Kitaab interview with Paranjoy Guha Thakurta: Gas Wars and Crony Capitalism in India
It is the time for parliamentary elections in India and three books, coming in a succession, have rattled the establishment in the country. These three controversial books are: “The Accidental Prime Minster – The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh”, “Crusader or Conspirator? Coalgate and other Truths” and “Gas Wars – Crony Capitalism And The Ambanis”.
A day after veteran journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta’s book, Gas Wars – Crony Capitalism and Ambanis, was launched in Delhi on April 15, 2014, Reliance Industries, one of India’s top corporate houses, sent a legal notice to the authors of the book (Guha Thakurta, Subir Ghosh and Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri). According to media reports, ‘RIL wants all existing copies – hard copy and online versions – of the book which it refers to as a “pamphlet” to be destroyed and any further publication, distribution or circulation to be stopped. RIL also wants all the publicity material about the book to be destroyed and has demanded an “unconditional public apology…in the form and manner acceptable” to RIL for “having published and disseminated false and grossly defamatory material” against Reliance’.
Legal notice has been sent to Authors Upfront and FEEl Books Private Ltd, the e-book publisher and distributors of the book, Flipkart and Amazon.in for “acting as electronic distributors” of the book.
Kitaab’s Zafar Anjum got in touch with Paranjoy Guha Thakurta to know more about Gas Wars, the research behind the book, and how the legal tangle has affected the book and its authors and publishers.
Why was it important for you and your co-writers to work on a book like ‘Gas Wars’?
My co-authors and I have for some years now been extremely concerned about the manner in which India’s natural resources have been allocated and valued. These resources include land, telecommunications spectrum, coal, iron ore or natural gas extracted from the basin of the Bay of Bengal off the south-eastern coast of the country along the basin of two great rivers, the Krishna and the Godavari. The non-transparent and often arbitrary manner in which natural resources have been given access to, and priced, has resulted in many allegations of corruption and cronyism being levelled against those in positions of power and authority in India over the recent past. This book inter alia seeks to lay bare the manner in which official contracts are structured to allow enough room for the government to be cheated of revenue and the country’s natural resources to be siphoned off with impunity. The Indian government’s role in the still-continuing controversies over the utilisation and pricing of Krishna-Godavari gas is one among many instances of ruthless exploitation of natural resources in different parts of the country and in the world. The book delineates the manner in which a corporate conglomerate, in this case India’s largest, was able to benefit from the way government policies are structured and which fall into a pattern that epitomizes the rise of the Reliance group over the years.
Our opinions can be better summarised through the views of retired Justice Sudershan B. Reddy of the Supreme Court of India (which have been quoted in the book) who had the following to state in his 7 May 2010 judgement relating to a dispute between the two Ambani siblings:
“A small portion of our population, over the past two decades, has been chanting incessantly for increased privatization of the material resources of the community, and some of them even doubt whether the goals of equality and social justice are capable of being addressed directly. They argue that economic growth will eventually trickle down and lift everyone up. For those at the bottom of the economic and social pyramid, it appears that the nation has forsaken those goals as unattainable at best and unworthy at worst. The neo-liberal agenda has increasingly eviscerated the state of stature and power, bringing vast benefits to the few, modest benefits for some, while leaving everybody else, the majority, behind….
“We have heard a lot about free markets and freedom to market. We must confess that we were perplexed by the extent to which it was pressed that contractual arrangements between private parties with the State and amongst themselves could displace the obligations of the State to the people….History has repeatedly shown that a culture of uncontained greed along with uncontrolled markets leads to disasters.…Historically, and all across the globe, predatory forms of capitalism seem to organize themselves, first and foremost, around the extractive industries that seek to exploit the vast, but exhaustible, natural resources. Water, forests, minerals and oil—they are all being privatized; and not being satisfied, the voices that speak for predatory capitalism seek more….”
The first four chapters of the book outline the rise of the Reliance group and argue that the most important reason why the Ambani siblings fell out with each other was on account of issues relating to access and valuation of natural gas. The next four chapters outline how, among other things, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India pointed out that the production sharing contract signed between the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas and a corporate entity led by Reliance Industries Ltd was deeply flawed and weighted against public interests. These chapters also quote experts on the subject. The ninth chapter of the book highlights the likely ecological disaster waiting to happen. The last five chapters are about crony capitalism India style and the nexus between big business and politics. The book also contains 11 appendices running into nearly 200 pages.
