Posts Tagged ‘Anil Ambani’

POLL: Have Tatas, Birlas, Ambanis let India down?

17 October 2013

Hell hath no fury than an industrialist scorned. The naming of Kumar Mangalam Birla, the youthful chief of the Aditya Birla group, in the 14th first information report (FIR) filed by the central bureau of investigation (CBI) in the coal allocation scam, has set the cat among the pigeons of India’s business class, which suddenly cannot decide whether to run or to hide.

Birla has only been named in the FIR—not arrested, not convicted, not jailed. But from HDFC’s Deepak Parekh downwards, everybody who is somebody in Bombay is behaving as if the skies have fallen down and giving certificates of good conduct to the Hindalco chairman, whose company is accused of garnering a 15% stake meant for public sector undertakings.

Birla is, of course, only the latest businessman in a scam under the cavernous nose of the Congress-led UPA.

Before him, there was Naveen Jindal, the tricolour-waving head honcho of Jindal Steel, who is also a Congress member of Parliament, also in the coal scam. Before him, there was Ratan Tata and Anil Ambani and Sunil Mittal and the Ruias of Essar and the Khaitans in the 2G scam.Before (and after) them, there was (and there is) Mukesh Ambani in the KG Basin ripoff. Add to that a Keshub Mahindra of Union Carbide, and you have the who’s who of South Bombay.

Considering that most of them are involved in allegations of usurping natural resources (spectrum, coal, gas), the question to ask is: have our industrialists and businessmen, who otherwise paint themselves as the heartbeat of the nation, let the country down with their greed and avarice? Do they even have the locus standi to talk of “policy paralysis”, when they have their hand in the till, and how?

Will TV news channels show Kejriwal ‘live’ again?

10 January 2013

ambani_keriwal_0111

SHARANYA KANVILKAR writes from Bombay: India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, and India’s most powerful business house, Reliance Industries, are believed to have served a legal notice on several TV news channels for airing anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal‘s allegations against them in October and November last year.

However, it is not known if Kejriwal, a former IRS officer, and his advocate-partner, Prashant Bhushan, have heard from RIL’s lawyers on the charges made by them at the  press conferences which were covered “live” by the TV channels with accompanying commentary.

It is also unclear if  newspapers which reported Kejriwal’s allegations of Ambani’s Swiss bank accounts and hanky-panky in the Krishna-Godavari basin by RIL have attracted similar legal attention from the less-litigious of the two Ambani brothers.

In the seven-page legal notice shot off in the middle of December 2012, Mukesh Ambani and RIL have demanded “a retraction and an unconditional apology in the form approved and acceptable to our clients” within three days from the receipt of the notice.

The notices have been served by the Bombay legal firm, A.S. Dayal & Associates.

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Besides accusing the channels of “deliberately and recklessly” airing “false and defamatory statements” with an intent to “defame our clients and bring them into disrepute”, the legal notice makes the following points:

# “Your TV Channel provided a platform and instrumentality for wide dissemination of the false and defamatory statements and allegations made at the said press conference.”

# “Live telecast of these press conferences amounts to permanent publication of defamatory material relating to our client by you.”

# “Each of the two press conferences were telecast live without making any attempt to verify the truth or veracity of the statements and allegations being made during the press conference.”

# “Apart from having telecast the press conferences live, Your TV Channel  in the course of several television programmes and televised debates that followed after the said press conferences, continued to telecast, transmit and retransmit the defamatory footage of the press conferences.”

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More ominously, the Ambani-RIL notice reminds the channels:

# “Our clients have instructed us to state that Your TV Channel is bound by the Guidelines for Uplinking and Downlinking from India dated 5th December 2011, issued by the ministry of information & broadcasting, government of India.

# “Our clients have instructed us to state that since Your TV Channel is a news and current affairs TV Channel, the provisions of the Uplinking and Downlinking Guidelines apply to Your TV Channel, which inter alia provide that a Company, like Your TV Channel, which runs a news and current affairs TV channel, is obliged to comply with the Programme Code as laid down in the Cable Television Network (Regulations) Act, 1995, and the Rules framed thereunder.

