An insight into Vedanta AGM
Protesters outside the Vedanta AGM
I’ve stood outside a few AGMs in my time. I’ve handed out leaflets on the impacts of tar sands extraction on indigenous communities at the BP AGM, and protested against ongoing pollution and human rights abuses in the Niger Delta at the Shell AGM. But this was the first time that I’d joined the shareholding classes. A friend of mine Simon Chambers, who made an excellent documentary Cowboys in India about Vedanta’s impacts in Orissa, had made out one of his shares in my name so that I could go along and see for myself what went on inside the AGM.
Apart from being generally concerned about the human rights abuses, lack of community consultation, poor safety record and water and crop pollution that Vedanta are responsible for, I am also interested in the company in particular because of the fact that they have been financed by the Royal Bank of Scotland. In my day job, I work for an organisation called PLATFORM that tries to put pressure on RBS to adopt more stringent environmental and human rights criteria for the type of companies that they give money to. Especially since they have such an appalling record in financing fossil fuel projects around the world, and especially since they are 83% owned by the UK public and therefore should be more accountable than ‘normal’ commercial banks. On the morning of the AGM, I had a letter published in the Guardian that outlined these concerns around Vedanta.
So, with my share in hand, I made my way past the Avatar-inspired protesters who making a righteous racket outside the building, and made my way into the very swanky surroundings of the Institute for Civil Engineers. We were all given a small handheld console so that we could vote on the various resolutions, making it feel a bit like “Who wants to be a millionaire’ although Anil Agarwal, the billionaire chair of the board, is the 51% owner of the company, so it was no surprise that all the various resolutions got passed through as a matter of course.
It was all a lot rowdier than I had expected. It seemed quite ritualised – the board had to make a display of being accountable to their shareholders, and have a legal responsibility to hear the questions that were being put to them. But most of the time, when being questioned repeatedly about issues of pollution, displacement, safety, lack of Free Prior and Informed Consent and so on, the board members often didn’t even bother replying to the questions, just using very stock phrases that glibly avoided any responsibility or even making out as though what they were doing in the area was actually a huge boon to the impoverished tribes-people.
Martin Horwood MP, who is involved in parliamentary committees dealing with both corporate social responsibility and tribal peoples opened the questions asking the board where they had made shareholders aware that the UK OECD contact person had upheld a complaint by Survival International that the indigenous community had not been consulted properly. Needless to say, an answer wasn’t forthcoming, and the board also evaded the request to appear in Parliament to answer questions from the relevant committees. Shortly after, Bianca Jagger made an impassioned intervention on the basis of her fact-finding mission to the area and her firsthand account of the impacts of Vedanta on local communities, before handing over a box of the 30,000 plus signatures that had been collected through Amnesty International.
As the questions continued, as the answers got more and more evasive or dismissive, people in the crowd started heckling the board – pointing out inconsistencies in their answers or asking them to answer the question when they were being evasive. A number of people held up placards with ‘rubbish’ written on it when the board were being particularly, well, rubbish.
So what changed as a result of all the protests outside, and the heckling and the difficult questions inside? There were some very critical articles about Vedanta in newspapers internationally that used the ‘hook’ of the noisy protests. The Independent even ran with a headline asking if Vedanta is “the most hated company in the world?’ But headlines alone don’t make positive changes, so it’s great that there are many different groups who are monitoring the company and continuing to apply pressure, from the folks at Amnesty and Survival trying all manner of political channels, the many people signing petitions and writing to their MPs, the grassroots efforts of people who turned up to make a noise outside and of course the many acts of resistance, big and small, of the communities in India who are determined to stand firm in the face of corporate pressure.
More on Vedanta
Watch the Amnesty film which captured reactions before and after the AGM:
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.