major car factory in Singur, West Bengal.
And like the Company, corporate impunity remains a constant concern. Roger Moody, a British campaigner from Mines and Communities, notes that Vedanta's subsidiary, Sterlite Gold, stands accused of a raft of criminal acts in Armenia, including mining more gold than permitted by the government, deliberately under-valuing its reserves, and failing to properly dispose of mine wastes. Last November, in Zambia, Vedanta was indicted for willfully using a defective pipeline to dispose of highly toxic tailings from the country's largest copper mine, KCM, which it purchased two years earlier. It had also been constructing Zambia's premier copper smelter without obtaining official permission from the Zambian government.
Last week, the Majhis took home a small concession from London. A Vedanta spokesperson said the company's chairman, Anil Agarwal, would be "very happy" to visit the controversial area with the villagers. But, the villagers understood that would not be enough. "We are not going to allow this [destruction] to happen," Kumuti Majhi told a news conference in New Delhi. "We have been living in this mountain range for generations, and we worship Niyamgiri as a living god."
Warm words were equally insufficient for Rafael and the other Armenian merchants back in the time of the East India Company. When the Company's directors arrogantly brushed them aside, they went to court, suing the Company's chief executive in the region, Harry Verelst, for damages. An intense legal battle then unfolded with claim and counter-claim lasting until 1777, when the courts found Verlest guilty of "oppression, false imprisonment and singular depredations." The Armenians won a total of £9,700 in compensation -- over £800,000 in today's money. Thousands of miles away from the scene of the crime, the principle of extraterritorial liability for corporate malpractice had been established in Georgian London.
Will Vedanta and others repeat the excesses of the British East India Company, or can systems of accountability finally be established that protect the rights of the weakest -- just as Burke hoped for centuries ago? Much depends on what investors, regulators and society learn from the lessons of the past.
Corporations, like people, have life spans. The British East India Company is long dead, but the quest for wealth it embodied endures. So, too -- as evidenced by popular movements and persistent campaigners like Kumuti Majhi and Phulme Majhi -- does resistance.
* Nick Robins is author of The Corporation that Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational (Pluto, 2006)
Caught in the crossfire
Jay Mazoomdaar, Consultant Editor, Environment and Wild Life
13th August 2007 (New Delhi)
IT'S been a cruel double whammy. For more than 100 years now, India's environmental polity has been a tussle between two predominant ideologies. One is the colonial policy of exploitation of natural resources as commodities and it continued after Independence as part of a nationalistic overdrive for economic progress.
At loggerheads with this philosophy has been the romantic primitivism that believed in pre-colonial, traditional modules of community-centric conservation. Six decades since Independence, India's green balance sheet is a reflection of the equal damage done to our natural assets by these counter-forces.
Of course, we have our achievements. Compared to Europe and North America, we have saved much more of our bio-diversity in spite of the colonial inheritance. For example, a host of major species - wolves in the Scandinavians, bears in Norway, wolverine and lynx populations across the European landscape, mountain lions in North America - was either wiped out or pushed to near extinction in the West.
In India, we have saved all 58 species of carnivores except for the cheetah. No mean feat when one considers the biotic pressure of a population density unimaginable for most of the world.
But we are sinking nevertheless. Big cats survive, but almost everywhere they are looking down the barrel. In many stretches, pristine forests are fragmented beyond recovery. Our fragile coastlines are choking with effluents.
So what went wrong? We need to briefly go back in history for an answer.
The big loot
When capitalism flourished in the West, basic environmental resources like water, forest or land became commodities in the new economy. Remember those horrid tales of forced indigo plantation and many such unfortunate chapters in our agrarian history? The British also launched the Imperial Forest Service as early as in 1867 to manage and exploit forest produce.
Post-Independence, the trend of commodification continued in commercial forestry, deforestation, conversion of land, Green Revolution, arbitrary construction of dams, command area irrigation etc. For example, the officially accepted rate of diversion of forestland was 1.5 lakh hectare per annum during the period 1950 to 1980. There is no authentic figure for encroachment yet.
