Global protests erupt against British mining company Vedanta


Last year's protest at Vedanta's AGM featuring the inflatable Vedanta 'monster'. by Foil Vedanta

Critics are protesting the company’s reported practice of pollution, tax evasion and capital flight. Miriam Rose reports.

Friday 5th August marks the thirteenth Annual General Meeting of British mining company Vedanta Resources, and the thirteenth annual protest against it. Since the company's London listing in 2003 it has been dogged by protests, legal cases and investigations claiming pollution, human rights abuses and illegalities at its operations. This year a Global Day of Action against the company will include demonstrations in Bhubaneswar and Delhi in India, as well as the Zambian Copperbelt and at the AGM in London itself.

In the Zambian Copperbelt villagers living downstream of Konkola Copper Mines Plc (KCM) are demanding an end to 12 years of pollution, which has turned the Kafue into a 'river of acid'. The villagers are suing KCM and Vedanta in the UK for personal injury and loss of livelihood, having won a precedent London jurisdiction hearing in May. When we visited the area in December, one villager, Judith Kapumba gave video testimony of how contamination has destroyed their livelihood and their lives, claiming that many have ‘collapsed and died’ as a result of illnesses caused by drinking contaminated water, and that crops can no longer grow leading to starvation and extreme poverty. A number of scientific papers have documented the extent of contamination, with acid pH and heavy metal content regularly tens and even hundreds of times above legal limits.

Justice Coulson's judgement on the polluted villager's jurisdiction case indicted KCM for financial secrecy, historic dishonesty and attempts to pervert the course of justice, revealing that they have never filed any annual accounts in accordance with the Zambian Companies Act, and referring to a 2014 London arbitration case against the company in which three judges found KCM to be dishonest, obstructive and willing to cause unnecessary harm. A recent UNCTAD report which found 'systematic export underinvoicing' of copper from Zambia starting in 2005, the year after Vedanta took over KCM (Zambia's biggest copper producer).

Demonstrators in London claimed that Vedanta is hiding its tax evasion and capital flight, as well as shifting its liabilities onto the Zambian state. Samarendra Das from Foil Vedanta said:

‘Vedanta has been found guilty of polluting the Kafue river and damaging communities livelihoods and health in Zambia. In India they are indicted for negligence in the country's second largest industrial disaster at Korba in 2009, and have lost their iconic Niyamgiri mine due to popular resistance. The ground swelling protests in India and Zambia are demanding justice from the British Government to initiate an inquiry against Vedanta's practices and delist them from the London Stock Exchange.’

The British government has repeatedly promoted KCM via the Department for International Development's Commonwealth Development Corporation, most recently in 2012 when KCM were sponsors and speakers at their Jubilee Economic Forum in London alongside then Zambian President Michael Sata.

In Chingola, Zambia, residents of Nchanga South will submit a petition to the press and the London AGM decrying the fumes and noise from KCM's copper smelter, which is less than 50 metres from houses, and demanding to be compensated and resettled as per the 2006 Environmental Impact Assessment. In Kitwe former KCM miners who have never received their terminal benefits since being retrenched in 2009 held a protest ahead of the next hearing in their ongoing case against KCM in the Zambia High Court on 8th August. In November 2015, 2500 miners were retrenched by KCM and have also been denied proper benefits, leading to riots.

In Bhubaneswar, India, a large protest is expected in parallel with Friday's AGM, demanding that Vedanta is kicked out of its two Odisha bauxite operations at Jharsuguda, where ongoing pollution has led to farmers protests, and displaced people have never been compensated, and Lanjigarh (Niyamgiri) where local tribal activists and protesting land losers have been beaten, harassed and killed by police this year, under the pretense that they are Maoists. Fact finding teams discovered state collusion between the police and Vedanta, who have been thwarted in their attempt to mine Niyamgiri's bauxite by the people's movement.

Padmanav Choudhury from Asarpada village, an active member of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (Niyamgiri Protection Coucil) and a land loser yet to receive any compensation from Vedanta said:

‘I was tortured for two days, hung upside down and thrashed by police for participating in a demonstration against police atrocities in Niyamgiri. Vedanta and the Odisha government are working together to deny our democratic and legal right to object to their mine. No matter what they do, we will not leave Niyamgiri or give up our fight.’

Despite a precedent people's victory against the mine in 2014 Vedanta are still trying to push it through. In May a Supreme Court ruling rejected Vedanta and the Odisha state's right to challenge the ban on Niyamgiri mining yet Indian Mines Minister Piyush Goyal stated in July that he would again try to push the Niyamgiri project through.

In Delhi, students from Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students' Association on Thursday held a solidarity demonstration calling for an end to Dalit suppression by Vedanta in Niyamgiri and its other operations.

In London Foil Vedanta will warn shareholder that Vedanta Resources is bluffing them with grand claims of mergers and acquisitions to hide its toxic debt situation – with $8.6 billion of debt and $1.8 billion in intercompany loans, amounting to debt of 7 times Ebitda, and $2.9 billion in debt covenants due in 2016. They will point out that chairman and 69.9 per cent owner Anil Agarwal's claims to have invested $4 billion in Africa have already been disproved by Zambian government audits which revealed the company had in fact failed to invest in the subsidiary since buying it in 2004, only reinvesting internally generated cash.