MAC: Mines and Communities

Vedanta officials charged with culpable homicide over Indian disaster

Published by MAC on 2009-11-23

It was one of India's worst recent industrial disasters.

On September 24 2009, a chimney being constructed as part of a coal-fired power plant for Vedanta's Korba aluminium complex in Orissa, collapsed.

At least 41 workers were buried alive.

Shortly afterwards, the company was accused by Korba district police chief of having broken the law by embarking on the construction in the first place. See:

Then, last week, three officials from Vedanta's subsidiary, BALCO, were arrested and charged with "culpable homicide" - one degree below murder.

A spokesperson for BALCO, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, expressed "surprise" at the arrests, given that the officials "have been cooperating with investigating agencies throughout."

In fact, at the end of October, Korba's superintendent of police alleged that the company had deliberately tried to hamper his investigations. See:

Three arrested in Vedanta plant deaths probe

By Amy Kazmin in New Delhi, Financial Times

17 November 2009

Indian police have arrested an executive and two other officials from the Indian subsidiary of Vedanta, the UK-listed mining company, for alleged negligence in connection with the collapse of a power plant chimney that killed 41 construction workers.

The chimney collapsed in a storm in late September, as Vedanta's Bharat Aluminium Company (Balco) was building a aluminium smelter at its Korba complex.

The collapse unleashed a flurry of recriminatory finger-pointing, as Vedanta officials insisted that Balco, which is 51 per cent owned by its subsidiary Sterlite Industries India, and 49 per cent owned by the Indian government, was not responsible for the deaths.

Vedanta said the arrests of Balco's vice-president overseeing the project, the associate general manager at the site, and a graduate engineer trainee for culpable homicide "comes as a surprise", as the company was "co-operating fully" with the investigation.

Vedanta has said in the past that Balco was not responsible for the collapse.

The collapsed chimney was part of a 1,200 megawatt power plant being built for Balco by China's Shandong Electric Power Construction Corp (Sepco), which employed at least 80 Chinese citizens at the project.

The chimney's construction was outsourced to another Indian engineering group, Gannon Dunkerly.

Chinese executives and engineers from Sepco were also questioned immediately after the disaster, but none have been arrested or charged in connection with the deaths.

A Gannon Dunkerly project manager was arrested earlier on several charges, including the use of substandard materials.

Authorities in the state of Chhattisgarh are carrying out an independent judicial probe into the accident.

The disaster - one of the most serious industrial accidents in India in years - and this week's arrests are the latest setback in India for Vedanta, which has come under fire for its plans to build a bauxite mine in the eastern state of Orissa in a mountain sacred to a small, animist tribe .

This week's arrests come against the backdrop of growing controversy over the practices of India's mining industry.

Orissa authorities last week shut down 64 iron, manganese and limestone mines, unconnected with Vedanta, for allegedly operating without any legal permits or licences.

Separately, Indian tax officials and investigators from other agencies are carrying out a probe into Madhu Koda, the former chief minister of the eastern state of Jharkhand.

He has been questioned by the authorities over bribes allegedly made in exchange for granting lucrative licences for mines and steel plants in the state.

Mr Koda has denied any wrongdoing.

Police Arrest 3 Balco Officials Over Chimney Disaster

By ARPAN MUKHERJEE, Wall Street Journal

17 November 2009

NEW DELHI - Indian police have arrested three officials from state-run Bharat Aluminium Co. in the central state of Chhattisgarh in connection with a fatal chimney collapse, a company official said Tuesday.

In September, 40 workers were killed when a chimney at Balco's 1,200 megawatt thermal plant in the state's northeastern district of Korba collapsed amid lightning and heavy storms.

"We have arrested three Balco officials ... and charged them with culpable homicide not amounting to murder," said Ratanlal Dangi, superintendent of police in Chhattisgarh's Korba district.

A vice president, associate general manager and a graduate trainee engineer were arrested last night, Mr. Dangi said. He didn't name the officials.

"Investigations are still ongoing and we are likely to arrest four to five more officials of the companies involved," Mr. Dangi added. "We are waiting to complete certain formalities before arresting them."

The 250-meter-tall chimney was being constructed by a Chinese firm, Shandong Electric Power Construction Corp., which employed local engineering company Gannon Dunkerley & Co. Ltd. for the construction of two chimneys at the power plant, which is yet to be completed.

Police have yet to arrest any officials of SEPCO, which holds the engineering, procurement and construction contract, police and company officials said.

"Balco officials, specifically the Balco power plant project team, have been cooperating with investigating agencies throughout," said Binod Srivastava, spokesman of BALCO. "In spite of this, the arrests have taken place, which is surprising."

The arrests haven't affected Balco's operations. London-based Vedanta Resources PLC holds a 49% stake in the company.

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