Very few dared question the urgency of the new state for economic self-realisation till, in the Seventies, a section of urban radicals and a mass of rural activists together raised their voice in movements like those led by Jayaprakash Narayan.
Then in the early Eighties, Anil Agarwal * [see note] argued that the poor survive more on the 'Gross Natural Product' and his first Citizen's Report triggered a development-versus- environment debate.
With forestry a big money spinner under the agriculture ministry, the union government did not have much time for environment or wildlife. We did not even have a nodal ministry till 1988. Since the Wildlife Protection Act (1973), we have come up with a set of laws and amendments but often they left serious loopholes.
It may not be far-fetched to conclude that your average bureaucrat and his boss are more likely to buy and, in turn, hard sell the policy of commodification and exploitation rather than scout for sensible, scientific alternatives for sustainability.
Just consider these three recent moves, all critical to the country's future:
* The Coastal Regulation Zone Notification (CRZ), 1991: It allows Special Economic Zones, effluent treatment plants, industrial salt pans, and the mining of atomic minerals even in sensitive, fragile areas.
* The Environment Impact Assessment Notification (EIA), 1994 - It exempts projects like mining leases from public hearings if the project's land requirement is under 25 hectare. About 50 per cent of mining leases for major minerals don't use or need more than 25 hectare. In 2002, when the EIA was amended in extensive consultation with the industrial lobbies, many more concessions were made. For example, the amendment restricted participatory clauses by providing hearings only for project affected people, excluding experts and environmental NGOs. It also allowed the regulatory agencies, if they so desired, to do away with the whole stage of public consultation.
* The Biological Diversity Act 2002 - It drew flak from all quarters for ignoring the role of local communities in harnessing traditional knowledge. A number of impressive representations were made to correct this drawback prior to notification of rules in 2004. But the MoEF went ahead with its own stunted version.
It is not surprising then that 60 years after Independence we still depend on the Supreme Court to come to the rescue - in the past 10 years, it has passed nearly 200 orders and interim orders that have saved most of our bio-diversity.
In spite of a nodal ministry and mechanisms in place, the apex court often finds its hands full with green cases. Take the Vedanta mining fiasco, for example.
For the record, the British mining company had submitted two projects - one for an alumina refinery at Lanjigarh and another for bauxite mining at nearby Niyamgiri hills - for environmental clearance, claiming they were not inter-linked.
Once Vedanta got clearance for the refinery, made huge initial investment and even displaced many tribal families, they spilled the bean: The refinery cannot be viable without mining rights in Niyamgiri, an old growth forest defined as a Schedule V area where land transfer is not permitted to non-tribals.
The case is pending before the Supreme Court which now must take into account the money already spent to set up a one-million-tonne-per-annum capacity refinery. But how did the state government and the union ministry fail to see Vendanta's plot when the company proposed setting up a mega refinery so close to Niyamgiri? Or did they simply condone it?
Unfortunately, such cases are too frequent for comfort and most of them don't leave legal loopholes. In the Capital, the Delhi Development Authority's mega construction plan on the Yamuna flood plains is one such example.
Even if we forget the damage to riverine ecosystem and the hazards of having giant structures on a seismic floodplain, it does not take any expertise to realise how blocking the riverbed will invite seasonal flooding. We all know it's not done but the DDA is going ahead at full steam and am not sure if inter-governmental "coordination" has left much room for successful legal intervention.
What is at stake
Conservation is not about getting fussy over a highway here or a factory there. We are talking about a sector that yields estimated Rs 70-90,000 crore per annum. It often escapes our mental radar. And amusingly, even India's Finance Ministers usually skip the sector in their budget speeches.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests put an estimated figure of Rs 55,000 crore each year as the value of what is exploited legally and illegally from our forests.
Let's not even try to assess the economic value of the most crucial component of our natural assets -- about 300 rivers and perennial streams that spring to life inside the forests and flow out to provide drinking and irrigation water.
