When businesses fire from the shoulders of government…

Sterlite Copper, its parent Vedanta Resources, and their well-wishers among the government of Tamil Nadu have achieved notoriety with the shooting-to-kill of protesters on 22 May in Thoothukudi. Thirteen protesters were killed by police, and more than a hundred injured. The protesters sought clarity over allegations of pollution, a long-time plaint, and were incensed that a doubling of production was cleared by the authorities, and land for it allocated without taking nearby communities into confidence.

Political expediency has since led to the closure of the plant by the state government. This is an eyewash, because the attitude of the government has not changed. Chief Minister K. Palaniswami incredibly maintained that the shooting was “unavoidable” when dialogue should have been the only ammunition. Neither has the company’s attitude changed. In any human rights court, Sterlite would be seen as having fired from the shoulders of the government. Top company executives have since maintained they will explore every possibility to reopen the plant.

Both business and government were complicit in acting worst-case, instead of adopting best-case -- quite typical in India’s human rights universe – and working as per the law of the land and engaging citizens and communities with the doctrine of free, prior and informed consent. That’s the pillar of business and human rights practices adopted by the United Nations, to which India is a signatory. The doctrine is also a driving force of the UN Global Compact, a charter among businesses, civil society and multilateral agencies, to which Vedanta is a signatory.

Tamil Nadu, like most other states, has a remarkable history of overkill with business and economic imperatives. I witnessed such goings-on with the state-run nuclear power plant in Kudankulam, south of Thoothukudi. In September 2012, police attacked crowds of protesters, mostly farmers and fisherfolk concerned about a Fukushima-like future in their neighbourhood. Several protesters were killed, many more were injured, and a church in Idinthakarai desecrated. Cases were filed by police against protest leaders and villagers of five nearby villages. There were 19 cases of sedition involving 8,450 people; 19 cases of ‘waging war against the state’ involving 18,350 people; 15 cases of attempt to murder against 18,143 people, and so on. In all, over 300 cases involving 1,20,000 people!

Here, the government preyed on its people in the name of protecting the country’s interests. This approach of violent settlement is often seen across India in coal mining areas, and wherever there are big dams and large industrial projects. Typically, bigger the enterprise —government or privately-owned — graver the transgression, and more heightened the sense of impunity and immunity.

I have talked to villagers in eastern Jharkhand livid with JSW Steel Ltd for sending surveyors to map land for a massive steel plant and railway lines, right there in their standing crops, without permission. When they were chased away, the surveyors complained. The local administration sent police to arrest villagers and inundate them with cases. In West Bengal, ‘Singur’ and ‘Nandigram’ are now case studies of how not to acquire land, attendant as they were with threats, beatings, rape, murder, and shooting and arrests by police.

In Chhattisgarh, one collector of Dantewada actually asked reluctant villagers to “sign or get out” of a gram sabha held to discuss approval of their selling land for a project for Essar Steel in Bhansi village. The magazine Down to Earth described how a subsequent meeting, at which Essar officials were present, went: villagers were “taken to a room in twos, and pistols were placed at their temples to make them sign”. In 2011, a bench of the Supreme Court held the vigilante programme sponsored by Chhattisgarh, Salwa Judum, guilty of intimidation, including action that benefited businesses, when it quoted Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, in a judgement. The justices accused the government of Chhattisgarh “of constitutional sanction to perpetrate, indefinitely, a regime of gross violations of human rights”.

Odisha records several instances of strong-arming protesters. There’s the shabby and violently enforced land acquisition procedure for the Posco steel plant near Paradip (that project is now shelved, on account of issues of land acquisition and mining concessions), and the less-discussed instance of the firing in Kalinga Nagar in Jajpur district to the north. In January 2006, villagers were protesting against the setting up of a boundary wall for Tata Steel’s proposed plant in Kalinga Nagar even as resettlement and rehabilitation issues remained unresolved. Fourteen villagers died when police opened fire. A policeman died when villagers retaliated.

A commission of inquiry established by the Odisha government, the Justice P K Mohanty Commission submitted its report to the government in 2015. The commission absolved all but the protesters of blame and did not recommend punitive action against anyone.

It was hardly surprising. The collector and district magistrate of Jajpur at the time, who ignored villagers’ pleas, was subsequently posted to another district in a similar capacity. He was also appointed the managing director and, later, chairman of Odisha Mining Corp. Ltd. OMCL partnered a subsidiary of Vedanta to form a company to mine the Niyamgiri Hills in Lanjigarh for bauxite. The superintendent of police in Jajpur at the time was transferred and promoted. In 2008, he was recommended by the Odisha government for a meritorious service medal awarded annually by the President of India.

In the face of such brazenness, victims are compelled to depend on local human rights watchdogs and lawyers who mostly take up cases pro bono, to swim against the tide of the system: the state and its sponsors in business, and businesses and their handmaidens in government. The National Human Rights Commission of India is essentially toothless. Besides, India lacks a charter or approach that aids the practice of human rights in business. The matter is left entirely to businesses to practice as they see fit, in which earnings usually trump ethics. Occasionally, when cases go to the Supreme Court as a result of public interest litigations, rare enlightened benches — such instances are rarer in lower courts — stand by affected citizenry and against perpetrators of human rights violations.

For most, though, there is little recourse except to protest. As we saw on 22 May in Thoothukudi, sometimes at the cost of their lives.

(The writer is a leading commentator on the convergence of business and human rights, and author of several books, including Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India)

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When businesses fire from the shoulders of government…

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