James Moore: Celebrity campaigners are right about Vedanta but battle is not yet won
Wednesday 25 August 2010
Outlook So score one for the good guys? Vedanta – or perhaps "the world's most hated company" – suffered a reverse yesterday after its much-criticised plans to mine bauxite on sacred tribal land in the province of Orissa in eastern India were shot down by the country's environment ministry.
Cue a chorus of huzzahs from assorted celebrity campaigners including Michael Palin, Joanna Lumley and (here it comes) Bianca Jagger. Pardon my cynicism, but when I see these sort of names attached to a cause, I always feel just the teensiest bit suspicious that, well, what we are seeing is a bunch of luvvies trying to prove that they care about stuff, and stuff. "Evil big company vs poor little people" is such an easy narrative to peddle, but reality isn't always as simple as starry names sometimes like to suggest.
Sadly, in many poor parts of the world, people are only too willing to put up with the behaviour of companies such as Vedanta because, in return for the commodities they pull out of the ground, and the pollution and destruction this causes, they do bring with them other commodities that are often in very short supply: namely jobs.
What celebrities and others often fail to register is that it's hard to get cross about big company X riding all over the natives down the road when big company X puts food in front of your family. You are more likely to feel angry about the people getting in the way of the big company if that food is threatened. This uncomfortable dilemma should not, however, give companies such as Vedanta carte blanche to behave badly.
And in this case, there is a tide of opinion suggesting that Vedanta has been behaving badly. But its corporate logo might just as well be a raised middle digit, based on the way it has carried on. The celebrity campaigners are – in this case – are very much on the right track. And it's not just the usual suspects (Amnesty, Survival International) who have joined them.
Professional investors such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Church of England became so frustrated at the company's refusal to engage with their concerns about its practices that they gave up and dumped the shares (although not before they had turned very big profits).
Vedanta has been given plenty of chances to explain itself, and to take action to improve the situation, by people who can see that there is sometimes more nuance to debates such as the one in Orissa. It has spurned them all.
It is only in recent weeks that the message that it has something of a PR problem appears to have wormed its way through Vedanta's thick corporate skull. The belated attempts at engagement have been half-hearted at best and it would, anyway, take more than some PR fluff to solve the problem.
Of course, Vedanta's reverse should not be seen as the war's end; it is merely one battle in what may still prove to be a long struggle. It is worth remembering that Vedanta has the backing of local politicians in Orissa. It could also reverse yesterday's decision on appeal, so there is a way to run yet.
Vedanta's various opponents should gird their loins. Those opponents do, however, have one thing working in their favour. India is a democracy and politicians in democracies tend to be highly receptive to negative opinion (and publicity). Sadly, natural resources are frequently found in parts of the world overseen by less savoury governments, whose response to celebrities, charities and even investors practising ethical engagement, is every bit as Anglo-Saxon as Vedanta's.
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