Former chairman of ONGC, 2001-06
When Raha met the lead author of this book on September 17, 2009, the cancer in his lungs was spreading. His hair had thinned after several rounds of chemotherapy. Still, he was remarkably alert. His words poured out in torrents; he was crystal clear about his convictions and his conclusions. He imposed only one condition before he started talking—he wanted to go through and vet the detailed transcript of the interview before a single word attributed to him was published. The transcript was sent to him, but he never got back. On February 1, 2010, Subir Raha passed away. He was 62.
In the first round of bidding under the new policy, that is, NELP-I, the Reliance group emerged as the winner in most blocks. In an open and transparent bidding process, ONGC lost out to Reliance in the race for a number of blocks. Raha said he had heard that secret information about the ONGC bids had been leaked out, though he could not independently confirm who had done this and for whom. “My guess is as good as yours,” he remarked.
The D6 block in the KG basin had gone to Reliance in 2000. Bidding was done by companies on the basis of certain databases. All investors had access to the same data, thereby offering a level playing field to all. However, additional data could be informally sourced from other companies that were already involved in the business of oil and natural gas exploration. Raha recounted a story he had heard about how data was sourced by Reliance for the KG basin before the company placed its bid. According to this story, Anil Ambani, who was still with his elder brother Mukesh, visited a retired ONGC official in Hyderabad to obtain more knowledge about the KG fields that his company wanted to acquire. The gentlemanly officer unpacked a few old papers from a rusty iron trunk and these documents apparently provided them with crucial clues about the reserves of oil and natural gas that lay beneath the bed of the Bay of Bengal.
Photograph by Jitender Gupta
Till 2001, BALCO used to be a PSU with 100 per cent of its shares owned by the government of India. That year, BALCO was privatised—the government sold off 51 per cent of the shares of the PSU to Sterlite Industries (India) Ltd, which is now part of the Vedanta group headed by Anil Agarwal. In the process, the government privatised the biggest reserves of commercially available bauxite in the country without undertaking a proper independent valuation of the mineral resources that would accrue to the private company. There is no difference between bauxite and gas, or for that matter coal or dolomite, as far as their sovereignty is concerned, he emphasised.
This is where the issue of the PSC (Production Sharing Contract) crops up all over again. Raha said the responsibility for the controversy over KG gas rests squarely with the mopng. The ministry is the custodian of the NELP (New Exploration Licensing Policy) and the contracts that flow from the policy, and if the ministry had truly abided by the NELP and the PSCS signed in letter and in spirit, legal disputes could easily have been avoided, he argued. What Raha suggested, though not in so many words, was that the problems over pricing and allocation of KG gas was created because the mopng and the government of India through the EGOM headed by Pranab Mukherjee, directly or indirectly, sought to benefit one private party, in this case, RIL.
Mani Shankar Aiyar
Petroleum minister, 2004-06
More than two years and eight months after he was suddenly and ignominiously removed, Mani Shankar Aiyar gave an extraordinarily detailed and hard-hitting speech about the controversy relating to the pricing and allotment of natural gas from the Krishna-Godavari basin. He referred to the tussle between the Ambani siblings and left nobody in doubt that the government’s role in the entire episode was questionable, if not downright dubious.
On 26 September 2009, Aiyar, known for his gift of the gab, was at his wittiest best speaking to a small group behind closed doors. For instance, when he referred to how the price of gas had been increased by the EGOM from $2.34 per mBtu to $4.20 per mBtu, he quipped, tongue in cheek, on the number 420; for the uninitiated, Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code relates to cheating and fraud, and provides for punishment of the convicted.
Aiyar’s speech was delivered shortly after noon (the meeting was conducted under the aegis of the ‘Saturday Lunch Club’ in New Delhi’s India International Centre). An interesting aspect of the speeches made at the Saturday Lunch Club is that these are largely governed by the ‘Chatham House’ rule that ensures confidentiality of the source of information received at a meeting.
“No minimum selling price was earlier stipulated; on 12 September (2009), the Empowered Group of Ministers determined a minimum selling price of $4.20 (that is emphatically not a pun on the nature of the decision!): that price applies retroactively to PSCS entered into since 2000. It is almost double the NTPC/RIL price discovery of 2002. It would appear that the $4.20 stipulation relates both to valuation and selling price (or at least, minimum selling price). This minimum selling price provision is backed up by a list of priorities which places fertiliser ahead of power (and is, therefore, detrimental to Anil’s interests, especially as the gas allocations pre-empt all of present gas production for consumers already in operation and privilege the public sector)....”
Aiyar said that while earlier PSCS provided that the government reserved to itself the right to refer pricing issues to the proposed Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board when no such board existed:
“Now that such a board has been constituted, the new PSC drops all reference to the board and essentially reserves to the government the right to unilaterally decide all matters pertaining to pricing. Does this constitute a reversal of reforms? More to the point, will this discourage future private sector investors from entering the Indian petroleum exploration and development market?.... Also, should government interventions be aimed at raising prices for sellers or at keeping prices down for consumers? This appears to be the first case of a government fiat, resulting in consumers being asked to pay more for an essential commodity than might have been available from price indications in the marketplace.”
When contacted by the lead author of this book, Aiyar refused to either confirm or deny what was attributed to him. He cited the famous Chatham House rules and said he could not speak on the topic.
The excerpt from the book Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and others was revealing (In Our Gaseous State, Apr 14). But Outlook should also put up the audio clip of the interview of Subir Raha by the author, as I suspect only half-truths are being peddled here.
"A PTI item focused only on Mani Shankar Aiyar’s comments on gas pricing was picked up by the Economic Times. "
"A PTI item focused only on Mani Shankar Aiyar’s comments on gas pricing was picked up by the Economic Times. "
Mani Shankar Aiyar happens to be the brother of Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar, the economist who pens the hugely popular Swaminomics column in the ToI.
Nice co-incidence, huh?
For a change why don't you talk about the secular activities and extreme kindness of ISIS toward their co-religiopnists( read Shi'ites) and Christians. Of course Hindus do not count in your account.
While Guha Thakurta spoke about the book and also the legal notice he and others had received from the Ambanis, Aiyar, in his inimitable style, provided several quotable quotes as he spoke about his stint as minister. He also gave his opinion on gas pricing, an issue that is currently in the news because the Modi government has decided to defer any decision on this until September. Even if the book has already been in the news since its release in Delhi, Aiyar’s comments were worthy of at least a few column inches.
Yet, the next day, there was almost nothing on this discussion in any of the Mumbai papers; not even the financial papers, although representatives of these papers asked several pointed questions of the panelists. Only Mumbai Mirror carried something because its columnist, Ajit Ranade (who is not a journalist), used his column to write about the event and the issue of gas pricing. Asian Age had a short item, and a PTI item focused only on Mani Shankar Aiyar’s comments on gas pricing was picked up by the Economic Times.
If this had been a big news day, one would have understood that newspapers had no space. But nothing earth-shattering happened in the city, except a fire in the administrative building of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), a stone’s throw away from the Press Club.
Significantly, Ethiraj stated that he had received a “friendly” call from a representative of the Ambanis informing him that the author of the book had been slapped a defamation notice!
So one wonders, how many other “friendly” calls were made before and after this event to ensure that nothing of it was reported the next day. Even if they were not, has the media decided to be ultra cautious about reporting on the Ambanis to pre-empt any legal action? Is this not a kind of self-censorship that should have no place in a democracy? And are we going to see more of this in the future?
Here is the litmus test for Indian patriots!
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