The more tangible exploitations range from mega products like minerals, timber and salt to comparatively lesser derivatives like tendu leaves or firewood. Add the massive exploitation undersea, of medicinal and aromatic plants, encroached plantations of coffee and tea and, of course, the illegal trade in wildlife, and even a conservative estimate will take you closer to the Rs 100,000-crore mark.
And how does this exploitation take place? Mindlessly. For whatever is taken out, simply nothing is given back to restore sustainability. Big corporates flout the mining regulations like illiterates. Macro and micro encroachments are rampant.
The administration puts on blinkers in the name of populism. Why, even 50 years after Independence, we still don't have a land use policy? And for a sector that churns out at least Rs 70,000 crore per year, the total sanction during the Tenth plan period remains just Rs 800 crore.
Rs 160 crore is peanuts when you consider the biotic pressure. In India, we have just 2 per cent of global forest cover as against 14 per cent of global cattle and 15 per cent of its population. It is sad to assume that the significance of sustainable exploitation of our natural assets is lost on our leadership.
But their focus on infrastructure through roads and communication will not achieve anything if taps go dry. No amount of reform will boom agriculture if skies don't rain, water vanishes from the rivers and even underground.
And as our forest cover shrinks, water will be the eventual casualty. Already various experts have predicted how 2.7 billion people -- mostly in the semiarid regions of Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa -- will experience severe water scarcity by 2025. Even Bollywood producers find substance in the threat.
The romantic myopia
Understandably, the ongoing "colonial" loot invites radical critics who blame the exclusivity of the present policy -- that denies forest dwellers their rights -- for all evil. Most of these individual and institutional critics believe that community-based conservation is the only alternative.
They claim that forest-dwelling tribals are the true custodians of the forests and our natural resources are most secure in their sustainable forest life. They also demand that these communities be provided with schools, health centres, roads etc deep inside forests. In short, they claim that blanket forest rights for tribals is the only solution to conservation maladies.
For some strange reason, this primitive romanticism doesn't take into account the contemporary reality. First, the population explosion among tribals and the shrinking of resources make sustainability a joke.
Secondly, an overwhelming majority of tribal communities anyway is not interested in forest life anymore and aspires to be "mainstreamed".
Thirdly, the anachronistic pleasure of taking schools, roads and certain other modern amenities inside old growth "core" forests will be rather short-lived as the forests won't survive the onslaught. And finally, the poverty of these communities makes them easily corruptible - almost all poachers in the trade come from these communities.
Clearly, these advocates of the forest idyll have been barking up the wrong tree. Just because they fear, and rightly so, that the holes in our system may surrender our remaining natural assets to market forces, they cannot justify their equally disastrous remedy that will eventually lead to mass commodification.
The "colonial loot" hurts both - our resources and our communities. But neither can be saved at the cost of the other.
Many of these environmentalists and tribal activists are in politics and others form formidable pressure groups. If they had targeted the governments and pressed for better policies, strong legislation, more safeguards, respectable incentives, livelihood options and effective instruments of delivery, they would be able to help both the environment and the communities.
Turning the clock back with not reverse the damage done by those market agents, it will only keep us longer from getting down to urgent mid-course corrections.
A green wishlist?
Money? Manpower? Legislation? Enforcement? Transparency?
A zero-tolerance policy to protect critical resources? And handsome incentives for rehabilitation?
A sustainable combination of community rights, responsibilities and replenishment of resources for less critical areas?
Reining in a bureaucracy that "distributes" resources for "legal abuse" and/or securing vote banks for its political masters?
But let's not be too ambitious. Let's rather wish for that elusive political will.
Let's rather wish to see at least some mention of an environmental commitment in the Common Minimum Programme of the coalition that forms the next government.
Six decades since Independence, that would be quite a beginning.
* Editorial note: Anil Agarwal, founder of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi shouldnot be confused with Anil Anagarwal, the executive chairman of Vedanta Resources plc
Balco set to become world power in aluminium
6th August 2007
Chhattisgarh-based Bharat Aluminium Company Limited (Balco) is all set to become the world's largest producer of aluminium from a single location.