Isn’t crony-capitalism a natural wart that comes with the package of neo-liberalism? Is it avoidable? How have Western economies dealt with it?
To an extent, crony capitalism is a natural wart or an inevitable corollary of neo-liberal economic policies. But crony capitalism is also a consequence of inadequate and/or ineffective regulation and deliberate manipulation of rules. Our book has attempted to highlight how one corporate conglomerate was allowed to blatantly exploit loopholes that were consciously retained in the system. The book underlines instances of policies and procedures that were tailored to help increase the fortunes of a few. It points out how, even when laws and policies appeared fair, rational, and reasonable, the way in which these rules and procedures were framed and implemented by bureaucrats acting at the behest of their political masters resulted in crony capitalism.
Different countries across the world, including those in the West, have sought to deal with corruption and cronyism by enacting and implementing strict regulatory mechanisms, imposition of penalties when contractual obligations are not adhered and by following transparent procedures that discourage discretionary decisions. Unfortunately, this has often not been the case in India.
What was the research process like and how did you divide your responsibilities as co-authors?
Work on the research and the writing of the book was divided among the three of us over the last four and half years with the lead author (Paranjoy) setting the broad themes and anchoring the entire exercise. In addition, we received the support of many individuals who have been acknowledged in the book.
The book has been extensively mined (pun intended) from a broad spectrum of sources. Some of the most important sources were public documents such as reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, reports of committees of Parliament and other official committees and documents (including file notes) that were leaked to the media from time to time. Letters to the Prime Minister of India by members of Parliament like Gurudas Dasgupta and former bureaucrat-turned-activist E.A.S. Sarma were also used. A huge volume of reportage and commentaries were also available, both from printed publications, online sources and also from television programmes. A number of people were interviewed for the book, one such person being the late Subir Raha, former chairman and managing director of the Oil and Natural Gas Commission. The last interview he gave before he passed away was to the lead author of the book, Paranjoy, who also got access to a confidential presentation made by the former Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas Mani Shankar Aiyar who was sharply critical of his successor in the ministry in the government to which he belonged. In addition, an important primary source were the series of detailed interviews conducted with the head of the oil and gas exploration and production division in Reliance Industries Ltd., Bibhas Kumar Ganguly, including one on an offshore rig in the Bay of Bengal.
Why did you decide to self-publish the book? Did you have a feeling that mainstream publishers could buckle under pressure?
The primary reason for self-publishing the book was to bring it out as expeditiously as possible and make it available to all interested in reading, both in its printed form as well as online. The lead author (Paranjoy) had signed an agreement with a leading publisher to bring out the book but chose to terminate the agreement. A particular representative of the publisher also wanted the book to be published in a form that was substantially different from its present form, which was not acceptable.
Now that the Reliance Industries have served legal notice on you, the publishers and distributors of ‘Gas Wars’, how is it going to affect the future of the book?
The legal notice has attracted attention to the book. The book has been more than fair in providing versions of events, circumstances and controversies that (as already mentioned) has been based on research made from various public documents, opinions of individuals available in the public domain, including media reports etc. We the authors have exercised our right to free expression enshrined in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. Our statements to you are without prejudice to our rights and privileges as per the law. The legal notice is currently being reviewed by our legal experts and an appropriate response will be provided.
Do you think a discussion on crony capitalism through books like Gas Wars is already a lost cause, in the din of elections where emotions take over reason? What are your hopes from this book?
Far from it. The issues are real and rather relevant. The extent to which the various issues relating to crony capitalism in the world’s largest democracy strike a chord in the electorate will be known on 16 May when the outcome of the 16th general elections will be known. As for our hopes, we naturally hope that as many people as possible read the book.
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this interview are solely of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Kitaab or its stakeholders. Kitaab and its stakeholders are not liable and/or responsible in any manner whatsoever for the views, ideas, comments, and opinions expressed by anyone on this platform).