UK’s SC to de­cide if Vedanta case can be taken up

Vil­lagers al­lege wa­ter sources have been con­tam­i­nated by cop­per min­ing, caus­ing health prob­lems and harm­ing their crops

The Hindu Business Line - - NEWS - VIDYA RAM

Bri­tain’s Supreme Court will de­cide if over 1,800 Zam­bian vil­lagers can take Vedanta and its Zam­bian sub­sidiary, Konkola Cop­per Mines, to court in the UK over al­le­ga­tions re­lat­ing to the pol­lu­tion of a river there.

Lower courts pre­vi­ously up­held the ju­ris­dic­tion of the UK courts in the case, which Vedanta has ap­pealed all the way up to the Supreme Court. The is­sue will be heard on Tues­day and Wed­nes­day, with a de­ci­sion po­ten­tially ex­pected by April.

The vil­lagers, rep­re­sented by UK law firm Leigh Day, say that their wa­ter sources and farm land have been con­tam­i­nated by prod­uct from KCM’s cop­per min­ing op­er­a­tion over the past 15 years, re­sult­ing in health prob­lems and harm to crops. Their lawyers are set to ar­gue that the case can be heard in the UK, where Vedanta re­mains domi­ciled, be­cause the com­pany should bear equal re­spon­si­bil­ity for the dam­age.

In 2017, the Court of Ap­peal up­held the 2016 judg­ment of a lower court, en­abling the case to go ahead. The lawyers for the vil­lagers do not be­lieve their case is im­pacted by the de­ci­sion of Vedanta Re­sources to delist in Lon­don last year. “Our clients con­tinue to suf­fer from the ef­fects of the pol­lu­tion, both on their health and their liveli­hoods,” said Oliver Hol­land of Leigh Day. “The clients first came to us al­most four years ago and we are, very un­for­tu­nately, still deal­ing with a pre­lim­i­nary is­sue, which has pre­vented our clients’ claims A view of the Konkola Cop­per Mines in Zam­bia. Vil­lagers al­lege that both Vedanta and KCM were aware of the dis­charge of harm­ful ef­flu­ent into the wa­ter­ways, which the vil­lagers use for drink­ing, bathing, cook­ing, clean­ing, and other pur­poses

from mov­ing for­ward. We hope that if the Supreme Court al­lows the claims to pro­ceed in this ju­ris­dic­tion, that Vedanta will then come to the ta­ble speed­ily to re­solve these claims,” he added.

“Vedanta and KCM be­lieve that the Zam­bian court sys­tem is the nat­u­ral fo­rum for the hear­ing of the claims. KCM, the op­er­at­ing com­pany, is domi­ciled in

Zam­bia, and all of its op­er­a­tions are lo­cated in Zam­bia, and that is where the claimant com­mu­ni­ties live and the al­leged claims arise,” said Vedanta and KCM in a state­ment ahead of the hear­ing.

‘Aware of toxic ef­flu­ents’

The claims date back to 2004, when Vedanta Re­sources Hold­ings Lim­ited, a sub­sidiary of Vedanta, ac­quired a 51-per cent stake in KCM, and then grad­u­ally in­creased its stake. The vil­lagers al­lege that both Vedanta and KCM were aware of the dis­charge of harm­ful ef­flu­ent into the wa­ter­ways, which the vil­lagers used as their pri­mary source of clean wa­ter for drink­ing, bathing, cook­ing, clean­ing, and other pur­poses, and point to stud­ies — in­clud­ing a 2014 Zam­bian gov­ern­ment re­port — that noted high lev­els of tox­i­c­ity.

They ar­gue that Vedanta failed in its duty of care, and they are pur­su­ing the case in the UK be­cause of the par­ent firm’s lo­ca­tion here. Vedanta and KCM sought to chal­lenge this, in­sist­ing the en­tire fo­cus of the case is on Zam­bia and ought to be heard there. Ar­gu­ments also cen­tred on whether the vil­lagers — many with very lim­ited re­sources, fi­nan­cial and oth­er­wise — would be able to prop­erly pur­sue the case in Zam­bia, with the judge in the ini­tial case con­clud­ing that if they pur­sued KCM in Zam­bia there was a risk they would “not ob­tain jus­tice.”

Vil­lagers along the River Ka­fue, as well as Chin­gola res­i­dents, have suf­fered se­vere pol­lu­tion of wa­ter re­sources ever since Vedanta took over the mines. De­spite 12 years of le­gal cam­paign­ing in Zam­bia, noth­ing has been done to im­prove the des­per­ate sit­u­a­tion for the most af­fected com­mu­ni­ties, where the land is poi­soned and peo­ple are very sick, said Zam­bian cam­paign­ers from Chin­gola, Ge­orge Mumbi and Es­son Sim­b­eye, ahead of the hear­ing.

Cam­paign groups, in­clud­ing Foil Vedanta, are ex­pected to protest out­side the hear­ings. “While the fi­nan­cial and ma­te­rial gains from cop­per have been al­lowed to flow seam­lessly out of the coun­try, jus­tice risks be­ing re­stricted by eco­nomic and in­sti­tu­tional bar­ri­ers of ter­ri­to­ri­al­ity,” said Sa­maren­dra Das of Foil Vedanta.

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