In a major expansion programme, the aluminium giant has set up a target to produce one million tonnes per annum (mtpa) in the next three years.
The Vedanta Group, owning a 51 per cent equity share and management control of Balco, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Chhattisgarh government on Wednesday late evening, in the presence of chief minister Dr Raman Singh and Chairman of Vedanta Group Anil Agrawal, to set up an additional capacity of 6.5 mtpa smelter plant in Korba district. The company currently produces 3.5 mtpa aluminium.
Talking to Hindustan Times the CEO Balco, Pramod Suri said, "After the completion of the Rs 8100-crore expansion plan, the Balco would become the leading producer of aluminium in the world". Presently, the world's largest aluminium and alumina producer remains Russian Aluminium Companies located at Bratsk (9.8 lakh tonnes per annum) and Krasmyarsk (9.6 lakh tonnes per annum), and Balco would surpass the two to become a largest producer, opined Suri. * [see note]
"For Chhattisgarh it would be a matter of pride to see a world record on aluminium production from a single location created in Balco", additional chief secretary P J Oomen, Commerce & Industry, told *HT*.
The company will also set up a Cancer Hospital & Research Centre at Saddu in Raipur for which a foundation stone was also laid today. It would be a 100 bedded hospital.
Balco, which has a large integrated aluminium construction complex at Korba, about 225 km from the state capital, has got a 20-year lease for mining bauxite in around 625 hectares of land in Mundadadar, Keshamrada, Radda and Semsatha villages of Kawardha district.
The aluminium major was incorporated in 1965 as a state-run firm. In 2001, the Indian government sold 51 percent of Balco's equity to Sterlite Industries for Rs.5.51 billion.
* Editorial note: Until the Russian consolidation of Rusal and SUAL is completed, Rio Tinto, with its impending acquistion of Alcan, may lay claim to being the world's biggest alumininum producer.
Central Tribal Varsity Being Planned In Orissa
13th August 2007
Thousands of tribals in Orissa's poverty ridden Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput (KBK) districts may soon have access to better higher education with a central university being planned there.
The human resource development (HRD) ministry Monday said it was weighing a state government proposal to set up such a university in the region.
'Orissa being one of such states (without a central university), its request for establishment of a central university in the tribal-dominated KBK region shall receive due consideration,' Minister of State for HRD D. Purandeswari said.
'Further, a bill for setting up a central tribal university is in the process of being introduced in the current session of parliament,' Purandeswari informed the Rajya Sabha.
The proposed university shall have power to establish its regional centres in areas inhabited by tribals.
The HRD ministry had earlier said there was a proposal for setting up 16 central universities in states where there was no such university.
Daniela Bezzi, Londra. il manifesto (Roma) del 18 Agosto 2007 La montagna sacra azionista di minoranza Multinazionali Il caso del colosso dell'alluminio contestato dagli «aborigeni» indiani Una comunità dell'India ha inviato a Londra i rappresentanti del villaggio all'assemblea degli azionisti di Vedanta Resources che minaccia il loro territorio. Caos e sentenza rinviata
Sono le tre di un pomeriggio di mezza estate londinese e nell'ovattata saletta del Mayfair Conference Centre, (Londra, cuore del primo mondo) sta per iniziare l'annuale assemblea degli azionisti di Vedanta Resources, multinazionale lanciata nel comparto alluminio (e ultimamente anche acciaio) che quattro anni fa non era neppure quotata in borsa e che oggi la City di Londra annovera già tra i 100 titoli «favoriti» perché in sicura ascesa. Mentre dal suo scranno il Chairman Anil Agarwal snocciola i preamboli di rito («piani d'intervento in time... terza espansione avviata... risultati di crescita spettacolari...»), la piccola folla di completi scuri e di ingioiellate ladies in platea ripassa compunta l'Annual Report: 133 pagine di diagrammi e colonnine, nastri trasportatori e foto di minatori-sorridenti-con-l'elmetto. E 20 pagini di buone notizie al capitolo Corporate Social Responsibility: microcredito, self-help, sostenibilità, mantra del momento.
