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I have been meaning to write this piece for over a year.
Most journalists, most writers, have that — a piece that got away. A seemingly brilliant short story pitch that, never having touched the page, remains but boundless potential; an in-depth investigation that sourcing, timing, or sharply limited attention spans prevented from materializing. Tales big and small that, for one reason or another, slipped between the cracks, falling into some inaccessible mental crevice like loose change in a worn-out leather couch. Never to be seen, never to be told.
This is a sketch of one such story, one I never got to write when I first penned a column for The Crimson and threw myself to the consistently depressing endeavor of analyzing the moral character of the donors who bless our halls with their hollow philanthropy. The story of Lakshmi Mittal, the billionaire endower of Harvard’s Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute — and my own personal journalistic loose change.
Within the pantheon of questionable Harvard donors, Mittal strikes me as a particularly fascinating little monster. The British-based Indian billionaire, once dubbed Europe’s wealthiest man, sits atop (and, before passing the baton to his son, served as CEO of) ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel producer outside of China. His isn’t a single damning story but rather a tangle thereof — a collection of implicating reports, rumors, and anecdotes. An incriminating web so vast in scope and breadth that a full account would require not a weekly column but a thick, thoroughly annotated encyclopedic volume.
Let’s, for the sake of brevity and my editors’ sanity, zoom into a single useful example — one that starts with a secret letter and caps off with toxic, black snowfall.
Bucharest, Romania. July 20, 2001: Mittal’s company, then LNM holdings, finds itself at risk of missing out on the acquisition of a prominent Romanian state-owned steel plant. French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin is thought to be pressuring the Romanian government to choose French rival bidders. Having failed to secure the deal, Mittal flies from Bucharest to London. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair had ties to Mittal — a prominent donor who had supported his Labour party in the 1997 elections and extended a check for £125,000 only weeks prior. Blair, despite initial statements to the contrary, was almost certainly aware that Mittal was a prominent Labour benefactor with mile-deep pockets; roughly a month prior, the two had attended the same thank-you party for Labour donors at an elegant London mansion.
Within three days, as Jospin arrives in Bucharest to lobby the French cause, Blair pens a congratulatory letter to Romanian leadership, thoughtfully drafted in the past tense, encouraging the sale to Mittal as if the contentious decision had already been finalized. In it, Blair falsely describes the Dutch-Antilles registered LNM as a “British company,” suggests that the purchase would facilitate Romania’s path to European Union membership, and, in an early draft, even dubs Mittal “a friend” (the warm sign-off was removed before Blair’s signing).
Blair’s decision to write the letter — supporting a bid by a private, non-UK-based company for no reason that seemed to benefit national interests — seems inexplicable (or, as the British press pointed out after the leak of the missive, much too explicable). But on July 25, five days after having left Bucharest empty-handed, Mittal flies back to the Romanian capital.
The deal and the Romanian steel plant are all his.
Mittal — who, like Blair, has denied any wrongdoing — continued to generously donate to Blair’s Labour for years, to the tune of millions of pounds, enough to become the party’s biggest benefactor. The relationship between the tycoon and the minister, publicized after the release of the letter, was controversial enough to inspire a scathing parliamentary motion with cross-party (including Labour) support, denouncing Mittal’s alleged labor abuses and prompting press releases from Mittal threatening to sue any media sources who hinted at impropriety.
The relationship was also profitable enough: Within years of leaving office, Blair had reinvented himself from an architect of the legally-contested invasion of Iraq into a peddler and PR representative for a variety of autocracies. Reporting by British tabloids suggested that Blair’s relationship with Mittal — chiefly a joint appearance at Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, during a foreign investors’ council — might have helped him secure a multimillion-pound advising contract with the country’s autocratic regime.
The arrangement, which Blair has denied benefiting financially from, saw the former minister help draft speeches to ‘spin’ the 2011 massacre of 15 protestors and even featured him parroting talking points about the autocracy’s progress in a darkly funny propagandistic video.
The above alone makes for a Bond-villain-like story, a tale of suspected backroom deals so flagrant that the accused’s vehement denials become comical. But tug the thread ever so gently in any direction and Mittal’s web continues to unravel.
Blair wasn’t, after all, the only one who found lucrative opportunities in his ties to Kazakh despots. Mittal’s steel empire had long held a hefty stake in Kazakhstan’s industry, becoming, at one point, the country’s single biggest employer. Blair’s government had, for reasons of indiscernible legitimacy, approved millions’ worth of development loans to ArcelorMittal’s Kazakh investments, including a $3.4 million grant signed the same month as Mittal’s infamous $125,000 donation to the Labour Party, according to 2002 reporting by the Independent.
