MAC: Mines and Communities

Many workers die as chimney collapses at Indian plant

Published by MAC on 2009-09-27

UK company is held responsible

It's one of the worst recent industrial "accidents" in a country replete with such examples.

A chimney collapsed on Wednesday 24 September, at Vedanta's Korba aluminium complex in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Twenty five fatalities were recorded over the next few hours - and the attrition rate continues to mount.

For the past six years, the unacceptable activities of this UK-listed company have been deplored by many organisations and researchers, both in India and overseas.

The Korba disaster was, in many respects, a "tragedy foretold."


Korba's Killing Field

At least thirty workers buried alive at UK mining company's Indian operation


15.00 hrs, Thursday 24 September 2009

Thirty one workers have so far been confirmed dead, following a major disaster on Wednesday afternoon at the operations of UK-listed Vedanta Resources plc, in the north eastern Indian of Chhattisgarh.

Others were injured, and the final death toll may reach fifty or more.

They had been working on construction of a chimney, linked to a thermal power plant that will supply electricity for expansion of Vedanta's Korba aluminium complex - one of the biggest of its kind in South Asia.

A large part of the 100-metre high chimney collapsed during heavy rains, burying
the victims in a sea of rubble.

There is still some confusion as to how many workers were actually on-site at the time of the disaster. But a central government official, the Korba District Collector, is reported as saying that around three hundred workers were on-site at the time.

A senior Chhattisgarh state minister announced earlier this morning that dozens were still missing and might still be trapped.

Case registered against Vedanta

A criminal case has now been registered in India against Vedanta's Chhattisgarh subsidiary, Balco (Bharat Aluminium Company), which had commissioned a Chinese company to deliver the power plant, although Mumbai-based, Gannon Dunkerley and Company Ltd (GDCL), was actually in charge of construction.

Many relatives and workers are said to have "gone on the rampage" shortly after the
killings occurred, venting their grief and rage at Balco management and GDCL.

Most of the victims are believed to have been from the neighbouring states of Jharkhand, Bihar and Orissa.

A tragedy foretold?

Vedanta is an FTSE-100 company which listed on the London Stock Exchange in late 2003.

Along with its majority-owned Indian subsidiary, Sterlite, Vedanta is controlled by one of Britain's richest industrialists, Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal, through a family trust.

Over the past six years, Vedanta has become notorious for its recruitment of casual (contract) labour. It has been accused of numerous violations of health and safety regulations at its Tuticorin copper smelter in Tamil Nadu, and its Lanjigarh alumina refinery in Orissa.

In 2006, the highly-respected V V Giri National Labour Institute in Delhi castigated Balco for failing to guarantee virtually all the rights and safeguards its employees had enjoyed, before the company was taken over by Vedanta in 2001.

Many unionised employees were arbitrarily dismissed as the company aggressively set about expanding its Korba operations three-fold, employing unskilled contract labour.

Banking on disaster

Only a day before the tragedy, on September 22nd, a high-profile meeting of international bankers, lawyers, and NGOs was held in London and hosted at Amnesty International UK's offices in London.

Participants at the meeting watched a short video which graphically portrayed recent labour conditions at Bodai-Daldali - a Balco mine which supplies bauxite (aluminium oxide) to the Korba aluminium complex.

They saw first-hand evidence that tribal women, men - and even children - were labouring for Balco at only two dollars a day, without the benefit of any protective gear, No adequate on-site medical facilities were available in the event of a serious accident.

Blasting operations were carried out only a few metres from local homesteads and children's play areas.

Graphic evidence of these unacceptable conditions had twice (in 2007 and 2008)
been presented directly to Vedanta's executive chairperson, Anil Agarwal, at
the company's annual general meetings in London.

Although twice promising to investigate the allegations and remediate conditions at the mine, Vedanta abjectly failed to do so.

"Toxic" company

In June this year, the Expert Appraisal committee (EAC) of India's Ministry of Environment and Forests condemned the lack of basic provision, and compensation, for more than hundred villagers - forced out of their homes so the mine could be expanded.

The EAC determined that Vedanta must not be entrusted to expand the mine, citing "the past records of the company" as sufficient reason for refusing a permit.

Comments mining researcher Roger Moody, who has investigated many of the company's operations since 2004, including its mines and aluminium facilities in Chhattisgarh:

"Only last month, Anil Agarwal told Forbes India that he intended Vedanta to become the world's fifth largest metals and mining by 2012.

"This can only be achieved through further aggressive cost-cutting, dubious acquisitions and major expansion of existing operations, many of which have already breached environmental standards, some of which are currently the subject of litigation within India.

"Mr Agarwal's intentions may only be fulfilled through increased flouting of basic labour and environmental standards.

"Tragic evidence of this has now been writ appallingly large on the killing field of Korba."

For further information:

Roger Moody, Nostromo Research

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