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Birds of a feather

When the Satyam debacle took place early this year, there wasn’t a single news story that went without a quip on the ‘Golden Peacock Award’ bestowed upon the company for Corporate Governance the same year. Manshi Asher elaborates.

india Updated: Jun 16, 2009 21:55 IST

When the Satyam debacle took place early this year, there wasn’t a single news story that went without a quip on the ‘Golden Peacock Award’ bestowed upon the company for Corporate Governance the same year. Of course, the ‘prestigious’ award was promptly ‘stripped off’ the company causing much embarrassment to the jury. In the same year Coca-Cola, the soft drink multinational bagged the Golden Peacock for Corporate Social Responsibility amid severe protests by activists as well as communities facing the brunt of ground water pollution and over-extraction by the companies’ various plants across the country.

This year the panel of judges outdid itself and awarded the controversial Vedanta Alumina Limited, a UK-based mining company, the Golden Peacock in Environment Management for its project at Lanjigarh in Orissa. For those, especially respected members of the jury, who are unaware of the notorious reputation of the company, precisely for the same project, here are some of the well-known facts and allegations.

Like for the last six years the rural, tribal and indigenous populations of Lanjigarh have suffered enormously as a result of the company’s ambitious aluminium refinery project. The refinery has poisoned the water and air, making life miserable for local people. As per reports of the Orissa Pollution Control Board, environmental norms and clearance procedures have been violated for the same. The company proposes to mine a thickly forested hill inhabited by Dogaria Kondhs despite consistent resistance.

Not only on the Indian soil, but in Zambia, Africa as well the company has flouted official environment rules. The Norwegian government has blacklisted the company for investments due to serious malpractices and contraventions of environment norms. Based on the Norwegian government’s report, the Supreme Court of India, in 2007, had stated that it cannot take the ‘risk’ of handing such a national asset (the Niyamgiri hills in Lanjigarh) to the company for mining bauxite. Never mind that the court also allowed the company’s Indian subsidiary to carry out the mining instead.How did the ‘expert’ jury of these ‘renowned’ awards miss some of these very critical pieces of information?

Let us not fall into the trap of digging up the selection criteria and whether site visits are made to verify information provided by the companies, who apply to be considered for the award. Let us instead remind ourselves that the constituents, sponsors and members of the institutions that organise these awards are none other than the awardees themselves, if not of their clan.

The UK-based World Environment Foundation is one of the organisers and the other is the Institute of Directors, New Delhi.

Several former bureaucrats, judges and corporate stalwarts are part of these organisations and even the jury. While many of the jury members have told the media that they had dissociated themselves from the ‘Golden Peacock’ after the Satyam controversy, or are not active on the jury, others have been silent. Perhaps what has been most unfortunate and disturbing is the government’s endorsement of these ‘private’ awards, whose credibility and efficacy needs to be viewed with caution if not suspicion.

Like every year, this year too Vedanta was to receive its award at the ‘Global Convention on Climate Change’, in mid-June in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh — the home town of London-based corporate guru Madhav Mehra, also the founder of the World Environment Foundation. The quaint Himalayan town offers the perfect setting. Surrounded by forests and mountains the peacocks can preen in their feathers and conveniently forget about the ugly side of this business. This time however, a group of activists staged a demonstration at the opening ceremony to set the record straight on Vedanta’s Golden Peacock.

The slogans were clear and straightforward ‘Stop Green washing corporate crimes’ and ‘Stop selling climate change’. Prior to the protest more than 150 organisations had written to the jury appealing for withdrawal of the award and dissociation from it. The Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh and other government officials also withdrew their participation in the event after the campaign against the award gained momentum and got media attention at the State level. While the organisers have decided to withhold and review the award, they must have realised by now that their bluff has already been called.

(Manshi Asher is a researcher and activist)

First Published: Jun 16, 2009 21:51 IST