Sponsors Do Not Influence Content, Jaipur Literature Festival Says In Response To A Call For Boycott

14/05/2016 2:31 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Stefan Wermuth / Reuters
Demonstrators, including a pair dressed as characters from the film Avatar, protest against British mining company Vedanta Resources during their Annual General Meeting in London July 28, 2010. India-focused Vedanta Resources faced protests at its shareholders' meeting on Wednesday from investors and pressure groups over its plans to build a bauxite mine in India's eastern Orissa state, in an area sacred to indigenous people. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth (BRITAIN - Tags: POLITICS ENERGY SOCIETY BUSINESS)

Update on 17 May: This story has been modified to incorporate a response from Vedanta.

An open letter written and signed by over a dozen writers and academics around the world, urges participants of the Vedanta Jaipur Literature Festival London, 2016, to not lend their names to an event sponsored by a company that has been criticised for their unsafe mining operations, encroaching upon important wildlife habitats and 'out-muscling locals in legal battles' around the world.

The letter asks noted names in the literary world to not lend their support to Vedanta. Anu Ramdas, editor of Round Table India says:

"Literature doesn't exist in a vacuum. As public figures, we believe that writers and artists also have responsibilities. It makes little sense to discuss books and ideas and the problems of the world in abstraction, while being funded by and publicising a company that has been and continues to be a gross violator of human rights across the world. We hope that you agree, and will withdraw from involvement in this discredited and damaging PR campaign, rather than lending your name to it."

The open letter, signed by noted names such as Courttia Newland, Firoze Manji, V Divakar, Kavita Bhanot and Gouri Patwardhan among others, claims that the mining conglomerate has been trying to clean up their image with such public events.

Sanjoy Roy, managing director of Teamwork Arts, which produces the festival, said in a statement: "While we appreciate the concerns of those who have posted the open letter, we remain an open platform that allows for free thought and expression. Our strength continues to be our programming, the speakers and the quality of free and frank discussions that JLF brings to audiences. Our sponsors do not influence these choices nor have a say in our content."

The letter says:

"...they've been attempting to create favourable public opinion by sponsoring International Film Festival of India (IFFI), the Our Girls Our Pride gender project and even the oxymoronic Mining Happiness campaign, using celebrities and media houses to hush up its liabilities."

There's a Facebook page where people can show support for this movement.

Here's the full text of the letter:

Dear All,

We are deeply shocked and dismayed to hear that you have agreed to participate at the Jaipur Literature Festival claiming to be "The Greatest Literary Show on Earth" which has 'the world's most hated company' Vedanta as its key sponsor. Are you aware that Vedanta's activities are destroying the lives of thousands of people in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Punjab and also in Zambia, South Africa and Australia? Are you also aware that Zambian villagers are currently taking Vedanta subsidiary KCM to court in the UK, accusing it of consistently poisoning their water over the last decade?

In 2011 Zambian High Court Judge Phillip Musonda said he wanted to make an example of Vedanta for their 'gross recklessness' in polluting the River Kafue without remorse, and highlighted 'KCM's don't care attitude whether human life which sacrosanct in our constitution was lost or not.' In 2014 Vedanta 69% owner and Chairman Anil Agarwal was caught on video bragging to businessmen at a Bangalore conference that he had bought the Zambian copper mines at a fraction of their value and was making $500 million each year despite declaring a loss in Zambia. The Zambian government reacted by auditing the mines, and discovered vast tax evasion schemes and asset stripping.

In Korba, Chhattisgarh, India between 40 and 100 workers died at Vedanta subsidiary BALCO's aluminium smelter complex when a chimney under construction collapsed on them in September 2009. The subsequent judicial inquiry into the incident found Vedanta guilty of negligence and using sub-standard materials and construction methods. However, Vedanta's lawyers suppressed the report which was leaked by activists in 2014.

