Hindustan Zinc and Corporate Social (Ir)Responsibility
This essay on multispecies grief is the sixth piece in the Violent Environments series, which explores how violence is enacted through, for, and on environmental spaces, including land, water, and air. Series editors: Kristen Billings, Rebecca Laurent, and Rudy Molinek.
In Rajasthan, a mostly arid state in northwest India, the perennial Babool trees are a distinct feature of the landscape. Babool is a thorny, invasive species of tree that flourishes in arid, degraded land. In some cases, these trees have proliferated and occupied entire agricultural fields along with other wild shrubs and grasses. Jhumki bai, from village Bichhri, owns a half acre of agricultural land and says that, “if you dig the soil, after fifteen feet you will get red colored water. No crop grows on that land now, only babool trees grow there now.”
Her experience is common to several farmers living in this region of Udaipur, the southernmost district of Rajasthan.
In 2021 and 2022, while conducting fieldwork in Udaipur, I came across these Babool trees dotting several village fields. While I was there, I spoke with locals about contaminated water, degraded soil, and the corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs meant to mitigate those harms. In the villages of Bichhri, Sinhara, Bhallon ka Gurha, Tulsidas ji ki Sarai and several other hamlets, community members experience varying degrees of environmental violence. Common complaints include water tasting like “acid” (a term used locally signifying a bitter or salty taste), hard soil with low fertility, a white salt-like layer on agricultural land, and the inability to grow fruit and vegetable crops.
When asked the reason behind this contamination, villagers claim that the Hindustan Zinc Limited (HZL) smelter located in nearby Debari is responsible. Founded in 1966, HZL is the world’s second largest zinc producer and is soon to be fully privatized through Vedanta Resources, a company with a history of environmental violations in Zambia and several other parts of India. Bhanwar Lal from Sejon ki Bhagal explains that during the wee hours of the morning, “the gas released by the factory engulfs our fields. The situation is so bad that you cannot stand in the fields at the time. Your head will start to hurt, and your eyes will start watering. If it rains then the toxic mist is cleared but otherwise this mist hangs upon our fields.”
Smelting activities have harmed community members in multiple ways—affecting their livelihoods by damaging their fields, restricting their ability to grow safe and healthy food, contaminating groundwater sources, and affecting their physical health. The harm has been gradual with several villagers reporting a steady and incremental deterioration of water and land resources.
The Promises of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
Despite these environmental harms, HZL has a strong presence in the lives of the local villagers through CSR initiatives. In India, some companies are mandated to spend at least two percent of their average net profit on CSR initiatives. Recently, due to this legal requirement, HZL’s CSR efforts have increased in the area surrounding the Debari factory.
HZL has collaborated with several civil organizations to implement various CSR projects. Under its Sakhi project, HZL supports self-help groups (SHGs) by offering affordable credit to women—either through banks or directly through HZL. The Samadhan project focuses on agriculture and livestock development, enrolling farmers in producer companies and providing them with innovations for increased crop yield and livestock improvement. In education, the Khushi project supports the infrastructure of childcare centers for children under the age of six years. Beyond these grand projects, HZL also supports physical infrastructure development by contributing to the construction of community halls and improving places like government school premises. Several buildings in the villages around Debari bear the HZL and Vedanta logo, signifying the embeddedness of the mining company in local lives.
While these CSR activities look great on paper, the ground reality is quite bleak. Visiting one of the anganwadis (childcare centers) revealed that even though HZL provides the centers with water purifiers, the quality of water is so bad that after a year or so the purifiers stopped working. At a government school bearing the HZL/Vedanta logo, these companies have taken no measures to provide potable water to the students. The school cook, who prepares the daily lunch for the children, says that there is no option but to use sub-par water from the hand-pump on the premises, which is so salty that she often doesn’t need to add salt to the cooked meal.
CSR in Practice
In response to the community’s complaints of water contamination, HZL began installing automated filtered water dispensing units (also known as “water ATMS”) in a few villages and hamlets. The catch? People have to pay money to get this water. At six rupees for twenty liters, several people in villages that have the water ATMs find the water unaffordable. For these people, the only option is to keep using contaminated groundwater.
Moreover, these water ATMs have not been installed in all villages or hamlets where people are facing contamination issues. In villages without these water ATMs, HZL sometimes sends water tankers to fulfill the household water needs of the community. This arrangement is far from perfect. Tanker visits to villages are irregular and insufficient. In the hamlet of Thorya Magri, community members claim that tankers arrive every ten days; however, the community needs fresh water every three days. On top of this, the tankers do not follow a clear schedule, resulting in several households missing them. Also, several houses are so far from the tanker stop that by the time tankers show up, there is no water left. Women share that oftentimes this discrepancy in the supply and demand of water results in scuffles among community members in several hamlets.