But you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs — and you seemingly can’t build a steel fortune without a few worker deaths.
Between 2004 and 2010, over a hundred workers died while working in Mittal’s Kazakh complexes, with accusations spanning back a decade that the company’s lackluster labor and safety standards actively endangered its workers. Despite falling injury rates over the past decade (by the company’s own count), labor-related deaths still haunt ArcelorMittal’s steel workers.
Last fall, after a string of worker fatalities, the Kazakh government opened the door to outright banning ArcelorMittal’s operations in the country, with individual legislators suggesting travel bans for top management. The country’s new president — who has pivoted away from the kid-gloves-treatment his predecessor afforded ArcelorMittal — has denounced the “systemic character” of the fatal incidents.
At one of the corporation’s facilities, where six workers perished in 2021, a government inspection reportedly found 200 health and safety violations that remained unremedied a year after the tragedy.
ArcelorMittal’s societal footprint goes well beyond labor practices. Steel production is a deeply polluting if necessary industry. For the 200,000 residents of Temirtau, a town home to a prominent ArcelorMittal facility responsible for 8 percent of the country’s emissions and with hydrogen sulfide levels sometimes 11-fold higher than governmental limits, that pollution is much too visible.
By the company’s own admission, absent sufficient wind, their pollutants may fail to dissipate. In 2018 Temirtau faced a disquietingly calm winter — and with it, its first pitch-black snowfall. Tinted flakes, soaked in concentrated pollutant particles, paved the town’s streets.
A billionaire’s late Christmas gift, if you wish.
Kazakhstan is but a data point, albeit a particularly egregious one, in Mittal’s questionable global track record. Every one of the trends above is replicated elsewhere.
Unconfirmed suggestions of sketchy backroom deals to acquire natural assets? Look towards Nigeria and Mittal’s outside-of-court settlement of allegations over unpaid finder’s fees. Worker deaths linked to safety standard violations? In the U.S., ArcelorMittal’s Indiana Harbor plant alone has been fined at least twice since 2017 for OSHA violations resulting in employee deaths; similar charges have been raised in South Africa and led to a half-a-million euro fine in Spain. Meaningful environmental concerns? Head towards ArcelorMittal’s Canadian mines, or read about the French town staging a revolt against the corporation and other polluters amid record cancer rates.
A global empire indeed.
Mittal strikes me, on paper, as the sort of character a novelist would never concoct: His fortune, secrecy, and blatantly questionable multinational dealings appear almost too obvious, too close to the maligned caricature of a rent-seeking member of the global elite.
And yet, for a donation worth less than a third of the reportedly $82 million budget for his niece’s Barcelona wedding (a presumably decadent affair, like all multimillion-dollar weddings, featuring a Michelin star cook and a 60-kilogram cake), hosts of Harvard alumni will graduate into positions of power linking Mittal’s name primarily to a philanthropic devotion to academia.
The Crimson’s own coverage failed to mention Mittal’s baggage when describing his million-dollar donation to Harvard — the worker deaths and coal-tinted snowflakes that undergird the wealth he so generously chose to share; I am yet, after almost two years of searching, to find a single comprehensive profile of the infamously guarded, Davos-attending man on any major newspaper profile.
But Mittal’s story is too good to not be told – even if briefly and haphazardly by an under-slept undergraduate with few resources. His name deserves to be linked, repeatedly, and on the public record, not just to Harvard advisory councils (a common side gig for our kindest donors) but to the oft-devastating trail of his steel empire.
Mittal’s isn’t the only narrative that deserves further scrutiny — nor is every such story concerned with a comically shady philanthropist. Harvard is a key power center at the core of an often cruel world order: Our affiliates have, for better or worse, occupied some of the most powerful positions on earth; researchers within our labs and classrooms continue to stand at the forefront of revolutionary global innovation. If journalism is to be understood as an account of the powers that be, an eye on the sort that attend Davos for those who never will, Harvard will always benefit from more reporting, from more attempts to analyze or nuance that which slipped our minds but shouldn’t have.
This column is about those stories. Over the next few months, I will dive into the Harvard tales, old and new, that never got the coverage or attention they deserved. I’ll be fishing for loose change, between the cracks.
Guillermo S. Hava ’23-’24, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a Government and Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House. His column, “Between the Cracks,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.
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