In Odisha, India a nineteen year struggle by indigenous communities, Dalits and farmers led to a historic victory in 2014 when Vedanta was stopped from mining the sacred Niyamgiri hills for bauxite. Vedanta's attempt to secure the mountain through State Owned OMC was rejected by the Supreme Court again on May 6, 2016. Vedanta Aluminium Ltd had built the 1 mtpa Lanjigarh refinery at the base of the Niyamgiri hills in 2004, and even expanded it six fold, despite having no permission to mine bauxite from the hills above. Vedanta's launch on the London Stock Exchange in 2003 was based on the impression given to financiers that they had permission to mine Niyamgiri.

In Goa, India, Vedanta's iron ore mining subsidiary Sesa Goa (now Vedanta Limited) was the largest company indicted by the Shah Commission in 2012 for illegal mining, including failure to obtain leases or environmental clearance, and exporting 150 million tonnes of iron ore from Goa in 2010/11 while only declaring 76 million, their agreed export allowance.

Not far from Jaipur itself Vedanta is accused by an employee's union of casualising and de-unionising the labour force at Hindustan Zinc Ltd by reducing permanent workers to only 2,500 of 18,000 workers. The Maton Mines Mazdur Sangh (Maton Mines Workers Union) is also opposing Vedanta for poor working conditions and destruction of crops and houses around their phosphate mines. Meanwhile, on 11th May 2016 Anil Agarwal promoted Sterlite Technologies announced its successful bid to to run a second 'smart city' project in Jaipur.

Vedanta has been attempting to create favourable public opinion by sponsoring International Film Festival of India (IFFI), the Our Girls Our Pride gender project and even the oxymoronic Mining Happiness campaign, using celebrities and media houses to hush up its liabilities. But each of these attempts has been exposed by grassroots groups and people's movements pointing out Vedanta's corporate crimes using social media and letter writing.

The Vedanta JLF at Southbank is yet again another cynical attempt to distract attention from Vedanta's crimes at a time when it stands exposed across India and internationally. Vedanta's interests are directly opposed to the Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan Samaj and black communities it claims to be helping.

Literature doesn't exist in a vacuum. As public figures, we believe that writers and artists also have responsibilities. It makes little sense to discuss books and ideas and the problems of the world in abstraction, while being funded by and publicising a company that has been and continues to be a gross violator of human rights across the world. We hope that you agree, and will withdraw from involvement in this discredited and damaging PR campaign, rather than lending your name to it.

Vedanta has responded to the campaign now, saying it's open to a dialogue with anyone who has doubts about its commitment to sustainability.

The company said in a statement:

Vedanta Resources is a global company with world-class standards of governance, safety, sustainability and social responsibility. The size and scale of Vedanta’s commitment to CSR and sustainability is one of the most robust in India: last year Vedanta spent $42million on community development initiatives and this year we have delivered long-term social and economic benefits to approximately 4 million people. In order to create a shared understanding with our host communities, we base our approach on the principle of free, prior informed consent, whereby local communities have the right to participate in decision-making about access to natural resources. We manage our environmental footprint according to the most rigorous global standards; last year, we invested $61.5 million in environmental initiatives and 88% of our sites are now certified to the ISO 14001 environmental standard. Last year we also signed the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) Pledge for access to safe Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in the workplace, which begins with a three-year commitment.

Vedanta has been recognised by the Confederation of Indian Industry’s Sustainable Plus Awards – the world’s first sustainability label – as one of the top 10 most sustainable companies in India. We have a zero tolerance policy approach with regards to human rights violations and our Human Rights Policy is aligned to the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights. Vedanta’s Code of Business Conduct and Ethics commits to comply with all relevant national laws and regulations, underpinning the company’s approach to protecting the fundamental rights of all direct and indirect employees. Furthermore, Vedanta is committed to the promotion of women’s rights and last year, we became a signatory of the ‘CEO Statement of Support’ for the United Nations’ Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEP) entitled ‘Equality Means Business’.

We welcome a direct and open dialogue with any organisation or individual that has doubts regarding Vedanta’s commitment to sustainability and engagement with the communities where it operates.

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