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Global protests oppose Vedanta mining company

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Protest against Vedanta in London during their Annual General Meeting.

Protestors used the company’s annual meeting to highlight human and environmental abuses, write Samarendra Das and Miriam Rose.

In 6 locations across Africa and India protestors held angry demonstrations over the last 2 days. These far flung and isolated communities are united by their experience of living with the operations of Vedanta, a British-Indian mining company 69.6% owned by London-based billionaire Anil Agarwal, which protestors accuse of looting, polluting and devastating their homelands. Vedanta's AGM in London, held this weekend and Monday, was mired by protesters chanting slogans and staging a theatrical boxing match between company executives outside the meeting, and dissident shareholders asking penetrating questions inside the meeting.

Vedanta has been consistently opposed by communities where it operates ever since it was launched on the London Stock Exchange in 2003. In 2013 the company lost a $10 billion investment when indigenous people and farmers won a 10-year struggle against the state and the company to stop mining of the Niyamgiri mountain in Odisha in India. Local communities are now demanding that the refinery built to process its ore is decommissioned.

Now, 12 years later, Vedanta has been indicted for multiple crimes. In Korba, in Chhattisgarh, Vedanta were found guilty of causing the deaths of between 40 and 100 workers who died when a chimney collapsed on them in 2009. Vedanta's lawyers suppressed the results of the judicial investigation into the matter last year, but it was leaked to activists.

In Goa, Vedanta mined iron ore illegally over 5 years, exporting twice their annual allowance and operating without permission. Ramesh Gauns, advisor to Bicholim mines people affected who issued a list of demands for the AGM, claims that $2.2 billion in lost royalty is still owed to the state by Vedanta. Gauns said, ‘Vedanta was found by the Supreme Court to have been mining illegally in Goa from 2007 to 2012, thereby destroying people's livelihood and environment. The company should pay compensation for loss to the people of Goa and India, and Anil Agarwal should personally be brought to trial for breaching the laws of a foreign country.’

In the Zambian copperbelt, communities living around the mines and smelters of Vedanta's copper subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) staged 2 days of protests in Chingola town over the weekend. They decried KCM's continued pollution of the River Kafue and local streams, which have left the water devoid of life, and communities with long term health problems. Most of the protesters are also victims of the major pollution of the river Kafue by Vedanta in 2006, which affected up to 40,000 Zambians. KCM was finally confirmed as guilty by the Supreme Court of Zambia in April this year, though $2 million compensation earlier awarded to the claimants was retracted under pressure from company lawyers. The claimants have accused Vedanta of corruption and bribery in the case.

Joseph Sibezulu, one of the protesters, from the Mambwe tribe in Northern Province of Zambia, explained that ‘Zambia's environment has been polluted and destroyed by the so-called foreign investors including Vedanta. People are suffering health problems and the companies don't even help us with medical expenses. We as Zambians say no to these looters.’

KCM was earlier indicted in Zambia when evidence emerged of major tax evasion and transfer mispricing.

In Rajasthan, India, retrenched miners from the Matoon Mines trade union protested alongside local villagers polluted by phosphate dumps. Ninety miners were dismissed by Vedanta subsidiary Hindustan Zinc Limited in December 2014 with only 1 month's advanced pay. Berulal Meghwal, Dalit farmer and Matoon mines union activist said, ‘Vedanta have flooded this area with money and bribes, and flooded my fields with phosphate mine-waste. They have acquired grazing land for phosphate dumps which is illegal under Rajasthan law. No one was compensated for loss of grazing land.’

Protesters at Vedanta's AGM in London highlighted the company's unsustainable $9.1 billion net debt and warned Vedanta's shareholders inside the AGM – including UK councils and pension funds – that the company may follow the pattern of Indian energy corporate Essar by bleeding subsidiaries of their assets, de-listing them, and incurring huge debt write-downs, if they continue on their current trajectory.

Vedanta's share price has slipped 61% this year to an historic low due partly to slumped commodity prices, and the company's huge debt burden. Vedanta is the second most indebted corporation in India, and with $2.4 billion in debt servicing payments coming due, and 'insufficient operating cash flow to fund capital spending and dividend payments' according to analysts, Vedanta is desperate to get hold of cash reserves from its wealthier subsidiaries to meet the demands.

The main target is Cairn India, the oil and gas subsidiary now fracking in Rajasthan, which Vedanta bought from UK firm Cairn Energy in a deal personally pushed on the Indian government by David Cameron in 2011.

Cairn India has $2.6 billion in cash reserves, which Vedanta could access by merging its metal and mining companies together with the oil and gas business. However, Cairn India's biggest minority shareholders, Life Insurance Corporation of India and Cairn Energy, are opposing the deal claiming that Vedanta will deplete the cash and leave Cairn badly off, though this is denied by Vedanta CEO Tom Albanese.

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