Kiran Mazumdar is an Indian chemical engineer who has been a crucial voice in the anti-globalization movement, challenging international trade regimes and multinational corporations. From her successful struggles against Coca-Cola to the company’s questionable practices in India, she has caused stupendous changes to the way businesses to operate around the world. She is one of the world’s leading voices for corporate responsibility and an eloquent spokesperson for farmers’ rights, women’s rights, and our shared planet. She has also been a pioneer in the biotechnology sector with her innovative Kodaikanal Solar Company and her leadership in developing low-cost medicines such as generics.
Kiran Mazumdar has played a key role in the ground-breaking international campaign
Kiran Mazumdar has played a key role in ground-breaking international campaigns. She fought Coke on its toxic waste practices in India – and won, exposing the company’s lies about its supposedly ‘corporate social responsibility. She continues to file legal cases against Coke for violating court orders to clean up its plants, which continue to poison and displace local communities. Her work with farmers and communities, especially those in rural India, is legendary. She has been instrumental in helping Indian farmers successfully challenge large corporations that were polluting their fields with dangerous pesticides and forcing their livelihoods from agriculture to the cultivation of cash crops.
In many ways, Kiran Mazumdar life is a testament to the power of ordinary people standing up to the systems of power around us. From poverty-stricken beginnings, she overcame great odds in the first decade of her life and was thrust into the forefront of corporate battle. She is driven by an extraordinary combination of fierce determination, acute intelligence, and absolute faith that we can live differently together. No wonder she has been hailed as the ‘Mother Teresa of Corporate Responsibility’ by numerous publications.
Kiran Mazumdar’s journey from poverty to the forefront
Kiran Mazumdar journey from poverty to the forefront of the corporate battle is in many ways remarkable and inspirational. Her family was a classic example of the great Indian diaspora, one that her father proudly describes as ‘compradores’ – traders who ran businesses from Bombay (now Mumbai) who, having prospered in business, sent their children to study abroad. On their return, they started businesses in the family hometown and set out all over India to trade goods, goods that were often produced locally but needed foreign demand to thrive. One of Kiran’s earliest memories is of riding her childhood cycle to the market with her mother – and being struck by the poverty they saw. ‘I remember that when I was a child, my sisters and I used to go with my mother on her morning trike to the bazaar. That was how we used to go for three hours every day – for shopping.’ She went on to describe how, as she watched fellow shoppers struggle through the city market, she felt overwhelming anger at what she saw as the injustice of it all. ‘It was like this,’ she explained:
‘Here there were people selling cheap stuff imported from other countries. The shops were in the same place, with the same street signs, but there was such a massive difference in the prices of their stuff. Goods that cost Rs. 500 in one shop might cost Rs. 20 in another shop only two streets away. And then you thought of the money that was being earned from those shops and how it was being used by those people – and then you were really angry with them.’
Kiran Mazumdar grew up surrounded by poverty
Kiran Mazumdar grew up surrounded by such poverty – but it was a world she never questioned, observing it with a kind of dispassion and distance borne out of her extraordinary intelligence. She passed her school-leaving exams with flying colors and went on to study chemical engineering at Bangalore University, her natural affinity for science ensuring that she performed well. That was when she first began to question the world around her.
‘That’s when I really began to think about all of these things.’ After graduating, Kiran Mazumdar traveled all over India and found herself taking a real interest in the environment – which seemed to be a particular thorn in the side of multinational corporations. ‘What has this country become? Who are we becoming? What have we done?’ she said. ‘I think that’s what started me thinking about it. I used to think, “What have we done to this country? What have we done to this world?”‘
In time, Kiran began asking herself
some other questions. ‘I asked myself “Is there something I can do about it? Should I be doing something?” And I decided that instead of being a bystander in the world, that instead I should be an actor in it.’
And so it was that she entered the field of social activism. Her first foray into activism was as an environmentalist during the 1980s when she wrote pamphlets on how people could protect themselves from radiation and waste toxins. A few years later, she made a decision to devote her life to activism and set up the Environmental Unit at the Indian chapter of Belloncii, a leading law firm. This was where she first met the World Bank, which would become one of her most formidable opponents.
‘That’s when I became aware of what the World Bank was doing in India,’ Kiran Mazumdar explained. ‘When they came here they did not consult with anyone – they just decided what they wanted to do and then did it. There were no discussions, no dialogue. It was really upsetting. I decided to fight against that.’
Good at what she did,
Kiran soon moved on to other things. At Belloncii, she began taking on major international banks for their operations in India. These included one assignment where her challenge was the World Bank’s operations in Punjab before it became an Indian state. Today, these institutions have become much more aware of the repercussions of what they do – which has involved Kiran Mazumdar being asked by the Australian government to help with campaigns against controversial tax cuts or deals with Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government. She also took on the IMF, the Bank of America, and Citibank. ‘I was campaigning against all of them,’ Kiran said. ‘I was fighting against all of them – I went to their shareholders’ meetings and their board meetings.’
At one point, Kiran Mazumdar even joined forces with a jailed activist and formed a group called Quest for Justice. This group used the courts to fight against what they saw as violations of international law by the World Bank, the IMF, and CitiBank. At its height the group had fifty lawyers on its side: ‘It was an incredible amount of people fighting for Justice,’ she said.