# “Our clients have instructed us to state that in telecasting the aforesaid press conferences and repeating the false and defamatory material relating to our clients in the manner aforesaid Your TV Channel is in complete violation of the said Uplinking Guidelines, and the said Downlinking Guidelines as also in complete and material breach of the Programme Code prescribed under the Cable Television Network Rules.”

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The RIL legal notice brings to question the wisdom of broadcasting “live” Kejriwal’s near-weekly press conferences towards the end of last year, sans any filters or fetters.

On the other hand, the authoritarian tone of the legal notice—reminding the recipients of uplinking and downlinking norms—throws light on the egg-shells on which private TV stations are walking in the “free” Republic.

The legal notice also swings the spotlight on big business ownership of and shadow over the media, especially when it is alleged to have both the main political parties, the Congress and BJP, in its pocket.

For the record, RIL is in the media business too. Both CNN-IBN and IBN7 are part of the Reliance stable following a controversial and circuitous takeover at the turn of 2012 that now has earned the OK of the competition commission of India (CCI).

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Photograph: courtesy IBN Live

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Also read: ‘RIL has no direct stake in media companies’

Mint says SEBI looking into RIL-Network18/TV18-ETV deal

Rajya Sabha TV tears into RIL-Network18-ETV deal

Will RIL-TV18-ETV deal win SEBI, CCI approval?

The sudden rise of Mukesh Ambani, media mogul

The Indian Express, Reliance & Shekhar Gupta

Niira Radia, Mukesh Ambani, Prannoy Roy & NDTV

Why the Indian media doesn’t take on the Ambanis

The curious case of Mukesh Ambani & Raghav Bahl

9 January 2012

PRITAM SENGUPTA in New Delhi and KEERTHI PRATIPATI in Hyderabad write: Media criticism in India, especially in the so-called mainstream media, has never been much to write home about.

Operating on the principle that writing on another media house or media professional means exposing yourself to the same danger in the future, proprietors, promoters and editors—most of whom have plenty to hide—are wary of taking on their colleagues, competitors and compatriots.

That risk-averse attitude amounting to a mutually agreed ceasefire pretty much explains why the biggest media deal of the decade—Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) funding Network 18/ TV 18 group to pick up ETV—has been reported with about as much excitement as a weather report.

That the newspaper which issues P. Sainath‘s monthly cheque, The Hindu, declined to publish media critic Sevanti Ninan‘s fortnightly column on market rumours about the impending deal (without telling readers why) provides a chilling preview of what lies in store as the shadow of corporates lengthens over the media.

In 2008, New York Times‘ columnist Anand Giridharadas wrote of why the Indian media does not take on the Ambanis of Reliance Industries in an article titled “Indian to the core, and an oligarch“.

“A prominent Indian editor, formerly of The Times of India, who requested anonymity because of concerns about upsetting Mr Ambani, says Reliance maintains good relationships with newspaper owners; editors, in turn, fear investigating it too closely.

“I don’t think anyone else comes close to it,” the editor said of Reliance’s sway. “I don’t think anyone is able to work the system as they can.”

***

First things first, the RIL-Network18/TV18-ETV wedding is an unlikely menage-a-trois.

Reliance Industries Limited is a behemoth built by Dhirubhai Ambani and his sons Mukesh Ambani and Anil Ambani using a maze of companies and subsidiaries built on a heady cocktail of mergers and demergers, using shares, debentures, bonuses and other tricks in the accounting book—and many beyond it.

The only known interest of the Ambanis in the media before this deal was when they bought a Bombay business weekly called Commerce and turned into the daily Business & Political Observer (BPO) to match the weekly offering, The Sunday Observer, which they had acquired from Jaico Publishing.