Inizia la seduta, le prime risoluzioni sono votate senza intoppi, quando dalla platea si alza un omino in braghe di tela e kurta (camiciola) stropicciata. Nella lingua delle sue parti (un dialetto dell'Orissa) ha qualcosa di urgentissimo da dire e non si ferma neppure quando il Chairman fa di tutto per stopparlo con la scusa del microfono - e anche i più distratti in sala non possono fare a meno di captare la martellante ricorrenza di quelle tre parole-chiave: che sono pahad (montagna), e poi adivasi (che in India sta per aborigeni), e infine Niyamgiri, la montagna (di nuovo) del Niyam, che significa «legge» e al tempo stesso «verità». Kumuti Majhi, così si chiama l'uomo che disturba l'assemblea, è venuto dal suo villaggio fino a qui perché vuole sapere che fine farà la montagna che da sempre protegge la sua comunità dei Dongria Khond.
Lì per lì il Chairman dice che così non va. Che prima l'Assemblea voterà le Risoluzioni e poi ci sarà il Q&A (domande e risposte): però fuori, nella pausa-coffee. Se potesse, lo stritolerebbe con le sue mani - ma il fatto è che l'omino non è solo, la saletta addirittura pullula di volti e voci di azionisti-minimi come lui che, forti di una sola azione, siedono oggi qui per l'annuale tormentone delle denunce. E le denunce sono le stesse dello scorso anno (l'illegalità di quella raffineria mostruosa costruita a Lanjigarh senza alcuna autorizzazione dal ministero indiano per l'ambiente) con ancor più episodi di intimidazioni, sfollamenti coatti nei box di cemento frettolosamente creati in alternativa ai villaggi sloggiati con la forza, rampante corruzione - in breve, mafia raj, regime mafioso.
L'acqua e i soldi
Ma soprattutto - attentato al futuro della loro Niyamgiri - la Montagna. Che per loro è tutto: è sacra, è acqua, è vita. E dalla quale Vedanta Resources, in spregio dei vincoli vigenti anche in India per la protezione di quella particolare area di foreste, ha intenzione di estrarre la bauxite destinata a quell'immensa raffineria per la produzione di alluminio: 700 milioni di dollari di investimento, contro il parere del Central Empowered Committee di New Delhi. Decisionismo Indian Style: impianti subito, autorizzazioni poi.
«Mr. Chairman... Mr. Chairman...» le interpellanze si susseguono serrate dal parterre. All'intervento di Kumuti Majhi, leader del Movimento Sachetan Nagarik Manch, segue quello di Phulme Mahji, 23 anni e già Sarpanch (capo del consiglio dei saggi) del villaggio di Jaganathpur. E poi la puntuale petizione di Bratinda Jena (plurilaureata attivista di Action Aid India) e quella di un tipetto con gli occhiali che potresti scambiare per analista finanziario di qualche merchant bank se non fosse che proprio da lui, al vertice di Action Aid International, è dipesa la trasferta londinese degli attivisti indiani. Ciò che segue è una cosa surreale, una farsa all'insegna della più artificiale cortesia: tra il Mr. Chairman determinato a ridurre il tutto a formalità e l'inconciliabilità del reale che, arrivato fin lì, continuamente si riafferma.
Le testimonianze di Samarendra Das e Simon Chambers, video makers (ore di filmati ben più eloquenti di quel Rapporto Annuale), e del rispettatissimo Dr. Sreedar (geologo) e di Jennifer (ricercatrice-attivista all'Harvard University) che a Lanjigarh hanno trascorso mesi. E particolarmente vigorosa quella di Roger Moody, che di popolazioni indigene e di miniere si occupa da sempre - e che di queste «strategie di disturbo» nel cuore del Capitale può dirsi un veterano.
