A personal reflection on notorious Vedanta’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) 2016
Last Friday we saw fantastic global actions against a British mining company, called the Vedanta Resources, who attempted to hold their Annual General Meeting in London but ended up being interrogated by dissident shareholders. The British mining company, Vedanta Resources, is known as notorious for abuse and destruction in the name of development overseas. According to Foil Vedanta report (2016), Vedanta is controlled and 69.6% owned by Brit Anil Agarwal and his family through a series of tax havens and holding companies. It was launched on the London Stock Exchange in 2003 with the assistance of the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) and Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), who continue with their support for the company. I witnessed their misery in the AGM on Friday the 5th August.
Like every year, protests have been held in India, London and Zambia during the AGM of Vedanta Resources’ at Ironmongers Hall, Barbican, London. A loud protest outside the meeting was organised by Foil Vedanta and was joined by many southern grassroots organisations and community activists from India, Indonesia, Namibia, South Afrika and Zambia. Protesters demanded that Vedanta subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines publish its hitherto secret annual accounts in Zambia. Community activists accused the company of pollution, human rights abuses and financial mismanagement in India and Afrika.
At Vedanta’s AGM activists from Foil Vedanta , Phulbari Solidarity Group, London Mining Network and Mines and Communities interrupted the meeting by asking incisive questions to the board. I joined the meeting with dissident shareholders who raised questions on Vedanta’s pollution in Zambia, and human rights abuses and worker’s deaths in India. We asked questions on behalf of the Zambian Copperbelt villagers living downstream of Vedanta’s Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), who have been 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.
We 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. With regard to the serious safety conditions at Bodai Daldali dissident shareholders asked, “whether the mine is one of the certified 48 mines.” Independent and senior researchers who visited the area in India said that seven years ago he had asked about bauxite operations in Chhattisgarh, including the fact that children were working in the mine, which still await answer. Why had researchers and journalists been stopped at the entrance to the site? How can Vedanta make claims in their CSR reports and not even be bothered to share the report with villagers? Most of our questions received no clear answer from the board. Vedanta board, led by Anil Agarlwal, appeared perniciously barefaced in the AGM, and failed to answer important questions concerning the abuse and destruction that the company has been doing to the communities across the south. Instead of engaging with our questions, Anil Agarwal ended up flattering us as ‘ladies first’, ‘I like girls’, ‘I am fond of Bangladesh’ so on and so forth.
The meeting began by a rather long introduction by Deepak Kumar, who went into immense detail for around ten minutes over the instructions for use of the handset provided for voting. It followed by the company Chairman, Anil Agarwal’s long speech followed by Vedanta CEO, Tom Albanese’s ever bizarre presentations. In their “sustainable development” report both Mr. Agarwal and Tom Albanese stated that “the priority is”, on the one hand, to focus on “zero harm” and “to ensure zero discharge and waste”, on the other hand. Note this is a mining company that is known as notorious for abuse in India and Zambia. Agarwal insists, even if the company has been causing colossal problems which has landed them in the court, ‘there will be incremental technical improvements that will make things alright eventually’. As Andy Whitmore notes correctly, ‘his slumber is assured by the promise of “zero harm” which is the most peculiar fashion distressing large extractive corporations, or those financing them. But question is: how can a company displacing people to rip up the earth on a vast scale do “zero harm”?
After Tom Albanese presentation, Chairman Agarwal then invited questions from the floor – and there were lots of them. A dissident shareholder from Afrikan communities raised the first question. As he waved his hand to Anil Agarwal and stood up to ask a question, which he drafted on his notebook and intended to read out for the board, Anil Agarlwal interfered, impatiently, and said: ‘you can speak for yourself, we want to hear your voice’. The dissident shareholder, Cecil Gutzmore, replied, with mild smile: ‘my voice is here. My voice is on the microphone. Do you hear?’
He continued: The 27th May judgement by Justice Coulson in the case Domonic Liswaniso Lungowe verses Vedanta Resources and Konkola Copper Mines gave 1800 Zambian villagers the right to sue Vedanta and KCM in London for loss to their livelihood and health due to KCM’s pollution since 2004. In the judgement Justice Coulson indicted KCM for financial secrecy, historic dishonesty and attempts to pervert the course of justice, and on p.5, paragraph 18, quoted a 2014 London judgement against KCM for failing to pay a contractor – U&M mining. In that case Judges Eder, Cooke and Teare JJ called KCM (and I quote):
‘…an entity which has employees willing to give untrue evidence, to cause unnecessary harm, to be obstructive of the arbitration process and to take untenable points with a view to delaying enforcement…a party willing to do all it can to prevent the other party from enforcing its legal rights.’
Cecil continued and said that in paragraph 19 Justice Coulson further stated:
‘there was a revealing statement in those proceedings by the executive director of the mine who said that, although KCM acknowledged that they had failed to pay sums that were due to the claimants in that case, they “would hold on to the money to the end of the dispute, which it would fight bitterly, no matter how long it took, including in Zambia where proceedings would take many years.’
He noted further: this attitude is not limited to KCM alone and claimants who have been granted compensation in Talwindi Sabo, Tuticorin and Jharsuguda are also still awaiting payment. Can the board confirm whether obstructing legal procedures and delaying payments is a company policy?
Anil Agarwal and Tom Albanese hardly answered the question. Tom Albanese replied that he had a lot of respect for legal processes (just as well!) so he took Cecil’s comments seriously. He said that the 2014 case referred to was a commercial case which was settled amicably last year. In the process of the resolution of any commercial litigation tensions develop which have to be worked through, and it is the job of management and the board to solve problems and Vedanta satisfied the other party. In Zambia, the case was currently being heard in the UK and Zambia. The company had to recognise that the court will go through its own process but the case will be appealed and heard next year. Vedanta’s position is that the Zambian courts are fully capable of hearing a case like this.
Albanese said that Cecil had referred to a judgement against KCM, which was related to a 2006 spill, a case which Vedanta recognises went against it. He said that ‘not many people have come forward on this’ (it was not clear to me quite what he meant by that) and it ‘shows that the Zambian courts work’. He said that Vedanta should be respecting the courts in the countries where it operates. Vedanta reports transparently and if people want to know KCM’s financial details, they are in the newspaper. KCM has not been making money recently and has been requiring investment from Vedanta to ensure it is still in a position to hire Zambian employees and contractors. The government has conducted forensic audits and nothing has come out. Albanese said he was confident that the company is fully disclosing its Zambian accounts. From time to time there are commercial disputes. Sometimes they can resolve these things and sometimes they cannot, but they respect court proceedings in Zambia.
Cecil drew the CEO’s attention once more to the 1800 Zambian villagers who had recently been given the right to sue the company in London. There was a conversation between Cecil and Albanese about the extent to which Albanese had, or had not, answered Cecil’s questions. Cecil was not convinced that he was being told the truth. That is a suspicion fairly widely held among activists attending Vedanta AGMs.
Anil Agarawal concluded the matter by stating, ‘We will follow all the procedures. The matter is sub judice. We are absolutely transparent and whatever judgement comes in we will follow it.’ That would certainly be welcome. As our friend Simon noted later in the AGM, there are questions over the extent to which Vedanta has respected previous court judgements.
So the shareholder commented, twice, that he was not convinced that they were telling him the truth. He said that the answers to his questions were partial and that Agarwal did not engage with his questions to the extent that he should have. I did wave my hands at that time but was not given the microphone, probably because they did not consider me as important as male shareholders. The board was, however, populated by male heads. Except one woman (Katya) who never spoke and appeared as a token representative of female members, all 10 heads out of 11 board members were male. Indeed, we had to put up with a gendered corporate board for nearly three hours. Microphone therefore went to someone else. The speaker, representing campaigning organisation ShareAction, asked how the company reports on risks from waste management. But he was frustrated by the answer of the CEO, Tom Albanese, with no surprise.
