By Chandrahas Choudhury Apr 25, 2012, Bloomberg


On a recent visit to Bhubaneswar, the capital of the large eastern state of Odisha, I found the airport plastered with advertisements and slogans expressing the nurturing, socially conscious side — caring for the poor, growth with inclusive values, creating happiness — of the many steel and aluminum companies that have major operations in one of India‘s poorest but most mineral-rich and business-friendly states.

The most prominent voice in this cluster belonged to Vedanta, a London Stock Exchange-listed “globally diversified natural resources group with wide-ranging interests in aluminium, copper, zinc, lead, silver, iron ore, oil and gas and power,” headed by Anil Agarwal, one of India’s richest and most controversial businessmen. Vedanta’s main interest in Odisha is represented by its subsidiary company Vedanta Aluminium, which has over the last decade set up, in the face of concerted opposition from tribal groups, an alumina refinery in the district of Lanjigarh, the most bauxite-rich area of a state that has over half of India’s reserves of that mineral. A Vedanta ad at the airport declared that “Education is the backbone of a rising community,” and announced, somewhat improbably, that the company was providing “quality education to all local children across [the districts of] Lanjigarh and Jharsuguda.”

This month, Vedanta also put up on YouTube the last installment of a massive advertising and public-relations campaign it launched at the beginning of the year called “Creating Happiness.” The hub of the campaign was a 90-second ad film widely played on Indian television this year, telling the story of a girl named Binno in a village in the state of Rajasthan. Made by one of India’s most celebrated ad filmmakers, Piyush Pandey of Ogilvy & Mather India, the film supplies touching scenes from the lives of Binno — who attends a school supported by Vedanta — and her brothers. It is accompanied by commentary from a somewhat patronizing male voice asking if the girl’s parents had access to the same opportunities, and demonstrating by this comparison that the company was “creating happiness.”

Alongside the Binno film, the company also announced that it was sponsoring a Creating Happiness Film Competition that would invite “film students across the country to visit any of the 550 villages where we have a presence, and find their own Binno.” In a piece called “Vedanta touches souls with ‘Creating Happiness’,” the news platform Exchange4media reported:

In an effort to make people aware of the social side of their existence, Vedanta Group […] has unveiled its first ever national corporate campaign under the platform of ‘Creating Happiness’, sharing with people the stories of hope, change, success and a better future. Vedanta Chairman Anil Agarwal’s vision of contributing to building sustainable communities and integrating sustainability as a core part of the business is at the heart of this campaign. [….]

Talking to exchange4media about the campaign, Piyush Pandey, Executive Chairman, O&M, said, “Beyond business, Vedanta is doing extensive work for sustainable development. We wanted it to be as realistic as possible unlike an ad, and thus we have shown real people with real stories. Binno, the main face of the campaign, is so amazingly charming. Her true story, with that charm, emotion, sentiment and happiness, will inspire many.” […]

Adding to the idea of inspiring others, Pandey said, “You get inspired when you see that there is so much being done. It inspires and moves me. I feel that I may start small, but I can make a difference. Large brands are not made in the head, but heart, that is why when you take the softer side and touch people, people remember you.”

Fair enough, but there were some inconvenient facts that Pandey omitted to mention, as did most of the media channels that ran the advertisements. The missing facts point to a yawning gulf between the kind of information supplied by advertising, and the kind of information generated by investigative journalism, regulatory bodies, or even states. Were one to place these facts alongside the company’s campaign, it would appear that Vedanta is less the leader in sustainable development and social responsibility in India’s universe of corporations, and more the black sheep of that world. It stands accused of habitually forging ahead with its mining and quarrying operations before the requisite permissions have been granted, and of dividing and destroying local economies and fragile ecosystems, such as those in the hills of Niyamgiri in Lanjigarh, Odisha, with its economic might and ability to influence state policy.

To cite only a small number of such inconvenient truths that muddy the company’s narrative: In August 2010, India’s then-minister for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, canceled Vedanta Alumina’s clearances to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha. At that time, the Times of India reported:

Mining giant Vedanta consistently violated several laws in bauxite mining at Niyamgiri, encroached upon government land, got clearances on the basis of false information and illegally built its aluminium refinery at Lanjigarh, Orissa. As the company engaged in these violations, the Orissa government colluded with it and the Centre turned a blind eye. These are some of the findings of the four-member N C Saxena committee, which on Monday recommended that the company not be allowed to mine in the hills that are the abode of the Dongaria Kondh and Kutia Kondh tribes in Orissa.

The no-holds-barred indictment of the state and private sector in the $1.7 billion project brings out the short shrift given to concerns about tribal rights and environmental protection. It is significant also because it underlines the changed sensibilities of the government towards the issues against the backdrop of Left-wing extremism and why Naxalites are finding it easy to influence alienated tribal belts.