È evidente che l'illegalità non si limita a quel remoto fazzoletto di terra nell'arretrata Orissa, che nel 1998 il ministero indiano delle foreste era pronto a dichiarare area protetta in omaggio alla rarità della sua fauna e flora (elefanti, leopardi e tigri in libertà, 300 diverse specie di piante di cui 50 medicinali) e che l'odierna India shining ritiene di poter sacrificare. E poiché il tempo è denaro e il Chairman ha fretta di concludere, il tutto si conclude in manco due ore nei tempi stabiliti. Poi tutti fuori, dove la stampa (che anche quest'anno contro ogni regola non era ammessa all'assemblea) è già stata diluviata di volantini e informazioni di Action Aid & Prafulla Samantara, noto attivista dell'India assediata dalle multinazionali minerarie. Spicca per l'assenza la Bbc, ma c'è in gran forze Al Jazeera, che monopolizza i due Kumuti Majhi e Phulme Majhi per il lato umano della storia: il grande viaggio, l'epica traversata dal loro mondo fin dentro il nostro... E così la storia si snoda di nuovo e ancor più unica e urgente, scrupolosamente tradotta dalla plurileaureata Batindra. Hanno atteso mesi per avere visto e passaporto (infinità di bastoni tra le ruote da parte di burocrati al soldo della Company). Han viaggiato per due giorni interi: ore e ore per raggiungere la più vicina cittadina, nel sud dell'Orissa; altrettante per arrivare all'areoporto di Bhubaneshwar; poi il primo volo della loro vita fino a Delhi e infine quello più interminabile e spossante fino a Londra, collassati su due file di posti in fondo all'aereo. Il problema è stato con le scarpe: «Temevano di offendere Madre Terra, che non avevano mai osato calpestare con niente di più ruvido dei piedi» traduce Batindra. «Ho spiegato che dove saremmo andati Madre Terra era già stata protetta dal cemento, nessun rischio di graffiarla con un paio di ciabatte nuove». Una volta a Londra, in effetti, lo spettacolo di tutti quei palazzi, macchine, niente ruscelli, alberi in gabbia e treni lanciati nelle viscere del sottosuolo, li ha molto disturbati. Insieme al fatto di dormire chiusi dentro. E di mangiare un dahl (pappa di lenticchiette) che sembrava acqua. L'odissea indiana È valsa la pena? Tutto quel viaggio, quella gran fatica - servirà a qualcosa? Volevano far sapere al Chairman della loro montagna Niyamgiri, e l'hanno fatto. Hanno chiarito che per loro in verità è Niyam Raja, «montagna regina», da onorare e non toccare: un luogo che è meglio non esplorare per non disturbare e che per secoli nessuno ha mai osato disboscare - perché da lei sgorga il bene più prezioso che ci sia, l'acqua. Qualcuno ha detto loro che sono proprio quelle riserve immense di bauxite, ricchissime di alumina, a funzionare da spugna, serbatoio perenne di fertilità - e il miracolo è evidente, ad ogni estate. Anche nei mesi in cui l'India muore di sete la Niyamgiri è fonte di un'infinità di cascatelle e ruscelletti che confluiscono poi nei fiumi Vansadhera e Nagaveli - che Agarwal vorrebbe naturalmente dotare di dighe, perché una raffineria richiede molta acqua, mega-tonnellate di acqua ed energia. Chi la spunterà? «In oltre vent'anni di monitoraggio sul peggior sfruttamento minerario nel pianeta - commenta Roger Moody - ho documentato parecchi casi peggiori di altri, ma nessuno che potesse eguagliare la totale spregiudicatezza di Vedanta Resources, capacissima di comprarsi chiunque e nella più assoluta compiacenza dei cosiddetti 'organi di controllo'. Non possiamo che sperare nella Corte Suprema dell'India, cui il caso è stato deferito: nell'India della crescita selvaggia di oggi è l'unico baluardo rimasto in difesa dell'ambiente». La sentenza era attesa il 9 di Agosto e poi di nuovo ieri - ma è stata posticipata di nuovo. Se darà ragione agli adivasi sarà un significativo primo round. Ma dopo, fra un anno o due? Possibile immaginare una montagna sacra in grado di vincere sulla consistenza di tanti investimenti già effettuati - e sulla montagna dei profitti che tutto ciò (che un titolo simile, in così sicura ascesa) potrà generare? E mentre, sempre da Londra, un rapporto di Eurasia Consultancy Group mette sull'avviso gli investitori stranieri del «livello crescente di conflittualita» in quelle aree dell'India che coincidono con le sue più favolose riserve minerarie (evidentemente cruciali per gli attuali trend di crescita), dal Centre for Science and Environment di New Delhi arrivano i dati del saccheggio forestale già in atto: erano solo 35 mila gli acri «sacrificati» nel periodo tra il 1980 e il 1997; e ben 150.700 quelli del settennio 1998-2005. Ma anche a questi ritmi Agarwal lamenta un output minerario ancora troppo basso rispetto alla Cina.