(Top business commentators like John Elliott and Sucheta Dalal have alluded to a blog item to convey that Mukesh Ambani’s media interest goes beyond the recent announcement.)

Anyway, BPO, launched under the editorship of Prem Shankar Jha, was long in coming unlike typical Reliance projects. Suffice it to say that in 1991, when India was at the cusp of pathbreaking reforms, some of India’s biggest names in business journalism were producing dummy editions of BPO.

The Ambani publications were under the gaze of the more media-savvy younger brother, Anil Ambani, who operated with R.K. Mishra, the late editor of The Patriot, as chairman of the editorial board. The Observer group shuttered before the beginning of the new millennium.

As Mani Ratnam‘s film Guru based on Sydney Morning Herald foreign editor Hamish McDonald‘s book The Polyester Prince makes clear, the Ambanis have always cultivated friends across the political divide, but they have been identified with the Congress more than the BJP.

Raghav Bahl‘s Network18/TV18 is in some senses an ideal fit for RIL.

Till its latest cleanup came about a year and a half ago, it was difficult to understand which of its myriad companies and subsidiaries came under which arm. It too has friends on either side, but suffice it to say, CNN-IBN‘s decision not to run the cash-for-votes sting operation in July 2008 revealed where its political predilections lay.

Eenadu and ETV, on the other hand, is a long, different story.

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The ETV network of channels was launched by Ramoji Rao, the founder of the Telugu daily Eenadu. Rao has many claims to fame (including launching Priya pickles), but he is chiefly known as the media baron behind the transformation of the Telugu film star N.T. Rama Rao into a weighty non-Congress politician.

Rao and his men are known to have crafted speeches that tapped into dormant Telugu pride for the politically naive NTR. The massive media buildup in Eenadu—Ramoji Rao pioneered multi-edition newspapers with localised supplements—saw NTR become the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh just nine months after launching the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in 1982.

Two years later, when NTR was removed from office by a pliant governor (Ram Lal) working at the behest of Indira Gandhi‘s rampaging government, Ramoji Rao played a key role in protecting the numbers of TDP MLAs by having them packed off to Bangalore and Mysore, and building public opinion through his newspapers.

When NTR’s son-in-law N. Chandrababu Naidu walked out of TDP to “save” TDP, Ramoji Rao backed Naidu and played a hand in his ascension as CM. Thus, Ramoji Rao galvanised non-Congress forces in the South leading to the creation of the National Front, which installed V.P. Singh as PM in 1989 after the Bofors scandal claimed Rajiv Gandhi.

In 2006, Ramoji Rao placed his political leaning on record:

“I submit that until 1983 the Congress was running the State in an unchallenged and unilateral manner for the past 30 years. The Congress party became a threat to democracy and in view of the single party and individual rule by Indira Congress, the opposition in the state was in emaciated condition. It has been reduced to the status of a nominal entity. The dictatorial rule of the Congress proceeding without any hindrance. I submit that as the opposition parties were weak and were in helpless situation where they were unable to do any thing in spite of the misrule by the ruling party, Eenadu played the role of opposition. I submit that in the elections of the State Assembly held in 1983, the Congress for the first time did not secure a majority in the elections and lost the power to the newly formed Telugu Desam Party. I submit that on the day of poling i.e. January 5, 1983, I issued a signed editorial on the front page of Eenadu supporting the manifesto of Telugu Desam Party and calling on the electorate to vote for Telugu Desam Party giving cogent reasons for the stance taken by me.”

In short, the marriage between RIL-Network18/TV18 and Ramoji Rao is one between a largely pro-Congress duo and a distinctly non-Congress one.

***

Indeed, Ramoji Rao’s troubles that has resulted in substantial sections of his ETV network getting out of his grasp and into RIL’s, are largely because of his consistently anti-Congress stance, which gained an added edge in 2005 when the Congress under Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy (YSR) trumped the TDP under Chandrababu Naidu in the assembly elections.

