Earlier this year, I spent a few days in Mundra in Kutch while reporting a story on billionaire Gautam Adani, who has a large chunk of his business in Gujarat and who saw his real rise during Narendra Modi’s reign as chief minister. As I had reported, the Adani Group’s revenue rose from $765 million in 2002 to $8.8 billion in March 2013 while net profits climbed even faster. The group has leased 7,350 hectares in Mundra—much of which it got from 2005 onward—from the government. I have copies of the agreements that show the sweetheart deal Adani got from the government—30-year, renewable leases, some for as little as one rupee a square metre.
For all the denials by the company on preferential treatment, the stockmarkets, too, were aware of Adani’s cosy rapport with Modi. When my story ran in Forbes Asia in early March, Forbes had pegged Adani’s net worth at $2.8 billion. Less than six weeks later, a version of the same story was printed in the US edition. By that time the national elections were in full swing and a Modi victory was clearly inevitable. Stocks of companies that would allegedly benefit from Modi as prime minister were up, including Adani’s who saw his net worth rise to $5.4 billion—all within a few weeks.
The Adani Port in Mundra is huge—and beautiful. Company officials drove me around the massive area that looks like a city within a city. Its wide, beautifully-paved roads are lined in parts with pink, white and orange bougainvillea, the roads kept spotlessly clean by big road sweeping machines that make you think you might be in suburban America. But you’re not. And you only have to step outside this world and spend some time in the villages surrounding the area to see how the group’s businesses, including a 4,620-megawatt coal-fired power plant and an SEZ, have caused havoc in the lives of the villagers.
I met several farmers who told me that the fly ash and saline water from Adani’s power plant (and from a nearby Tata Power unit) had made the soil less fertile, their crops of chiku and castor now minuscule in number and quality. As I walked around the farms, I could clearly see patches of salt on the ground, more so than what was natural to that area.
An Adani employee also took me around some villages to show me the good work done by the company. It had built an entry gate to one village. I’m still not sure how that added any value to their lives. I saw another school that the company had painted. What about actually providing teaching supplies? I was then taken to a model fishing village where the company had helped construct proper little huts with green fibreglass roofs for the fishermen to replace the makeshift ones most tend to live in during fishing season. In this little camp, the company had installed large Sintex tanks so the residents could get water. There were toilets. There was a one-room school.
This was great. But what’s one tiny village for a company that earned $8.8 billion in revenues last year? And what about the scores of other fishermen whose incomes had been decimated by the port and the power plants? A central government-appointed committee said in a report that the Adani SEZ had violated multiple green rules at different points of its mammoth project—destroying mangroves, filling creeks and causing land and water degradation by dumping fly ash. It suggested Adani set up a Rs 200 crore fund or 1 per cent of the total project cost, whichever was higher, to fix all the problems it had created in the area. Nearly two years later, there’s no sign of that.
As a business journalist, I’m well aware that India needs ports and power plants to fuel businesses and generate growth. What I can’t understand is why our biggest and best take shortcuts and violate laws in the process. Is it too much to expect them to do it right?
Delhi-based freelance journalist Megha Bahree writes on business and devt in India; E-mail your columnist: megha.bahree [AT] gmail [DOT] com