This is when I spoke up and said that I am working closely with community activists and groups from India, Zambia and South Africa who have gathered outside Ironmongers Hall and told me a different version of what Vedanta’s annual report was claiming. I then asked, by thanking the board for trying to present a report and for producing an annual report even if it was a partial one, that:
Mr Chairman, both you and your CEO have said that you are committed to ‘zero harm’ and ‘zero damage’ to people, but these people and communities are saying that they are at great loss by the harms and damages that you and your company have done to them. Your company has been destroying many communities. When I was entering the building for this AGM, I have seen community representatives from Orissa, Zambia, South Africa, Indonesia, Namibia and all India were crying outside the AGM that their people have been abused and faced with great loss by the undertakings of your company. I am sure you have seen people’s outcry outside the AGM, too, when you entered the building. What is your response to these people that are protesting outside the AGM?
I asked, again to Tom Albanese that I am glad that you have taken the effort to produce a report for the shareholders but I have to say that I am appalled at your presentation because of the level of fraught and misinformation this report involved. I am shocked by the way you have totally overlooked the issues that the May 27th judgement in the case of Dominic Liswaniso Lungowe versus Vedanta Resources and KCM in London which Cecil has just mentioned. This May 27th judgement by Justice Coulson has been a major challenge against Vedanta’s ongoing abuse and misconducts across Zambia, and a big news for the company which the shareholders should be made aware of . I have been reading about this judgement for the last two months as this became important news in London. How was it possible for you to overlook the matter in your whole 30 minutes long presentation?
Is this how you can prevent from doing harm and abuse to communities? I would appreciate to have your straightforward and a clear answer to this question. Now I have a second question to both of you (Anil Agarwal and Tom Albanese) in relation to the judgement and the question that my dissident shareholder, Cecil has asked before. May I continue?
The board kept silent and Anil Agarwal, Tom Albanese, Katya and Deepak Kumar looked at me in their eyes, with clear discomfort. Anil Agarwal seemed most uncomfortable (or perhaps angry inside) but did not stop me from continuing. So I continued and said that:
Justice Coulson’s recent UK judgement on the right of Zambian villagers to sue KCM and Vedanta in London for loss of livelihood and health, revealed that KCM has never filed annual accounts in accordance with the Zambian Companies Act. Meanwhile an UNCTAD report published in July 2016 found ‘systematic export under-invoicing’ of copper from Zambia starting in 2005, the year after Vedanta took over KCM (which is Zambia’s biggest copper exporter). Why have you been keeping your finances secret? What exactly are you hiding from the Zambian government?
Tom Albanese replied that when he made a public statement he was making a statement on behalf of the board and is personally liable for it under the law in both the UK and Zambia. He continued, ‘What I say, I say with assurance: we produce and provide transparent financial reports for our operations in Zambia and submit them to the Ministry of Mines and publish a summary in the newspaper, and if you want to see them you can apply to the government and they will send them.’ He said that the other shareholder in KCM’s operations is government-owned ZCCM, so on the board of KCM there are people who represent ZCCM and the government of Zambia. Everything is disclosed. He said he is under a requirement to comply with the law and tell truth about what the company is doing.
I asked again whether he really thought the company was doing zero harm.
This time Anil Agarwal replied, by saying that: ‘What we say we believe, and we do it. You can believe what you want to believe. KCM involves the government and public as well as us. KCM has its own legal team and what we do, we do with proper governance and transparency. There is strong law and nobody is allowed to do anything that is not right.’
Tom Albanese added that he believed in his heart that KCM is a better company and a better employer than it was when it was controlled by the government, which had under-invested since Zambian independence as it did not have the money. Vedanta’s chairman himself had funded improvements. There had been no water pollution control at the time Vedanta took over. The company had put in the most modern sulphur capture equipment at the smelter. ‘We have not arrived at zero harm,’ he said, ‘but we are going in that direction.’