For villagers who rely on the tanker for their water needs, it is a dream to have a water ATM installed in their village. But the picture is not as rosy for those who have access to water ATMs either. I spoke with Jyoti, who has a water ATM five minutes from her home in Chhota Gurah. She revealed that often there was no water in the ATM. Also, for the last six months the ATM deducted payment from a person’s ATM card, even when there was no water inside the machine. Many people have lost money to the machine this way. Despite various complaints to the HZL CSR field staff, this error has not been fixed.
Kanku bai, a cook at a government school, shared that the nearest water ATM from the school is two kilometers away and has been lying defunct for almost a year now. She also shared that some people had broken the ATM and it had not been fixed since. According to her, a similar case had happened in another village and in that case, after villagers complained to HZL, a collective investigation revealed that the people who broke the water ATM were local business owners who sold water campers (containers for water with a capacity of twenty liters).
Since the HZL water ATMs provide water at a lower price than the prevailing market rate, twenty rupees for twenty liters, water camper sellers’ business has suffered, possibly leading to similar instances of vandalism. These cases highlight that the mere installation of water ATMs does not resolve the water contamination problem for local communities. Inadequate maintenance and local politics can hamper access to safe and clean water for many.
Voices of Dissent
The environmental pollution that villagers around Debari are experiencing and their response to it stands in sharp contrast to a similar historical case. In the late 1980s, the village of Bichhri was at the receiving end of another environmental disaster as a group of chemical factories wreaked havoc on the local ecosystem. The production of harmful chemicals by two H-acid units (used in the production of dyestuff) and the irresponsible disposal of effluents contaminated the aquifers of the neighboring villages to such an extent that well water turned red, even black in some cases. Cattle fell sick, and the effluent turned the agricultural areas into wastelands.
Public outrage ensued with the local community staging protests and filing complaints with the local administration. Ultimately, a Supreme Court order shut down all the factories after years of conflict. Despite a successful people’s movement that brought about the demise of a local industrial group, present day villagers in Bichhri have not engaged in any community organizing or citizen action.
Speaking to some of them indicates a lack of belief in their collective strength. As an older villager from Thorya Magri, who had participated in the protest of the 1990s, exclaimed, “we are like small ants in front of an elephant like Hindustan Zinc. How can we ever think of taking them on!?” Radhey Shyam, the son a leader from the 1990s protest, expressed a similar sentiment saying that HZL “is a huge corporation which even the government won’t be able to touch—they create so many jobs and pay Rs.1,500 crore in taxes so even the government will be wary of taking any action against them.” He also pointed out that HZL’s CSR work is strategic. The company makes it a point to share photos of its CSR activities far and wide, framing its outreach as improving the lives and prosperity of the local community.
Despite the absence of structured community action against HZL, people exercise their agency in other ways. Often, SHGs become spaces where women demand the installation of water ATMs in their communities. HZL CSR field staff pay frequent visits to the fortnightly SHG meetings and are aware of these demands. Their presence often sparks heated discussion on water contamination issues and the obligation of HZL to fulfill the needs of the community. But it seems that HZL’s efforts to mobilize villagers into community groups, like SHGs, act instead as a form of managing dissent, rather than a good faith effort to address problems.
Community members are often advised by HZL CSR field staff to follow proper procedure to get their complaints addressed. By engaging them in bureaucratic processes and channels of communication, the company keeps community agitation in check. The irony is that even though community members realize that HZL is contaminating their environment, the company’s embeddedness in village affairs results in the community looking up to HZL for solutions, creating a perpetual dependency that is hard to break.
The situation in villages surrounding Debari presents a case of how the corporations responsible for environmental pollution can often use CSR programs as a way to gloss over the harm they are doing to the local communities and ecosystems. HZL highlights their CSR activities as making a meaningful difference to local communities, but they rarely address the root cause of its environmental contamination and often create tensions among community members. And, even though the initiatives undertaken in the name of CSR might work in creating a surface-level environmental change, community members continue to suffer from deeper harms that affect their basic, urgent needs. This form of slow violence not only damages the environment steadily over a period of time, but it also breaks down the innate collective strength of local people by reinforcing community dependence on the perpetrators of this violence.
Featured Image: Agricultural fields rendered infertile by chemical pollution. Photo by Prerna Rana, 2022.
Author’s Note: All names of community members in this essay are pseudonyms.
Prerna Rana is a Ph.D. student in Civil Society and Community Studies at the School of Human Ecology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her dissertation research is an ethnographic study that explores power and the politics of community development practice in the contested spaces of civil society, as understood from the operations of a community organization in rural Rajasthan in India. Contact.