Of late we’ve been subjected to some corporate propaganda bumph in the form of Vedanta’s “Creating Happiness” corporate social responsibility publicity campaign. Here’s my ever critical, ever cynical views on a large corporation that is blatantly stealing natural resources from a protected forest area, their advert and the abundant on-air time they’ve been getting.
First, a little background. Vedanta is a London based mining company, started by Indian billionaire Anil Aggarwal, that is mining the Nyamgiri hill in Kalahandi, Orissa which is over flowing in bauxite. Bauxite is required for the manufacture of aluminium which is used in every aspect of modern living from cars to the laptop I’m typing on to the TV you have on in the background. The Nyamgiri hill has been the sacred home to the 8000 Dongria Kondh and other tribals who have inhabited this area for centuries. They are said to be the closest relatives to Australia’s aborigines. They worship this sacred hill as their deity and hold the trees, lakes and rivers here as sacred. Since 2002, the giant mining company, Vedanta has been trying to mine this hill and specifically the holy hill top for its natural resources. They have already built a large, very polluting refinery at the foothills of the mountain. The Nyamgiri hill is a verdant rich natural forest teeming with wildlife including tigers, leopards and elephants and unique flora. Furthermore, the thick layer of bauxite which crowns the hills serves as a huge sponge for the monsoon rains, releasing them steadily throughout the year and guaranteeing the fertility of the forests and crops.
James Cameron was definitely not short of inspiration for his movie Avatar. This is Orissa’s Unobtanium – worth around $4 TRILLION. But it’s not just the displacement of tribals and desecration of land they hold sacred but the massive environmental fall out and the high energy required to convert bauxite in to aluminium. At least six tons of bauxite are required to produce 1 ton of aluminium. The roads, transportation and infrastructure alone that will have to be built to ferry the bauxite from the hill to the refinery down below will be enough to destroy this natural sanctuary.
Some of Vedanta’s major shareholders have had a serious case of ethical jitters and have pulled out of the company. The Norwegian government has pulled their state pension fund out of the company as has the Rowntree Foundation and the Church of England in 2010. But local councils such as Suffolk, Hertfordshire and Havering in 2009 were still shareholders along with pension company’s and funds of Axa, Norwich Union, Land Rover, Jaguar and Unilever, who are all still profiting from Vedanta’s mess in the sacred mountain.
The Supreme Court of India did give Vedanta (through it’s India subsidiary SIL, who joined up with the Orissa State mining wing) permission to build the refinery and mine the hill but that they now claim was based on false information provided about the company’s intentions and actions. In August 2010 the Environment Ministry headed by Jairam Ramesh (thank god for him) ordered the halt of Vedanta’s project to mine the Nyamgiri hill saying it was in violation of numerous forest regulations, including Schedule V of the constitution that prohibits the leasing of tribal lands to corporations (which is going on in many Indian states including Andhra Pradesh and Chattisgarh). The government is also considering taking legal action against the company.
However, the Vedanta aluminium refinery in Lanjigarh still continues to operate where it processes bauxite mined from the state of Chattisgarh. Journalists and activists who have visited the area have said that the pollution is of dangerously high proportions and the anger of the villagers is a veritable tinder box ready to explode. The Lanjigarh refinery produces up to three million tons of caustic soda waste, called “red mud”, every year, and people living near the refinery complain that the pollution damages crop yields, kills livestock and causes pollution related illnesses. Vedanta denies that its operations cause damaging pollution and insists that it complies with all relevant regulations, of course they would. A report by the Wildlife Institute of India in 2005 predicted that the mining of Nyamgiri would produce massive deforestation, toxic contamination of the water table and would endanger the fresh water source for hundreds of thousands of people in Orissa. And the Dongria Kondhs will be scattered across the earth.
Lets admit here and now that we who live in the modern world have completely lost touch with nature and what it is like to lose ones land. I’m not saying we turn back the clock and go live in tree houses. But why drag tribal cultures who still have a deep connection with the land in to our modern lifestyles. The way we live our lives is far from perfect. We need to take stock of just how much of the planet we are willing to sacrifice for this unchecked growth for the sake of modernity. I agree that the world has to develop: in the words of Spock, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” But people should not be displaced against their will and without profiting from the displacement. If they are going to be displaced, their lives should be much better off in their eyes than it was before. The profits of the few should be given to the many.
Incidentally Vedanta’s revenue in 2011 was $3.3 billion. Vedanta can’t build a few hospitals and schools and call it all even. Not when the other side of the coin is desecration of a holy land, dislocation of people who do not want to be dislocated and the unchecked environmental fall out. The sad part is that the people of Orissa are not going to profit from the extraction of the minerals. Moreover, the Dongria tribe do not want what we have to offer – they don’t want TVs and refrigerators. In her book, Broken Republic, Arundati Roy speaks to a‘candid’ police superintendent who provides one of the best quotes in the book, saying, “The problem with these tribals is that they don’t understand greed. Unless they become greedy there’s no hope for us.” Do watch her interview with Jeremy Paxon on Newsnight, and he’s not an easy customer to please.
Which brings me to Vedanta’s propoganda advertising (which I am so disappointed that the BBC is airing). Here’s the advert followed by what I think of it. English translation for those not familiar with Hindi follows the link. I suspect you’ll have to do a 2 window open thing if you don’t understand Hindi.
