"A mining company is an elusive animal"

Roger Moody is the director of Nostromo Research, which  investigates mining practices around the world. A leading critic of  the mining industry, his report Ravages through India exposes  Vedanta's practices in India. He spoke to Nicki Kindersley

Published: Friday 30 September 2005

What, initially, sparked off the report?

I first heard of Sterlite Industries in 2000 and, a little later, of the debacle surrounding the Tuticorin smelter, which I visited in 2003 as a consultant with mmp India (Mines, Minerals & People, a national alliance of groups against destructive mining). When Vedanta was floated on the London Stock Exchange late that year, it seemed an absolute priority to track this company further. Vedanta kept a low profile whilst I was investigating, although they knew I was in India -- through an error, I was introduced to a top staff person with Hindustan Zinc in Jharkhand. I later met the manager of the new mine at Bodai-Daldali in Chhattisgarh; he was actually very willing to criticise his own bosses and to agree with us that the company was not doing the right thing by indigenous people in the area.Local people and especially workers were very keen to talk and demonstrate the depredations caused by the company.

What was your reaction to the Vedanta shareholder's meeting, after the report was published and distributed to all parties attending?

In all my quarter of a century-long work, Vedanta is the first company I've come across that is so naked in its disregard for any criticisms. Finding Anil Agarwal (the ceo of the company) sitting at the annual general meeting (agm) like a smiling Buddha against the constant barrage of criticism and exposure -- I've never seen that kind of performance before. Agarwal attempted to stop debate entirely by consistently refusing to answer direct questions and ignoring serious allegations. He failed to pacify the irate shareholders with his constant repetition of "we have the best standards" and "we are helping the people". On being attacked over operations in Orissa, Agarwal responded, "We are helping save peoples lives. Everyone is in favour of the project" (see: 'Legal landmine', Down To Earth, September 15, 2005). None of the dozen-odd accusations levelled at Vedanta were addressed. Agarwal's performance reminded me of the notorious dictum of Josef Goebbels: "The more you repeat a lie, the more people will come to believe it." What distinguishes Agarwal is that he is totally impervious to any criticism about corporate social responsibility. His announcement of Vedanta's expansions in India after the shareholder's meeting was mind-blowing in audacity.

What is the current status of actions against Vedanta?

We are sending the report to each of Vedanta's key investors, including icici and abn Amro. We are currently crafting a medium term strategy to bring Vedanta closer to justice. The next step in trying to influence events is to build up a caucus of South Asians in the uk, possibly in the form of a conference, creating a forum for concerns and an arena for taking the case against Vedanta further. I am also investigating Vedanta's operations in Zambia, especially the details of the contract between Vedanta and the Zambian government. The key problem with attacking the mining industry is that it is near-impossible to fix upon a target.

Each mining company is an elusive animal; unlike other industries, it is hard to boycott a mining company's product, or to investigate specific abuses behind the torturous screen of mining legislation, especially with such massive companies such as Vedanta.

Do you think that the shareholders feel strongly enough about the company's conduct to take action themselves?

It's a chicken and egg situation. The big investors and promoters of Vedanta -- the investment banks -- won't speak up, whatever they feel privately, unless the company is exposed to major attacks in the press. The press in India and the uk seem almost positively determined not to deal with the issues surrounding Vedanta. One of the main reasons for this lack of interest is that the company held its agm on a mid-afternoon in August (the worst time of the year to get press interest, called the 'silly season' in the uk) -- did Agarwal choose the time and date for this reason? Of course!

What do you feel is the future of Vedanta?

Vedanta will survive and thrive in the short term, to a large extent because mining shares are in the ascendant and few investors, especially the hedge funds which have underpinned its fund raising in the markets, put social and environmental responsibility before profits. India is also rising (if not shining!) and Vedanta has not just major holdings of key metals in the country but outside, especially Zambia. However, Agarwal is increasingly surrounding himself with cronies, and his company's actions are becoming gradually understood. The company has lost three key uk directors in a year -- I've never seen this happen before. I've tried to expose the mining industry for over 20 years now -- all mining industries, in my experience, have ultimately reached hubris.

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