Reported The Telegraph:

A slew of news reports in Eenadu and programmes on ETV since 2005 have accused Congress ministers, politicians and senior government officials of corruption and hanky panky. One report, for instance, debunked the official claim that the number of suicides by farmers had dropped. Another attacked construction by Y.S. Vivekananda Reddy, the chief minister’s brother, on disputed land. A third said that Eenadu had discovered, based on a survey, that voter lists for elections for local bodies had omitted the names of opposition party sympathisers.

It didn’t take long for YSR to hit back.

It was a two-pronged attack: his son Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy launched a project to own launch his own newspaper and newschannel house to take on the might of Eenadu and ETV. Simultaneously, a Congress MP from Rajahmundry attacked Ramoji Rao where it hurt most: his finances.

Arun Kumar Vundavalli, the MP, revealed that Rao’s Margadarsi Financiers had started dilly-dallying about repaying depositors, even after their deposit period had expired. Kumar showed that Margadarsi Financiers—a Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) company, of which the karta was Ramoji Rao—had collected deposits from the public, although a 1997 RBI law forbade HUFs from doing so.

Margadarsi Financiers owned a 95% stake in Ushodaya Enterprises, Ramoji Rao’s company which owned Eenadu and ETV.

A one-man committee of enquiry constituted by the Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy government revealed that Rs 2,600 crore of money was collected from the public in violation of RBI norms. Although his companies were not in great shape, Ramoji Rao assured the Andhra Pradesh high court that he would repay the full amount of Rs 2,600 crore due to the depositors.

Enter Blackstone.

In January 2007, the world’s largest private equity player indicated that it wanted to pick up 26% in Ushodaya Enterprises group for Rs 1,217 crore. At the time, it was reported to be India’s single largest foreign direct investment (FDI) in the print media.

The Blackstone offer placed the value of Ramoji Rao’s company at Rs 4,470 crore.

But the FDI proposal got stuck in the I&B ministry for months, allegedly at the behest of Vundavalli, who raised a variety of concerns over the Blackstone-Eenadu deal. In January 2008, when the clearance for the Blackstone investment was still not coming, Mint asked:

“Does the promoter of an Indian company, who is selling a stake in his family’s media firm to a foreign investor, have the right to do what he wants with that money, in this particular case, pay off liabilities of another company that his family separately also owns?….”

“FIPB records then show that the finance ministry, specifically citing Vundavalli’s claims, ‘has observed that prima facie, it appears that the purpose of securing funds from M/s Blackstone is not for advancing the business of Ushodaya Enterprises Ltd, but for repaying the deposits taken by M/s Margadarsi Financiers.”

When the Blackstone deal did not materialise, Nimesh Kampani of JM Financial stepped in as Ramoji Rao’s white knight although, as Sucheta Dalal writes, Kampani was never known to have any interest in the media except in deal-making.

According to VC Circle, Kampani picked up 21% of Ushodaya Enterprises for Rs 1,424 crore, which valued the company at Rs 6,780 crore, or over 50 per cent more than what Blackstone was willing to accept.

“The first public report of Kampani’s investment came in early February 2008, or around 10 days after stock markets crashed globally.”

Now, YSR got after Kampani.

Andhra Pradesh police issued a “look-out” notice for Kampani. Nagarjuna Finance, of which Kampani had been director, had allegedly defrauded depositors. Although Kampani had resigned from the independent directorship of the company nine years earlier, it was a sufficient handle to beat him with.

For months, Kampani had to stay out of India, fearing arrest. It was only after his bete noire YSR met with a bloody death in a helicopter crash in September 2009 that Kampani could return home. In May 2010, rumours surfaced of Mukesh Ambani buying up JM Financial but they soon fizzled out.

Shortly before buying into ETV, Kampani had recently sold his stake in a joint venture with Morgan Stanley to his foreign partner for $440 million and had the cash. The Margadarsi bailout, it was assumed, was in his personal capacity. It took a petition in 2011 filed by YSR’s widow seeking an inquiry into Chandrababu Naidu’s assets assets for the penny to drop.

