Court to rule on jurisdiction in Vedanta case

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

Lower courts had upheld the jurisdiction of U.K. 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.

Release of effluents

The villagers, represented by U.K. law firm Leigh Day, say that their water sources and farming land have been contaminated due to the release of by-products from KCM’s copper mining operations over the past 15 years, resulting in health problems to the people and harm to their crops. Their lawyers are set to argue that the case can be heard in the U.K. 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 that their case is impacted by the decision of Vedanta Resources to de-list in London last year.

“Our clients continue to suffer form 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 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.”

“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.

Acquisition in 2004

The claims date back to 2004, when Vedanta Resources Holdings Limited, a subsidiary of Vedanta, acquired a 51% stake in KCM, and gradually increased its stake. The villagers allege that both Vedanta and KCM were aware of the discharge of harmful effluents into the waterways that they used as their primary source of clean water. They point to studies, including a 2014 Zambian government report that noted high levels of toxicity.

Arguments also centre on whether the villagers would be able to properly pursue the case in Zambia, with the judge in the initial case concluding that 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 our twelve years of legal campaigning in Zambia, nothing has been done to improve the desperate situation for the most affected communities…” said Zambian campaigners George Mumbi and Esson Simbeys.

Many campaign groups, including Foil Vedanta, are expected to protest outside the court. “While the… 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.