Dear Priyanka Chopra,
At the outset, I would like to say that I am a fan, and applaud your choices of multi-faceted roles, often going against the tide of Indian cinema ,you have carved your own niche. To the fraternity and to your fans, you stand out as intelligent and capable of speaking your mind. Therefore, I do understand that you must be approached by many to be a brand ambassador for many a campaign, which is great, but as a fan who knows that there are millions out there who take you seriously, what I want to know is this: do you do your homework about an issue, the people and entities involved in a campaign, before you lend your face and voice and personal brand to?
On August 19th, as many of us were celebrating the landmark success of a real exercise in Indian democracy, where for the first time, a corporation, Vedanta Resources, was forced to seek and was summarily denied consent of indigenous and local communities whose sacred mountains Vedanta sought to mine, I was shocked to see you launching ‘NDTV-Vedanta’s ‘Our Girls Our Pride’ Campaign as a Brand Ambassador to create awareness about issues related to the girl child.
The issues faced by girl children in India, across communities, caste and class, are very close to my heart. I work with the Forum Against Sex Selection, besides many other campaigns on Gender , Health and Human Rights . My outrage lies in the fact that you accepted to partner with mining giant Vedanta, known for a long list of human rights abuse and environmental violations, not just in the Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha, but in its mines across the country. At the receiving end of grave violations of their human rights to water, food, health, work and an adequate standard of living are the same marginalised communities that Vedanta claims to want to uplift, through its campaigns, with your spotless face to support it.
Let me give you a snapshot of Vedanta in India and then let you decide for yourself
Vedanta – a British company owned by London-based Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal – was launched on the London stock exchange as Vedanta Resources Plc (VRP) in December 2003. Vedanta signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Orissa government on 7 June 2003 to set up a 1-million-tonne alumina refinery, along with a 100-MW coal-fired power plant, at an investment of Rs 4,000 crore (just over US$800 million). The company planned to dig a vast open-cast bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri Hills to feed an alumina refinery that it has already built in the area, at Lanjigarh in south-west Orissa.
In common with other displaced tribal peoples worldwide, the Dongria Kondh adivasis who live in the upper reaches of the Niyamgiri Hills would have lost their present good health, their self-sufficiency and their expert knowledge of the hills, forests and farming systems that they have nurtured. Those who live in the shadow of its refinery are already suffering from water contamination and severe respiratory and skin diseases, with their farm lands polluted and livelihoods destroyed. The process of community consultation for the expansion of the refinery can be seen here, to give you an idea of how justice has transpired over the last 10 years.
Niyamgiri Hills, named after the Niyamraja, the main deity of the Dongria Kondh adivasis, are one of last untouched wildernesses of Orissa. Rising to a height of more than four thousand feet, the hills are the source of Vamshadhara river, which is already being polluted by toxic fly ash from the refinery, as well as major tributaries of Nagavali rivers. Niyamgiris form a distinct phytogeographical zone because of its height and its highly precipitous topography. Niyamgiri flora is of ‘great phyto-geographical importance’ as the hilltops harbor high altitude plants with Himalayan/North Indian and Nilgiri/South Indian elements. Preliminary studies show that it has approximately 50 species of important medicinal plants, about 20 species of wild ornamental plants, and more than 10 species of wild relatives of crop plants .
The forested slopes of the Niyamgiri hills and the many streams that flow through them provide the means of living for Dongria Kondh and Kutia Kondh- Scheduled Tribes that are notified by the government as Extinguishing Tribal Groups and thus eligible for special protection. Schedule V of the Indian Constitution, which enjoins the government to respect and uphold the land rights of Scheduled Tribes, applies to the entire Niyamgiri hills region, along with the Forest Rights Act, Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 and the Forest Conservation Act. While the Kutia Kondh inhabit the foothills, the Dongria Kondh live in the upper reaches of the Niyamgiri hills which is their only habitat. Like the rest of the world’s indigenous people, the Kondhs too have a self-sustaining economy – they live in the forest, grow their own produce through shifting cultivation and go down to the towns only to buy salt and sell fruits. In the polytheistic animist worldview of the Kondh, the hilltops and their associated forests are regarded as supreme deities. The highest hill peak, which is under the proposed mining lease area, is the home of their most revered god, Niyam Raja, ‘the giver of law’.
Survival’s short movie captures the voice of the Dongria Kondh as they have faced Vedanta’s incursions
Vedanta’s mining for “prosperity”, destruction for dongria Kondh
The idea being promoted by Vedanta across the board, through its campaigns, is that mining will contribute to Orissa’s economy and make the Dongria and other communities prosperous. For the mainstream, non-cultivating, town- and city-based population, it promises an era of prosperity, where those with initiative and business acumen can make a quick fortune.
The convention in company and government discourse is to assume that industrialisation increases people’s standard of living as measured by a handful of indices, such as cash income and education, which are disconnected from real life situations. For the Dongria the most important change is moving from a situation in which they owned their own land and grew they own food to one in which they were dependent on the company for their livelihoods – a complete break from their traditional, largely self-sufficient economy. Moreover, the loss of the connection with the land, divisions in the community, and the penetration of money into relationships are being promoted as the indicators of growth!
The Dongria have been growing their own food on the Niyamgiri hills for generations. Dongria culture is sustainable in the true sense of the word, in that it is a way of living in which people have been interacting with nature for hundreds of years without damaging the ecosystem.
Priyanka, did you know that the most significant and strategic use of aluminium is in the manufacture of arms, missiles and other destructive weapons. A stark and brutal irony thus infuses the whole episode: people who have co-existed peacefully with nature for centuries are now being hounded out and their habitation squandered to feed an industry the chief purpose of which is to profit from war and large-scale destruction. It is not only the tribals who are threatened, but entire ecosystems will be destroyed if Vedanta had its way.
This epic struggle for survival has finally been won by the Dongria Kondh and other local communities.
In a landmark judgment in April 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the gram sabhas (assemblies consisting of all adult voters) of villages located near the proposed mine would need to decide if the mine plans, in any way, affected their religious and cultural rights, including their right to worship, and on all individual and community claims, including fresh ones, to the areas proposed to be mined.
The Court’s ruling echoes the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which state that the government must settle community claims over their traditional forest lands and habitats, and ensure they have the consent of the communities, before attempting to use their land for mining.
In a huge blow to Vedanta Resources Plc’s in Odisha, all the 12 gram sabhas have voted against its Rs 50,000-crore aluminium refinery project in the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha .
And yet, Niyamgiri is only the tip of the iceberg of violations committed by Vedanta, one of the world’s worst companies.
Vedanta’s Sesa Goa subsidiary has been accused of large scale fraud and illegal mining.In June 2009 following a pit wall collapse which drowned Advalpal village in toxic mine waste, a 9-year old local boy Akaash Naik filed a petition to stop the mine and mass protests later that year halted mining at one of Sesa Goa’s sites. In 2011 there were more major mine waste floods. In South Goa, a 90 day road blockade by 400 villagers succeeded in stopping another iron ore mine. In 2012, the MB Shah Commission unveiled a Rs. 34,000 crore iron ore scam in Goa, and Sesa Goa stands accused of massive irregularities across the State.
In Tamil Nadu, Tuticorin:
Vedanta subsidiary Sterlite Industries has flouted laws without remorse, operating and expanding without consent, violating environmental conditions, and illegally dumping and storing toxic effluents (including arsenic) and waste, as it operates a copper smelter less than 10 km from India’s only marine biosphere. In 1997, a toxic gas leak hospitalised 100 people sparking an indefinite hunger strike by a local politician and a ‘siege on Sterlite’ that led to 1643 arrests. Later that year, a kiln explosion killed two. An estimated 16 workers died between 2007 and 2011. Police recorded most workers deaths as suicides. Pollution Control Boards, judges and expert teams have on several occasions reversed damning judgements of the company, demonstrating large scale corruption and bribery. In March, 2013, a toxic gas leak from spread panic and discomfort for several kilometres around the plant. The price of its actions over decade? The Supreme Court let Sterlite off with nothing more than a 100 crore fine, just as local communities continue to live in extremely hazardous conditions.
In Tamil Nadu, Mettur:
Vedanta bought MALCO ‘s aluminium complex at Mettur 2 years before permission for their Kolli Hills bauxite mines expired but continued to mine illegally for 10 years. Five adivasi villages were disturbed and a sacred grove destroyed before activist’s petitions stopped mining in 2008. Without local bauxite and with protests preventing bauxite coming from Niyamgiri in Orissa the factory at Mettur was also forced to close. However, the abandoned and unreclaimed mines continue to pollute the mountains and a huge red mud dump by the Stanley reservoir pollutes drinking water and blows toxic dust into the village.
In Chhattisgarh, Korba:
Vedanta bought the state owned BALCO’s alumina refinery, smelter and bauxite mines for ten times less than its estimated value in 2001 despite a landmark 61 day strike by workers. Since then wages have been slashed and unionised workers are losing jobs. In 2009 a factory chimney collapsed, BALCO claimed 42 were killed, but in fact 60 – 100 people are still missing. Witnesses claim these workers from poor families in neighbouring states are buried underground in the rubble, which was bulldozed over immediately after the collapse.
I would like you to see activist Satyabadi Naik’s shocking video of police crackdown on a peaceful protest by women of Rengopalli and other villages against Vedanta’s toxic Red Mud Pond in Lanjigarh.
The Videos below, will give you goose bumps
Some more films:
The Real Face of Vedanta
Priyanka, In the 21st century, we need to redefine the meaning of “development.” It must be sustainable. Any development project must take into account the needs and aspirations of the local communities, and should benefit all sectors of society. Respect for human rights and the environment must be a priority. Development must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The criteria for “development” need to be more holistic – instead of focussing on GDP, we need to take Human Development Indicators (poverty, health, mortality, education) into account, when assessing a ‘development’ project.
It is once again ironic that the Dongria ’s resolve to safeguard the very essence of their identity is being depicted as “anti-development” and the tribal people themselves as “primitive” and “backward”. For them, to sell their mountains for large-scale mining is an act of pure greed – eating into the flesh of the earth.
But for Vedanta such a philosophy holds no meaning. The living earth is for them a resource to be exploited for profit. Greed is an essential part of their policies and the flesh of the earth the perfect menu for gorging their balance sheets.
This is not the first time Vedanta is trying to hoodwink people of India. Last year they had launched this Creating Happiness campaign, part of which was a short-film competition to extol the achievements of Vedanta. Along with others who felt strongly about this hypocrisy, we started a Faking Happiness campaign. Shyam Benegal and Gul Panag walked out of the jury once exposed to the real face of Vedanta.
Here is my contribution to it:
Many more people contributed and are still contributing to the campaign: https://kractivist.org/faking-happiness-competition-2/ , you can also find us on facebook- https://www.facebook.com/groups/fakinghappiness/
I would like to also tell you that a large, child rights NGO refused to join your campaign because they did not wish to be associated with a campaign to launder the reputation of a company with a dismal human rights record.
Also, did you know that Aishwarya Rai Bachchan was approached to be brand ambassador before you but she refused, as Vedanta is part of this campaign.
Now that you know Vedanta’s history, Would you step down as the ambassador of the Our Girl, Our Pride Campaign or ensure that Vedanta is not a partner in the Campaign ?
Would you join us in ensuring that human rights violations are not greenwashed?
The choice is yours;
The respect of your fans, however, hangs in the balance.
If you decide to join us do sign our petition to NDTV below https://secure.avaaz.org/en/petition/NDTV_Withdraw_Vedanta_as_a_Partner_in_Our_Girls_Our_Pride_Campaign
Kamayani Bali Mahabal
PS- The readers if you agree with my letter Please sign in comments section