Enter RIL.

YSR’s widow, Y.S. Vijayalakshmi, an MLA, alleged that when gas reserves were found in the Krishna Godavari basin in Andhra Pradesh in 2002, the Chandrababu Naidu government wilfully surrendered its right over the discovery in favour of Reliance, “while allowing Naidu’s close associate Ramoji Rao to be the vehicle of the quid pro quo.” (page 32)

“In consideration for the favour done by the Respondent No. 8 (Chandrababu Naidu) in allowing the State’s KG basin claim to be brushed under the carpet, the Reliance group facilitated the payout of Ramoji Rao’s debts to his depositors. This was carried out through known associates and friends of Mukesh Ambani.

“Two of these known associates of Ambani and the Reliance Group are Nimesh Kampani (of JM Financial) and Vinay Chajlani (of Nai Duniya).

“Kampani extended himself in ensuring that Ramoji Rao would be bailed out. Within a short span of 37 days between December 2007 and January 2008, six “shell companies” were floated on three addresses, which are shown as Sriram Mills Compound, Worli, which is the official address of Reliance Industries Limited. Reliance diverted Rs 2,604 crores of its shareholders money through the shell companies to M/s Kampani’s Equator Trading India Limited and Chajlani’s Anu Trading.”

In other words, RIL’s involvement in Eenadu through Kampani became known only recently in response to Vijayalakshmi’s petition, but it was market gossip for quite a while.

T.N. Ninan, the chairman of Business Standard and the president of the editors’ guild of India, wrote in a column in January 2011:

“If reports in Jagan Reddy’s Saakshi newspaper are to be believed, Mukesh Ambani is a behind-the-scenes investor in Eenadu, the leading Telugu daily.”

Vijayalakshmi’s 2011 petition makes several serious allegations.

That Ramoji Rao entered into the deal with Kampani’s Equator just 23 days after it was registered although it had no known expertise or business; that Ushodaya sold Rs 100 shares to Equator at a premium of Rs 5,28,630 per share; and that Ushodaya’s valuation had been pumped up by Rs 1,200 crore by its claims over a movie library.

Vijayalakshmi’s petition concluded:

“The interest shown by Reliance group in coming to the rescue of Ushodaya Enterprises headed by Ramoji Rao is clearly in defiance of any prudent profit-based corporate entity (since) Reliance does not gain any returns by virtue of that investment.”

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It is this RIL baby that is now in Network18/TV18’s lap.

The timing of the RIL-Network18/TV18-ETV deal also hides a small story.

It comes when the probe into the assets of Naidu and his associates (including Ramoji Rao) has moved from the High Court to the Supreme Court. It comes when a parallel probe into Vijayalakshmi’s son Jagan Mohan Reddy’s assets has entered a new and critical phase. It comes when the KG basin gas controversy is heating up. And, above all, it comes when 2014 is looming into the calendar.

Several questions emerge from this deal which has politics, business and media in varying measures:

1) What does it mean for Indian democracy when India’s richest businessman becomes India’s biggest media baron with control over at least two dozen English and regional news and business channels?

2) What kind of control will Mukesh Ambani have over Raghav Bahl’s Network18/TV18 when and if RIL’s optionally convertible debentures (OCDs) are turned into equity?

3) What kind of due diligence did the financially troubled Network18/TV18 do on the Kampani-Ambani investment in ETV before agreeing to pick up RIL’s stake for Rs 2,100 crore?

4) How will CNBC-TV18, which incidentally broke the news of the split among the Ambani brothers in 2005, report news of India’s biggest company (or its political and other benefactors) now that it is indirectly going to be owned by it?

5) Is there a case for alarm when one man has a direct and indirect stamp over three of the five major English news channels (CNN-IBN, NewsX and NDTV 24×7), three business channels (CNBC-TV18, IBN Awaaz, NDTV Profit), and at least five Hindi news channels?

