Zambian Villagers Suing Vedanta Over Water Pollution And Displacing Farmers

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PROTESTS were held in India and Zambia in parallel with last Friday’s AGM of British mining company Vedanta Resources at Ironmongers Hall, Barbican, London.

Inside the AGM dissident shareholders asked questions submitted by Zambian villagers who are suing Vedanta in the UK for twelve years of polluted water, as well as displaced farmers who were never compensated for their land in Lanjigarh, Odisha, India and accuse Vedanta of murdering and harassing them with state collusion.

A loud protest organised by Foil Vedanta took place outside the meeting, demanding that Vedanta subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines publish its hitherto secret annual accounts in Zambia, and accusing the company of pollution, human rights abuses and financial mismanagement in India and Afrika.

At Vedanta’s London AGM activists from Foil Vedanta interrupted the meeting asking questions to the Vedanta board and gathered shareholders on behalf of the Zambian Copperbelt villagers living downstream of Vedanta’s Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), who are demanding an end to twelve years of pollution by KCM, which has turned the Kafue into a ‘river of acid’ and left them with no access to clean water.

They asked why KCM has never submitted annual accounts in Zambia in accordance with national laws, and whether Vedanta’s deliberately obstructive approach to compensation cases as revealed in a recent London judgement was company policy.

Outside the meeting protesters drummed and chanted in loud voices, holding placards with pictures of the polluted Zambian villagers and victims of the 2009 chimney collapse which killed between 40 and 100 people at Vedanta’s BALCO plant in Chhattisgarh, India.

The Sandeep Bakshi Judicial Commission report (leaked by activists in 2014) held Vedanta guilty of negligence in the incident but no action has been taken. 1,826 Zambian villagers are suing KCM and Vedanta in the UK for personal injury and loss of livelihood due to gross pollution, having won a precedent London jurisdiction hearing in May.

The villagers are also demanding that KCM de-silt and remediate the contaminated areas so they can return to normal life. An estimated 40,000 people in total are affected by contaminated water which also affects the municipal piped water system.

One villager Judith Kapumba appears in a youtube video testifying to how contamination has destroyed their livelihood and their lives, claiming that many have ‘collapsed and died’ as a result of illnesses caused by drinking contaminated water, and that crops can no longer grow leading to starvation and extreme poverty.

Leo Chikopela, one of the claimants in the UK case said: ‘We have no water source apart from the river and its totally polluted. Most of us are very weak and have constant stomach pains. When we bathe using this water our skin itches.’

A number of scientific papers have documented the extent of contamination, with acid pH and heavy metal content regularly tens and even hundreds of times above legal limits. Justice Coulson’s judgement on the polluted villager’s jurisdiction case indicted KCM for financial secrecy, historic dishonesty and attempts to pervert the course of justice, revealing that KCM have never filed any annual accounts in accordance with the Zambian Companies Act, and referring to a 2014 London arbitration case against KCM in which three judges found KCM to be dishonest, obstructive and willing to cause unnecessary harm.

An UNCTAD report published in July 2016 found ‘systematic export underinvoicing’ of copper from Zambia starting in 2005, the year after Vedanta took over KCM (Zambia’s biggest copper producer). $12 billion of underinvoicing is recorded between 1995-2014.

Following damning audits of KCM in 2014, the Zambian government entity ZCCM-IH which owns 20.6% of KCM has also filed a case against KCM and Vedanta in London for $100 million owed on an April 2013 settlement. The UK government has repeatedly promoted KCM via the Department for International Development’s Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC), most recently in 2012 when KCM were sponsors and speakers at their Jubilee Economic Forum in London alongside then Zambian President Michael Sata.

In Chingola, Zambia, residents of Nchanga South submitted a petition to the press and the London AGM(6) decrying the fumes and noise from KCM’s copper smelter, which is less than 50m from houses on East 1st Street, and demanding to be compensated and resettled as per the 2006 Environmental Impact Assessment.

Posting on their facebook group Justice for Residents of 1st Street Against Pollution, 1st Street resident Ngmanaya Luhana said: ‘We will fight until something is done about our living conditions. Most us are living just less than 50 metres from their Chingola plant its really a serious health hazard. We do not even know how our health is now due to the toxic gases this plant is releasing in our atmosphere and neighbourhood. It is life-threatening and inhuman. This company has no respect for our health as citizens as long as its making profits. Enough is enough.’

In Kitwe former KCM miners who have never received their terminal benefits since being retrenched in 2009 held a protest ahead of the next hearing in their ongoing case against KCM in the Zambia High Court on 8th August. 2,500 miners were retrenched by KCM in November 2015, and have also been denied proper benefits, leading to riots.

Chairman of the group, Francis Wambuzi said: ‘Like so many other former miners we have been from pillar to post fighting this injustice. We want the government and Zambians to know how former miners, the backbone of this country are being treated after losing their jobs. Vedanta cannot profit at our expense.’

In Bhubaneswar, capital city of the State of Odisha in India, indigenous Dongria Kond from Niyamgiri as well as Lanjigarh land losers and activists opposing Vedanta’s planned Puri University, rallied in front of Vedanta’s office a Fortune Towers. They demanded that Vedanta is kicked out of its two Odisha bauxite operations at Jharsuguda, where ongoing pollution has led to farmers protests, and displaced people have never been compensated, and Lanjigarh (Niyamgiri) where local tribal activists and protesting land losers have been beaten, harassed and killed by police this year, under the pretence that they are Maoists.

Fact finding teams led by former Chief Justice of Bombay High Court Justice B G Kolse Patil, as well as the National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations (NCHRO) found state collusion between the police and Vedanta, who have been thwarted in their attempt to mine Niyamgiri’s bauxite by the people’s movement.

Padmanav Choudhury from Asarpada village, an active member of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (Niyamgiri Protection Council) and a land loser yet to receive any compensation from Vedanta alleged: ‘I was tortured for two days, hung upside down and thrashed by police for participating in a demonstration against police atrocities in Niyamgiri.

‘Vedanta and the Odisha government are working together to deny our democratic and legal right to object to their mine. No matter what they do, we will not leave Niyamgiri or give up our fight.’

Despite a May Supreme Court ruling which rejected Vedanta and the Odisha state’s right to challenge the ban on Niyamgiri mining Mines Minister Piyush Goyal stated in July that he would again try to push the Niyamgiri project through. Adivasi and Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti leader Dadhi Pusika echoed the protesters demands that the refinery built to process Niyamgiri’s bauxite should now be decommissioned, saying: ‘Lanjigarh must be shut down and stopped from causing pollution, misery, and landlessness in our villages. This a not just a local issue. It is a global struggle of the humanity to protect nature and civilisation.’.