La miniera che uccide i Dongria Khond
Marina Forti, il manifesto del 18 Agosto 2007 La miniera che uccide i Dongria Khond
La protesta di popolazione e ambientalisti contro la società mineraria
L'Orissa è uno stato dell'India affacciato sul golfo del Bengala, con un vasto entroterra rurale e montagnoso, grandi ricchezze minerarie e una popolazione impoverita (in gran parte adivasi, spesso chiamati «tribali»: i nativi, aborigeni, una minoranza consistente (90 milioni di persone) in India ma anche il gruppo sociale più negletto (con i fuoricasta). Vedanta Resources invece è una compagnia mineraria con sede a Londra, una delle prime 100 aziende quotate dal Ftse (l'indice del Financial Times e della Borsa londinese). Vedanta sta investendo molto in India, in Orissa e nei confinanti stati di Jharkhand e Chhattisgarh - cioè la regione che racchiude il 70% dei giacimenti di carbone dell'India, il 56% del ferro, il 60% della bauxite: è chiamata mineral belt, «fascia dei minerali». In Orissa Vedanta progetta una nuova raffineria di allumina (investimento da 2,1 miliardi di dollari) e intanto vuole espanderne una esistente (in cui investirà 700 milioni di dollari) nella zona di Lanjigarh; ha avuto una concessione dal governo statale già nel 2004. E' una zona remota, ma Vedanta progetta di estrarre bauxite (la materia prima da raffinare) dalle vicine colline di Niyamgiri.
La costruzione della raffineria ha suscitato le proteste delle comunità adivasi evacuate per fare posto agli impianti industriali. Vedanta afferma di aver offerto agli sfollati alloggi, scuole, posti di lavoro; gli attivisti sociali del luogo ribattono che qualche intervento «modello» non basta.
Opposizioni ancora più forti suscita la miniera. Il punto è che quelle colline, che il governo considera un territorio pieno di risorse e vuoto di popolazione, non sono affatto «vuote»: sono abitate da una popolazione nativa, i Dongria Kondh, una tra le meno integrate (le più «primitive», dicono le autorità locali). Per i Dongria Kondh su quelle colline c'è la sopravvivenza fisica e anche culturale.
Negli ultimi due anni questa popolazione si è mobilitata in frequenti proteste. Gruppi ambientalisti hanno sottolineato gli effetti negativi di una miniera, ecologici e sociali, e hanno avviato azioni legali (proprio in questi giorni la Corte suprema indiana dovrebbe pronunciarsi su un loro ricorso). Negli ultimi due anni inoltre la voce delle popolazioni locali di Lanjigarh è arrivata a Londra, all'annuale assemblea degli azionisti di Vedanta Resources: la cronaca dell'ultimo incontro è in questa pagina. Il caso di Vedanta non è unico. Il settore minerario è in espansione in India, richiama investimenti di grandi compagnie indiane e multinazionali (Vedanta, la sudcoreana Posco, Mittal Steel, Tata...). Con le miniere arrivano acciaierie, fonderie, altiforni. Ma tutto questo apre nuovi conflitti o ne rinfocola di vecchi, perché miniere e industrie divorano foreste e terre e costringono intere comunità a farsi da parte, con poco o nulla in cambio. Come a Lanjigarh.