human rights & business (and a few other things)

Michelin in India: Radicalisation against Radialisation

It is a pleasure to welcome my colleague Dr David Keane as the first guest poster on ‘Rights as Usual’.  David is the author of  Caste-based Discrimination in International Human Rights Law (Ashgate, 2007). This post is his.


A wave of ‘radialisation’ in India, or the manufacture of tyres using the radial design, led the French tyre company Michelin to start building a plant near the village of Thervoy Kandigai, in the Tamil Nadu state of India in November 2009. The subsequent two years have seen widespread protest at the destruction and degradation to the forest and surrounding environment being caused by the plant’s construction, culminating in the recent joint complaint from French and Indian NGOs to the French OECD National Contact Point for violation of the rights of the community.

The complainants, including Sherpa, CCFD-Terre Solidaire and the Tamil Nadu Land Rights Federation, argue that the creation of the industrial zone has led to the destruction of the 450 hectares of forest that is a source of agricultural and pastoral activities, with the area leased to Michelin situated on a major drainage basin that supplies three natural lakes with major sources of water for agriculture in the area. In addition: “the local authorities have made available these lands to the company without any prior consultation with the local villagers, a mainly Dalit (Untouchables, according to the Indian caste system) community who has been living there for over two hundred years.”

The caste angle has been raised in media commentary on the question. Thus Radio France Internationale reports “Indian ‘untouchables’ threatened by Michelin tyre factory” in their headline, while Rainforest Rescue similarly proclaim their support for “No Michelin Factory in the Forest of the ‘Untouchables’”.  The industry commentator Tyre Press explains that the NGOs are accusing the tyre maker of “not taking the needs and heritage of the local Dalit people – better known to the world as the Untouchable caste – into adequate consideration”.

The Hindu caste system is notoriously complex, and this is reflected in its changing nomenclatures. However the word ‘untouchable’ is no longer acceptable, and has not been for some time now. The group in question are Dalits, a Hindi term meaning ‘the oppressed’, which has been used since the 1970s to categorise those at the bottom of the Hindu caste structure, said to be some 3000 years old. Thus the context of the protest against Michelin is historically and religiously entrenched discrimination against Dalits, despite the abolition of caste-based discrimination in the 1950 Indian Constitution including the outlawing of the practice of ‘untouchability’ in its Article 17.

The right to free, prior and informed consent, the principle that a community has the right to give or withhold its consent to proposed projects that may affect the lands they customarily own, has been accepted as being requisite for development on indigenous peoples’ land, being an integral concept in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As noted by the Forest Peoples Programme, it is thus a key principle of international law between investors, companies or governments and indigenous peoples prior to the development.

However the villagers of Thervoy Kandigai probably cannot be categorised as ‘indigenous peoples’; and the right to free, prior and informed consent in international law does not extend to communities which are not indigenous. In India, the Constitution has two categories; Scheduled Castes, or Dalits, and Scheduled Tribes, or indigenous peoples. The distinction is not always a straight-forward one. But traditionally, Dalits or low castes are not considered indigenous. The debate therefore is to what extent Dalit or any other community has a right of consent over projects affecting them and their lands. At present, in Tamil Nadu state, that right is non-existent.

Michelin appears not to have engaged the local community. Its own website notes how “Michelin Group and Tamil Nadu government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for Michelin’s tyre manufacturing plant”, with no mention of community representatives or involvement.

An interesting study by Sudharsan notes how the grazing land around Thervoy Kandigai village has been a common property resource for hundreds of years. He writes that “there are state governments which have decided that no major project will be undertaken without extensive consultations with the people who will be affected and even making it mandatory for each Village Grama Sabha to give their approval”, and asks: “why cannot the same apply in Tamil Nadu?”

Sudharsan signals that the issue of forcible common property resources acquisition is resulting in unprecedented repression, evident in the spate of protests and arrests around the Michelin plant. He warns of “a grave civil war type of situation in the villages”, without legislative protection of individual and communal rights over natural resources and common property.

If Michelin believes itself to be a responsible company, it is apparent that it should implement a policy of effective consultation with people affected by its major projects.

Dr David Keane, Senior Lecturer, Middlesex University School of Law

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