Narrator: “This is a a small village’s small girl, Binnoo. And this is her school. ”
Binnoo: “I go to school everyday.”
Narrator: “Most probably her parents never saw a school in their childhood. This is BInnoo’s two brothers, Posthu and Nandu. Her father also had two brothers but they died. This is Poshthu’s small hobby (interest)
Binnoo: “It runs on electricity.”
Narrator: “Her father never had any interests (play things) nor any electricity. Binnoo has a very lovely smile. I wonder if her mother ever smiled. Binnoo has a lot of dreams.”
Binnoo: “Big big dreams (hopes)!”
Narrator: But her parents only have 3 dreams – Binnoo, Poshthu and Nandu. In every mother and father’s dreams (hopes) they see their own Binnoo, Poshthu and Nandu. One by one we are helping to make these dreams come true.
Here’s what I noticed about the advert. They talk about all the so called wonderful things they are doing for the local people – schools. mother and child care centres (aanganwadis), mid-day meals and computers all of which activists and the Environment Ministry says is an exaggerated view of the ground realities. I’ve seen aanganwadis in a rich state like Tamil Nadu and believe me, they are grim so you can just imagine what it’s like in Orissa.
But they fail to tackle the elephant in the room – the environment, the Dongria and their deity, the mountain. The opening shot is actually of a lush green mountain but every shot after that shows a barren dry and beige landscape and a murky lake. (Lakes and underground water are claimed to have been contaminated by the refinery). What are they trying to say? That the green mountain is next? The trees they show children playing around (when the little girl says, “Big Big dreams”) are dead and the hill top the older children in blue school uniforms are standing on is barren rock. Result of the mining perhaps? Are they trying to say that this was a barren landscape before they got there? That’s blatantly false.
There is the obvious play with colour: all the happy people are in colour and the landscape is a monotone unhappy beige. There is a shot of the child throwing stones in to a lake and on the bank (bottom right of the screen) are what look like old stone carvings of gods. Left to rot and be smashed perhaps – forget your deity? Why include those carvings? Children are shown eating mid-day meals with spoons. Is there no clean water for them to wash their hands and eat with their hands like every other Indian persons. Nothing wrong with eating with clean hands, unless you’ve contaminated the water they wash their hands with.
There are some misleading aspects to the advert. For instance, the facilities they quote are reported by activists to not run full time, have limited infrastructure and is disproportionate to the amount of people who do need help. The numbers of people they claim to be reaching out to, is this per month, per year or in the last ten years? Orissa has notoriously poor transportation facilities so how to they reach out to the people in the far flung villages who need the most help? Where are these facilities located? Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that these facilities they proclaim to have in partnership with NGOs and the government is very thin on the ground.
Everyone in that ad, except for the chirpy child protagonist, looks quite pissed off, especially the parents who are probably getting no employment anyway. Is this kid high? She is so irritatingly chirpy. I’d like to call her naive. The people in the advert are not the Dongria who live on the mountain who do not want their lives to be changed, who are perfectly happy living a subsistence life. These are probably displaced villagers who are living in desperate poverty (note no electricity lines/poles shown entering the mud houses) who have never been helped by the Orissa government. And the obvious poverty in the advert proves my point – that none of the profits have gone to lift these people out of poverty.
The film was made by Ogilvy&Mather, the well known international advertising firm and it’s creative head Piyush Pandey, the brain behind Fevicol, Vodophone’s Zoozoos, Cadbury Dairy Milk campaigns. I guess to them it’s just another account and Vedanta is just another client. There’s clearly no ethics involved – even thieves require representation and brand awareness as long as they pay the bill. Vedanta have invaded the area for the past 10 years.
Why is it that when we see corporate social responsibility adverts we feel that the company is doing such a good wonderful job? Do we ever stop to think about what they are not doing, what they are not saying and relative to how much they are earning ($3.3 billion last year) just how little they are doing for the people they have displaced to make those piles of cash? I live in an industrial area where iron ore is transported, steel is manufactured and oil is refined. I have a zinc smelter on my door step. I see huge open piles of sulphur, exposed to the air. I see smoking stacks in the production of steel. I can smell the crude oil that is leaking from the Hindustan Petroleum factory most mornings from 6 am to 9am and most nights from 10pm to 1pm. Believe me, none of these profits are going towards making the roads better, cleaning up the air or even covering up the trucks carrying harmful materials. And this is in a large industrial city like Vishakapatnam. Just imagine what’s going on in a remote rural district like Kalahandi where the people’s voices are muted in the face of large corporations. So when people talk about India becoming a superpower, frankly it makes me want to barf.
Don’t be fooled people, Vedanta is not creating happiness. There are plenty of dirty deals and handshakes between governments and corporations, fuelled by nothing other than greed. Even worse is the blatant theft of natural resources that belong to the tribals, all in broad daylight. In the words of Arundati Roy, from her latest book, Broken Republic ( a Guardian review here), “We have to ask our rulers, can you leave the water in the rivers, the trees in the forest, can you leave the bauxite in the mountain. If they say they cannot perhaps they should stop preaching moralities to victims of their wars.”