Both Tom Alabanese and Anil Agarwal claimed that they had no wish to hide anything and that there was no hidden finance that they have avoided to report. Tom Albanese said that he knows of nothing more than what he has already presented in his report. Anil Agarwal supported him and said that they did their best to keep everything transparent and open to shareholders. He then added:
‘Yes, I have seen people were playing music and making noise outside the AGM. I don’t know why they are doing so. If you don’t believe me, I can only advise you, you need to visit the areas yourself and then tell me what you have found there. You cannot know what is happening there without paying a visit to the communities. If you do not believe my words, I cannot do anything about this. I can only say what I know about. It is upto you whom you will believe. There is nothing that I can do if you say that I am wrong. It is your liberty to believe whom you like to believe. If you want to believe the other version of the story, you can do. I can only say that we are committed to do no harm. We are working on the issues and some damages that have happened. I am confident that we can reach to our ‘zero harm’ promise in five to ten years time.’
I picked up the point and answered without microphone: ‘Mr Chariman I appreciate your wish to do no harm but you are aware that you have already done harms to people. You are saying that you want to reach zero harm after doing so much damage and abuse to people. You are saying that you want to stay for another five years but people don’t want you for another year, they don’t even want you for a day there. You have seen the outcry of people outside the AGM. They are saying that they want to kick Vedanta out today. They don’t want you there because of the harms that you have already done to them.’
Anil Agarwal replied, as fantasised, that ‘we are committed to do zero harm and damage to people but we are not saying that no harm has been done. Despite our continuous effort to avoid damage, we have received reports of some damages which could not be helped. You know that any development projects and technological development involve some risks which could not be totally avoided. But I am committed that our company will work on this and we will overcome these damages in future.’
Tom Albanese added, ‘I see fifty years of efforts to come, and we are keeping the largest employer in Zambia afloat.’
I gave in and wanted to take a break so microphone went to someone else.
Several other shareholders raised the issue of ongoing abuse of communities by the company. Some have expressed their concerns to the company reputation as situation is not improving for years. One has expressed his frustration over the answers to his questions from the board for several years which, in his views, discouraged him to ask a question. One (company agent) has accused some of us are causing trouble in the AGM.
This shareholder addressed the board as “Sirs” and said that he had been listening to the ‘dialogues’ at the AGM and that these were not really questions and answers. For him, ‘shareholders could have dialogues with the board elsewhere, in “private”‘. People were at the AGM to ask questions on the annual report, and if people were not happy, they should present their views elsewhere, not at the AGM.’ He continued, saying that he had got a fright when the share price went down below £2. He then asked a question about bonuses. During his speech two women shareholders behind me had left the meeting room, and a peer sitting in front of me has smiled while the other peer two rows behind me had nodded off.
There were irritations, frustrations and heated discussions that I do not aim to note word by word here to void killing reader’s time. One community member from Niyamgiri said the the board is doing utter lies to the shareholders. Two of our friends raised questioned in relation to the Buxi. One had asked a long question which in short was as below:
The Buxi Commission report on the Korba Chimney disaster, which found BALCO guilty of negligence causing at least 40 workers deaths, has now been leaked to the public. Why are you still trying to suppress this report? Anil Agarwal and his CEO had totally misinterpreted the question or deliberately denied to pretend that they did answer his question to their level best. At this point two shareholders who had visited mine sites in India and Zambia had illustrated the differences between the reality and the fantasy of the annual report. They have come back to report on what they had seen. They asked, when will you close down Lanjigarh refinery which has now been operating at a loss for too long due to lack of raw material? At one point a questioner noted he ‘had shown the company’s shiny new “sustainable development” [sic] report to villagers who were shocked by its contents, noting that one person quoted in it – fulsomely praising the company – did not exist in the village to which he was attributed.
The board’s primary response was that they would investigate. But this caused more frustration in heated discussions rather than hope, because this was what had been promised before. One shareholder, raising the issue of the appalling lack of health and safety at the Bodai-Daldali mine in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh noted the issues had been reported before, with promises of investigation, but little seemed to change. Vedanta’s CEO, Tom Albanese, said he was shocked by what he had seen (although the Chair Anil Agarwal seemed to suggest the footage may not be genuine). As was pointed out by the shareholder, it seems head office booked inspection visits in advance; maybe if they really wanted to see what was going on perhaps they should pop along unannounced?
