Imagine you are sitting at the edge of a forest. The sky is blue and the sun beats down. Leaves sway in the wind. Birds call. You look out across to the small cluster of huts you call your village. Off to the left, a hill rises, dense with lush vegetation, the only point that seems to have the power to summon a small cloud. Your people know this hill as a source of power, the abode of some god-like force that sustains the myriad life-forms that surround it. At times of great celebration, this is where your people gather.
But this hill is the site of a slow and painful war that is being waged against your people by forces that want your land. A global mining conglomerate, Vedanta, has already constructed some giant machinic assemblage that whirrs and grinds and releases clouds of dust… They want the hill that protects you – they want something that lives inside of it. Your people have tried to say no, have resisted and protested and obstructed the attempts to set this machine in motion. But the police have come with sticks or guns and beaten the resistance back, they have harassed the women folk, they have set fire to homes, they have thrown people in jail, mostly on false charges… And if not the police, then hired goons backed by local politicians with their pockets full of company money…
This often appears as a hopeless battle. A small tribe pitted against the relentless attempts by capital to extract value from wherever it can. But this particular tribe has a history of resistance and struggle. They circulate tales that stretch back to the time of the British invaders and the fights they put up then to prevent their forests from being taken away. Now they face a similar enemy and in some ways a more powerful one. But they don’t face this enemy entirely alone. In fact, they find themselves in alliance with others scattered across this planet – some of whom they have never seen or even heard of.
Their enemy, the mining conglomerate, is registered in the UK, a place it found refuge and welcome investors having left its home in India. But its operations are scattered across the globe, wherever mineral deposits beckon and wherever its subsidiaries can set up shop. This particular conglomerate has a history of violating the law of the land and using violence and bribes to ruthlessly get what it wants, whether this means paying off politicians, police or peasants.
Seemingly all-powerful, this beast is not invincible. But in order to realise this, it is important to get to know it more closely. And not just it, but its habitat too. This is what a group of activists operating under the banner of Foil Vedanta are busy doing. They must learn what this beast is capable of, how it holds itself together, what it depends on for its sustenance, the powers it is capable of summoning, and the traps to which it is susceptible. Take for example, the way it finances its extractive operations. Venture capital is channelled into fixed assets (mines, machinery, railroads, ports, etc.) with the expectation of ludicrous returns. Successful operationalisation of a mine secures that flow, generates the profit, allows debts to be repaid, and helps fuel the next round of investments. Failure to operationalise the mine makes repayment of loans difficult – and this damages the companies credit ratings, raises eyebrows and makes it harder for the company to get loans for further investments.
Of course, if this happens in one location, the company can try to offset its losses by pursuing other mining opportunities… but these take time to set in motion and require more capital. Alternatively the company can try to use revenues from its other operations to service or even repay the loans it has taken – but this will damage the company’s value in stock markets, lower its credit ratings and so make credit harder to come by… Another option is to buy out other mining companies or jointly invest in other ventures that will help ease the cash flow. But all these options entail an acceptance of a significant loss. The beast is angry if anyone refuses it a meal. So Vedanta’s first strategy is to forcefully displace the people opposing the mine (and then of course, to launch a PR campaign).
The refusal to be displaced is no simple feat. Struggle is exhausting. Bones get broken. Families get separated by prison walls, or divided when one brother accepts a bribe from the company. There is a continuous anxiety. The need to remain alert at all times, ever vigilant for the descent of company goons… But this struggle has lasted more than 10 years.
International NGOs have come and gone, their awkward mix of advocacy and a shallow grasp of local realities producing conflicting effects. Various small left political parties also join the fray, along with a number of independent activists from India and beyond. Where the tribals have used their bodies as a weapon, to wedge open the crack, others have gathered to amplify these cracks, to connect them into a global network of rifts that lurk beneath the smooth corporate facade of the mining conglomerate.
These rifts are the fault lines that define the composition of this mineral-hungry nomadic war machine and its sources of sustenance (be they mineral, legal, financial or human). They are the precarious conditions of its contingent and very material existence. They have to do with tribal people, forested hills, rivers, toxic chemicals, hydro-electric dams, the legal system, a global network of activists, police, environmental regulations, politicians, investigative journalists, video-cameras, venture capitalists, pension schemes, newspapers, high court judges, loan repayments, geo-politics and much more – and what each of these demands and is capable of. The fault lines are abundant but they are only faint to begin with. They require hard, exhausting and committed work to discover, hold open, widen, extend and link them to each other. And this is precisely what has been happening.
Today the mining conglomerate struggles to make progress on its various extractive ventures across the globe thanks to a global network of activists working in solidarity with local community groups. Together, this motley band of bodies working on a shoe-string are tackling one of the world’s most formidable foes. This is not just defensive; it is an offensive. The fault-lines reach deep into the heart of the beast and point to the very conditions of its own existence and reveal it not as omnipotent but as vulnerable and precarious in its own right. Becoming a spanner in the works, then, is the key to dismantling the monsters that feed the capitalist system: first to block the machine and then to take it apart. And in the space that opens up, amidst the debris, lies the possibility of a better world.