Title: The Billionaire Raj

Author: James Crabtree

Publisher: Oneworld

Year of publication: 2018




At the port, the facility’s amiable chief executive, Captain Unmesh Abhyankar, talked excitedly about the mechanics of the place: a world of berth occupancy, throughput rates and turnaround times. Mundra had an unusually deep harbour, allowing it to attract some of the world’s biggest cargo ships, he explained, giving it an edge over rivals elsewhere along India’s western coast. ‘We focus on the three Cs: coal, containers and crude,’ he said of the cargoes the ships brought in. Exports were more of a mish-mash, including everything from bauxite and cars to iron ore and wood. India’s dilapidated road network made it hard to move this in and out, so industrialist Gautam Adani built a 60-kilometre private freight line to the main rail network. Most Indian ports were state owned and inefficient, taking a couple of days or more to unload a ship. At Mundra, however, cargo was mostly whisked in and out over a morning. Abhyankar expected his facility to become the country’s largest port later that year, handling 100 million tonnes of goods, the first in India ever to do so.

Even at dusk the giant container cranes were easy to spot from the window, as our plane took off that evening and flew us back to Ahmedabad, ready to meet Adani the next day. The day’s last light glinted on the grey of the Gulf of Kutch in the distance. A few years earlier a team of oceanographers had found an ancient stone anchor lying 50 metres below the waves, of a type used by merchants more than a millennium before. For centuries, those same waters had been India’s trading artery, bringing wooden dhows and then steamships across from Africa and the Middle East. Through such trade and commerce, India had been an early pioneer of globalisation, at least until Nehru launched his new age of self-enclosure in the aftermath of Independence in 1947.

paranjoyIt 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 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’?

gas_warsMy 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: