Home / Opinion / Sterlite fracas: Companies can’t ignore human rights

Here’s something about firing from someone else’s shoulder. On 21 May in Thoothukudi, a fisheries, port and industry hub in south-eastern Tamil Nadu, police shot dead 11 protesters and injured over 50. A crowd estimated at 20,000 was protesting the planned expansion of Sterlite Industries Ltd’s copper smelter in the area, to double production to 800,000 tonnes a year.

The facility, which runs a copper refinery and also makes sulphuric and phosphoric acid, has remained shut since end-March. Vedanta Resources Plc, Sterlite’s parent, admitted to investors in early May that the plant did not possess “the consent to operate". Protesters led by Chennai-based environment and human rights watchdogs, in conjunction with local communities, have for long demanded closure of the plant. They cite toxic gas leaks, waste polluting farmland and water bodies, and health issues among communities of the area.

The local administration claimed that protesters ignored orders banning their march, and became violent, indulging in arson and stone-pelting. The police were compelled to shoot. But why permit the situation to get so out of hand, and why did outreach from Sterlite, by itself or in conjunction with the local administration, to defuse the situation, either remain absent or amount to little?

This is a case of a community that has every right to protest and seek answers and redress, and a business that has every right to do business according to the law of the land—but, equally, ensure compliance with human rights. Especially as protesters have always maintained they aren’t against industries, but against hazardous ones with suspect practices. They protested in 2013 after an alleged toxic gas leak from Sterlite’s plant. That year, the Supreme Court fined Sterlite Rs100 crore for “such damages caused to the environment from 1997 to 2012 and for operating the plant without a valid renewal for a fairly long period..."

The UN Global Compact, a gathering of multilateral agencies, businesses and civil society groups to which Vedanta is a signatory, details 10 principles that cover the heads of human rights, labour, environment and corruption. Principle 2 urges businesses to “make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses". And Principle 8, that businesses should “undertake initiatives to promote greater environmental responsibility".

Oslo-based Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies has pleaded more emphatically: “The use of disproportionate force by government or private security forces acting on behalf of a company can create liabilities for the company itself," the institute maintained in a red-flag document. “These liabilities may arise even where the actions of the security forces (for example, killing, beating, abduction, rape) were neither ordered nor intended by the company."

The escalating situation in Thoothukudi underscores again India’s reality, where permitting or overlooking use of force, usually applied by government as an extension of corporate will, is commonplace. Moreover, it’s not the first time a Vedanta operation has faced this taint. Vedanta’s bauxite refining and aluminium smelting operation in Odisha’s Lanjigarh has been accused of remaining aloof over repeated police excesses against local citizens and protesters who have pointed out major pollution risks at the plant. Police have also harassed and arrested tribal folk who declined, legally, to allow the adjacent Niyamgiri Hills, their home and sacred lands, to be mined by Vedanta for bauxite.

Investors have taken note. In May 2016, Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global’s council on ethics wrote to Tom Albanese, Vedanta’s CEO at the time, of its review of several Vedanta-owned operations since 2007, the year it dumped Vedanta stock: “The Council has assessed Sterlite Copper, Bharat Aluminium Company, Lanjigarh Alumina and Konkola Copper Mines [in Zambia]. Following its assessment, the Council has decided not to recommend the re-inclusion of Vedanta in the Government Pension Fund Global’s investment universe. In the Council’s view, there continues to be an unacceptable risk that your company will cause or contribute to severe environmental damage and serious or systematic human rights violations." The events of 21 May in Thoothukudi will surely reach such observers.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun and Highway 39. This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

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