The book argues that government policies have been tailored to favour Reliance group and allow the group to gain extensively at the cost of the exchequer and the people of the country

Voices Friday, June 27, 2014 - 05:30
Miriam Chandy Menacherry| The News Minute| April 21, 2014| 8.10 am IST At a time politically charged books make headlines, why did a book on the gas pricing controversy by a veteran journalist not make the front pages? “Gas Wars - Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis" is an explosive book that takes on India’s biggest corporation, Reliance Industries. One day after it was released, the authors, coauthors and distributors of the book have been served defamation notices by Reliance Industries. Miriam Chandy Menacherry, spoke to lead author of the book Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. In this interview for The News Minute, he speaks about the book in the light of the Supreme Court ruling 17/4/2014 ordering Comptroller & Auditor General CAG audits on Private Companies dealing in natural resources. Most people know you as a journalist and television presenter for now over 36 years, what made you decide to author this book? I have been working on this book for the past four and half years. It is an important topic as it relates to how natural resources that belong to the people of the country are allocated and priced, whether these are telecom spectrum, coal, iron ore, natural gas. All these resources are scarce and finite, and with the exception of telecom spectrum, non-renewable. The government is supposed to act as a representative of the people, a custodian/trustee of these resources and act in a transparent manner. If the government does not behave in this manner and starts playing favourites while allocating and pricing these, it results in crony capitalism. The Reliance group has grown over the years into India’s biggest corporation. The book argues that government policies have been tailored to favour this group and allow the group to gain extensively at the cost of the exchequer and the people of the country. Gas Wars documents this. Is the SC ruling ordering a CAG audit a vindication of what you highlight in the book? It is a significant ruling not only as far as pricing of telecom spectrum is concerned but a wide range of natural resources including gas. Incidentally, I was one of the petitioners in the 2G spectrum case. What was the methodology you chose to adopt? Why is the book being referred to as a `pamphlet’ by the Reliance lawyers? I don’t know of a pamphlet that runs into 600 pages, but the firm of lawyers working on behalf of Reliance has chosen to call a well-researched book a pamphlet. The first part of the book has detailed segments on charges levelled by Anil Ambani during the bitter and truly nasty legal battles that were fought in the media and in court. This section argues that the most important reason why the Ambani siblings fell out with each other was over controlling access to gas from KG basin and how it should be priced. The second part of the book is on how the production sharing contract was designed and structured in a manner that protected the interests of the company more than the interests of the exchequer and the people of India. This is not my own viewpoint but one that the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) also endorses. The book includes and puts in perspective a damning report by the CAG on hydrocarbon production sharing contracts, which indicated that Reliance had reaped massive profits because of various acts of commission and omission by various government officials. The third part of the book is about the environmental impact of offshore extraction of gas on the coastal belt of Andhra Pradesh which is considered the "rice bowl" of the country. The Fourth part focuses on crony capitalism detailing the circumstances that led to S. Jaipal Reddy being moved from the post of Minister of Petroleum as he would not kowtow to the diktats of Reliance Industries. The book concludes with the decision of the Election Commission of India asking the government to defer a hike in gas prices that was supposed to take effect from April 1 for the period of five years, till after a new government is in place. In June, the Cabinet had approved a near doubling of gas prices. My response to the legal notice is that this book has been based on information in the public domain that is available to everybody including reports presented in Parliament, courts of law and well as the media. I find it surprising that the lawyers for Reliance have chosen to serve me a notice but not those who prepared these reports over the last few years. I have been more than fair to Reliance in the book. The company's version of events and circumstances have been given in great length and depth and this includes detailed interviews that I personally conducted with senior representatives of Reliance. The role of the Union government has been detailed, what about the role of the state government of Gujarat in gas pricing? Yes, the Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation had also sought a higher price for gas. The company which is owned by the government of Gujarat under Narendra Modi has been involved in various controversies which have been detailed in an appendix in the book. Reliance has slapped a defamation case against you. This legal route has been stalling the passage a few other recent books? It is unfortunate that some of those who are in positions of power and authority seem to be extremely intolerant. They want books to be withdrawn and pulped. They don't really believe in freedom of expression despite what they publicly profess. This is an unfortunate trend because I believe Indian society as a whole is tolerant but there is a minority which is intolerant to views different from theirs and their loud voices tend to drown out the voices of the rest. In the recent past, two books – Descent of Air India by Jitender Bhargava and another on the Sahara group by Tamal Bandyopadhyay were withdrawn by their publishers who succumbed to the pressure of defamation notices. I have self-published this book with the help of Authors Upfront and an independent distributor -- Feel Books Pvt Ltd. They have been served notices too, along with global e-book distributors Flipkart and Amazon. The Reliance group has gone so far as to serve a notice even to a representative of an NGO who merely helped me out by forwarding e invites. We, the authors, being journalists are exercising the right to free expression enshrined in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. The notice is being reviewed by our legal experts and an appropriate response will be provided as per the legal process. Is it becoming increasingly tough to question this nexus between big corporations and political parties in mainstream media? Unfortunately this space for questioning people is not growing but shrinking. The fourth estate is supposed to play the role of an adversary and an antagonist to those with influence and power, but this is becoming difficult. This has been a political issue taken up by both the Left and the Aam Aadmi Party…could this book revive it as an election issue? I can’t speak on behalf of the Left or the AAP and I do not know whether the issue of crony capitalism and gas pricing will be an important issue for the electorate. This will become clear on the 16th of May when the outcome of the ongoing general elections are known. Paranjoy Guha Thakurtha started his career as a journalist in 1977 and has been employed with various media organizations including companies bringing out publications such as Business India, BusinessWorld, The Telegraph, India Today and The Pioneer. He anchored a daily discussion programme called “India Talks” on the CNBC-India television channel. He has been anchoring two one-hour-long weekly programmes for Lok Sabha Television called “Talktime” and “1-on-One”. Miriam Chandy Menacherry is an independent filmmaker. She began her career as a journalist with CNBC, UTv and then went on to direct documentaries under her own banner for National Geographic Channel and Arte.

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