After two hours of heated discussions by dissident shareholders and the failure of the board to address the issues in relation to Niyamgiri and Zambia, I got the microphone again and followed from an unresolved question. The microphone was given to me after I waited, patiently, for nearly 30 mins. It was finally Anil Agarwal who asked the person with the roving microphone to give the microphone to me. At this stage he was not only fantasising but also attempted to flatter and flirt with us. Anil Agarwal said to the microphone holder: ‘give it to the girl, this young girl here’!
I said: Thank you for giving me the microphone again!
Anil Agarwal smiled at me and said: ‘you are welcome. I like girls. Girls are good.’
I said: I am not a girl anymore!
Anil Agarwal said: oh, I know. You are not a girl. You are a lady.
I said: Actually, I am a woman. I am quite old!
Anil Agarwal, Tom Albanese and Deepak Kumar laughed. Anil Agarwal said: oh, you are old?
I did not tell him what’s my correct age but I pointed out that if he wished to flirt, he would have to flirt with an old woman.
He changed the topic and said: you are an academic. I like academics’.
I said: I am a researcher and a community activist.
Anil Agarwal said: yes, yes, researcher. Research is good profession.
He was clearly judging my work or me, nevertheless, we let it go. As I wanted to move on to my point, Agarwal interrupted me again and said: You are from Bangladesh, right?
I said: yes, that’s correct.
He said: I love Bangladesh. I am very fond of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a nice country. It is rich in natural resources. It has gas, oil, coal and other mineral resources.
I said: indeed, yes. But you are not welcome to Bangladesh. I am not inviting you to visit Bangladesh. We don’t want your company to go there to extract our natural resources in Bangladesh. We are rich in natural resources but we don’t want to disturb the soil and the nature by smuggling coals and gas. We don’t want any multinational corporation to exploit us and destroy our natural resources. We have been fighting multinational corporations for years and we have put a decade long halt to a massive open cast coal mine in Bangladesh that you might have heard about. I coordinate a community activist group, called the Phulbari Solidarity Group, which is working to prevent further aggression of multinational companies in Bangladesh. We will be celebrating ten years of resistance in Phulbari and in London on 26th August this year. You can come to our London protest to be held on 26 August, if you like. You can also come to visit my home in the UK, and I can cook for you if you wish to have a Bengali dinner. But you are not welcome to Bangladesh.
Anil Agarwal and his board members looked terribly uncomfortable. Agarwal lost words as being embarrassed. He only nodded head by indicating that he got the message.
Then I continued, and said: my question is related to my dissident shareholder Samarendra Das who has given us some extremely important information which I found immensely useful. Unlike you, I was not bored. I am rather grateful to him for providing us those useful information that enriched my knowledge on the subject. You said to Mr Das that you don’t have anything to do with Niyamgiri. My question is: will you do a fresh press statement by clarifying that Vedanta will never go back to Niyamgiri in future? Can you put on an official statement on your website by stating what you have just said to Samarendra Das? Can you confirm that it is not in your interest and there will be no future interference from Vedanta in Niyamagiri?
I continued and said that my second question is also in relation to Niyamgiri: You have claimed that you will respect the decision of the people who rejected the mine, yet new Mines Minister Piyush Goyal has been making statements about pushing the project through. What are your intentions regarding the Niyamgiri mine? Are you still lobbying the Odisha government to overrule the democratic decision and force the mine through?
I continued and said that these two were my main questions though I would love to respond to a shareholder who appeared to have been advocating for an ill process to be practised in the annual general meeting of the company. The shareholder behind me had asked the board to prohibit people to raise open questions. He asked people to stop spending time by raising issues around how the company made its money, and only to talk about the returns to investors and financial issues. Yet he then proceeded to do at great length. In his opinion, we should only raise questions based on the annual report produced and distributed by the company executives. He suggested that we should not comment on anything else, and that any discussion beyond the annual report should be discussed outside the AGM and in private. He thought that we were having a dialogue with the board which he suggested to do in private. He also claimed that dissident shareholders were bored by many questions that some of us have been raising in the AGM today.
I objected to his suggestions and said that ‘we should develop appropriate ethos that enables an environment to discuss complicated issues and complex truth openly. Multinational corporations must practice transparency and the Vedanta board should be accountable to all shareholders rather than only producing an annual report distributed to us. The company should follow “good” corporate “ethics” which would allow space for any discussion related to the company to take place in the same room where the AGM is taking place so that all shareholders and people involved in the company can be aware of what is happening in reality.’
‘The shareholder who found our questions and comments are “dialogues” between you (the board) and us (as community representatives) is wrong. We are not here for a dialogue with you. We are here to report the abuse that your company has done to people in various countries. We are here to place oral complaints on behalf of the communities. We are here to question you about why you are overlooking these important issues. There is nothing to get bored about. The shareholder who complained that other shareholders have left the room because they were bored by our allegations against the company did not notice that two people behind me left the meeting during his speech. I have an eye witness here [indicating the security guard/peer who sat in front of me] who noticed this and exchanged a smile with me as the shareholder appeared mistaken.
‘People can leave a meeting room for many reasons. Sometimes they might be busy and may have other commitments and appointments that make them leave the room. Other times they might be bored. It is possible that people were bored by the senior shareholder’s speech. It is also possible that some people did not like what we are discussing here. But we have to continue raising all of these issues right here.’
The shareholder who complained about our interrogation and addressed the board members as ‘Sirs’ appeared as an academic at LSE, got furious to me at this point and attempted to interfere during my objection to his deliberate allegation against us. He stood up in the midst of my speech and shouted, despite request of the board to wait, pointing at me disapprovingly. He was asked by board members to allow me to finish my remarks. He raised his two pointing fingers to me and swore by words that I couldn’t hear as I was on the microphone. I continued with my speech and told him that I hardly bothered his unexpected ill-manner and threats. I said that I was there to represent large number of effected communities who cannot be silenced by his masculinity and ill manner. I said that I would continue to speak with all of the shareholders in the room, and not only to the board.
I told: ‘Put your fingers down now. I have the right to speak about everything that is related to the company. We ought to do the interrogation right in the AGM, not outside the room. I do not want to have a private meeting about these general issues which all other shareholders have the right to know. I am here to not only speak to the board members but also to share information with shareholders present in the room. I will speak to all shareholders on behalf of the communities in Odisha and Zambia, and I will speak with permission of the board.’
The entire meeting room was silent during my speech, and some nodded heads in support of what I said to the misbehaving shareholder from LSE. The board looked truly anxious as they feared further disruption. After my last comments, Tom Albanese and Anil Agarwal told that they want to continue the practice of discussing things openly in the AGM. Albanese said: ‘we encourage people to speak openly and ask questions about anything that the shareholders are concerned about.’ Anil Agarwal repeated the words that People have the freedom to discuss all matters that they like to discuss in the AGM. ‘We believe in democracy and freedom of speech. Everybody has the liberty to talk about any aspect of the company. We believe in liberty’, he said.
The meeting had quickly wrapped up by Anil Agarwal’s call for votes. Outside the AGM protesters chanted and drummed for four hours accosting executives of the company as they entered and left the AGM. When Agarwal and other board members had come out of the venue, the protesters surrounded them. But Anil Agarwarl smiled shamelessly, and his gangs left blatant. We don’t know if they will ever feel ashamed for their continuous misdeeds and abuse to communities.
The above is my personal account on what happened at the Vedanta AGM on 5 August in 2016. For further details, feel free to have a look at the detailed accounts of other dissident shareholders here .
Copyright of all of the images used in this report remains to Peter Marshall. No commercial use o the photos without permission is expected. Thank you!
Further details of protests and actions inside and outside the Vedanta AGM can be accessed from the following url links:
India, Zambia, London protest Vedanta’s AGM
A tale of two worlds – Vedanta AGM 2016
Further coverage in The Mining Journal, the New International, and Reuters.