And in July 2010, Peter Popham reported from Vedanta’s annual general meeting in London:

Nyamgiri is regarded as a god by the Dongria Kondh tribe that lives on it, so for them and their supporters, tearing the peak of the mountain apart for bauxite would be sacrilege. In their effort to spike this argument, this year the company rolled out the top manager at the company’s nearby bauxite refinery, Mukesh Kumar, who claimed that the tribe no longer worship the mountain and welcome the mine’s arrival. Music to shareholders’ ears – but was it true?

This was the point seized on by Samarendra Das, an Indian research scholar and activist from Orissa, who rose from his seat to ask Mr Kumar a simple question: by what name do the Dongria Kondh refer to Nyamgiri, their holy mountain? The silence was deafening – until filled by the boos and catcalls of the activist-shareholders at the meeting, which from that point onwards went down hill. […]

Dr. Felix Padel, the anthropologist who happens to be Darwin’s great-grandson […] was among the shareholder-activists witnessing Vedanta’s discomfiture this week. Padel has lived among the tribals of Orissa for years, and in his new book, Out of this Earth, co-authored with Samarendra Das and launched in London last night, the techniques by which mining giants set about breaking the resistance of tribal people who happen to be in their way through fraud, forcible occupation, corruption and intimidation, are documented in painstaking detail.

From these testimonies it seems clear that one doesn’t have to be a left-wing revolutionary (opponents of Odisha’s huge mining projects are routinely tarred as “Maoists” by the government) or a crusader against big business to have serious doubts about Vedanta’s approach to law, ethics, transparency and due process. Indeed, it isn’t clear that at a time when the world, and especially developing economies, need vast quantities of aluminum and steel, it is realistic to insist (as Samarendra Das does in an essay and the prominent Indian writer Arundhati Roy does in her recent book on left-wing extremism, governments and mining in India, “Walking With The Comrades”) that states and societies can agree to “leave the bauxite in the mountain” for good.

Even so, it’s one thing to accept that mining is a necessary reality. It’s quite another to accept the reality of Vedanta’s collusion with the government of Odisha to try and pay off tribals to vacate mineral-rich land to generate vast profits. Those profits are only derived from the development of one of India’s poorest states. The company then uses the thin gruel of its own corporate social responsibility measures to generate the material for PR campaigns such as the one that swamped India’s television screens in January. As Padmaja Shaw wrote last month in the media-analysis website The Hoot, in a piece called “Creating Happiness?” democracy is reduced to a farce when capital-rich entities are allowed to control the message on a matter of wide-ranging importance merely because they have the cash to control the medium:

Very little debate has been allowed in the mainstream media on why the mining enterprise is suddenly the private property of corporations to exploit and profit from national wealth while brutalising the very people in whose name this is supposed to be happening.

Corporate entities further compound the absence of debate on this reality by buying the best of advertising talent to promote an idyllic image of themselves as messiahs of liberation and transformation for the tribal people, specially using images of children. […] The advertising industry in India boasts of some of the world’s best creative minds. It is not an industry that we can accuse of being unaware of the reality in India. When advertising of dubious nature shows up on the media, it is, therefore, roundly condemned. […]

It is somewhat disheartening to see people such as Piyush Pandey, Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, and renowned filmmaker Shyam Benegal associate themselves as jury with a film festival, Creating Happiness, that Vedanta has launched.

The outrage generated by the ad campaign meant that Benegal and the actress Gul Panag pulled out of the Vedanta jury, leaving Pandey as the sole judge. After the student films had been made, Aman Sethi and Priscilla Jebaraj reported in the Hindu:

Vedanta’s “Creating Happiness” campaign, according to company spokesperson Senjam Raj Sekhar, is part of an “initiative to tell our side of the story”; yet the hostile reception on blogs and social-media networks like Facebook and Twitter highlights the risks of exposing a tightly controlled corporate message to the anarchy of the internet. […] Activists have even started a viral “Faking Happiness” campaign in an attempt to highlight Vedanta’s alleged malpractices. […]

“We told them do not make a corporate film,” Mr. Sekhar said, “find the story of either an individual or a family or the entire village or the community whose lives have changed…so it’s not about the programme but about individuals.”

The films themselves are student productions showcasing a variety of CSR initiatives such as hospitals, football academies, company run schools, rural entrepreneurs and anganvadis. Yet, none of the films explore themes such as ecological damage or the impact of mining on forest communities. The sole film to address the issue of rehabilitating project-affected individuals describes Vedanta as a “path-breaking leader of social upwardness [sic]” that has rescued “the lives of tribals from the darkness of backwardness.”

Meanwhile, far from the worlds of advertising, PR and industry — all part of India’s booming post-liberalization New Economy, but also responsible for currents and narratives that have made the burgeoning middle class unsympathetic or oblivious to the problems of those beneath them, different from them, or dissenting from them — the tribals of Niyamgiri are still agitating to keep their sacred mountains unmolested.
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this blog post: Chandrahas Choudhury at [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Max Berley at [email protected]