6) Do Raghav Bahl and team who ran a handful of channels heavily into debt, have the expertise to run two dozen or more channels, especially in the language space where there are bigger players like Star and Zee?

7) Is the ETV network really worth so much, especially when Ushodaya’s most profitable parts, Eenadu and Priya Foods, are out of it? Or is RIL using Network18/TV18’s plight to turn a bad asset into a good one?

8) Is RIL really tying with Network18/TV18 with 4G in mind, or is this just spin to push an audacious deal past market regulators such as SEBI and the Competition Commission of India (CCI)?

9) How immune are Mukesh Ambani and Raghav Bahl from political forces hoping to use the combined clout of RIL-Network18/TV18 to blunt negative coverage ahead of the 2014 general elections?

10) And have Network18/TV18 investors got a fair deal?

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Infographic: courtesy Outlook

Also read: The sudden rise of Mukesh Ambani, media mogul

The Indian Express, Reliance & Shekhar Gupta

Niira Radia, Mukesh Ambani, Prannoy Roy & NDTV

CHURUMURI POLL: Who is next in 2G arrest list?

20 May 2011

Make no mistake, 20 May 2011, is a red-letter day in contemporary Indian politics.

A serving politician, the daughter of a mighty regional satrap who is a partner in the ruling alliance, has been arrested and sent to jail for her involvement in the country’s largest scam. While we may quibble over whether the CBI would have been given the freedom to do this by the government of the day if it weren’t for the fact that the Supreme Court is directing it, there is no denying that this is not a everyday occurrence.

Kanimozhi‘s arrest is not the end of the 2G investigation and hers is certainly not the last arrest. She represents only one side of a hydra-headed scam that involves bigger corporate and political fish. Already Sharad Pawar‘s name has been mentioned in the Swan-DB Realty linkup; even bigger political names are being hissed about. Tata Teleservices and Reliance Telecommunications, the construction company Unitech, the corporate titans Ratan Tata, Anil Ambani, Venugopal Dhoot, Prashant and Shashi Ruia have all been mentioned in some form or the other. Etc.

Questions: Did you think you would see this day? Will Kanimozhi sing in concert with A. Raja? Will more politicians go behind bars? Will Niira Radia be next? Will the arrest of corporate chiefs shake the “confidence” of investors in the “India Story”? Was telecom really the “success story” it was made out to be? Will such arrests put the fear of god in politicians and businessmen? Or will it be business as usual after a few days?

Has Ratan Tata ruined the Tata brand image?

29 November 2010

Although it has a finger in every pie, the Tata group has enjoyed a sterling reputation as a cut above the rest. Unlike the Ambanis and Birlas and everybody else, the group boasts of a “clean and incorruptible” image. Unlike others, it has been known to do things differently, keeping the “community” at the core.

Is that well-earned image in danger, judging from a bunch of recent incidents? And as he prepares to step into the shadows, having turned a quiet Parsi outfit into a global conquistador, will Ratan Tata—under whose leadership the revenue of the Tata group has gone up 40 times—go down as the dikra who messed with the holy grail?

For starters, the Tata group is smack bang in the middle of the Rs 173,000 crore 2G spectrum allocation scam. The tapped conversations of Ratan Tata’s chief lobbyist, Niira Radia, reveal how a gang of politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, and journalists re-inserted the tainted A. Raja into Manmohan Singh‘s cabinet in 2009.

# One key conversation (on 13 June 2009) between Radia and DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi‘s third wife Rajathiammal matches with the contents of a set of documents that were doing the rounds earlier this year, that revealed that the Tatas (through their subsidiary Voltas) had agreed to build a building in Madras, apparently as a payoff to DMK for keeping Dayanidhi Maran out of the telecom ministry.

# And, for another, the Tatas come out poorly in a Radia conversation that reveals that former Jharkhand chief minister Madhu Koda had demanded Rs 180 crore for a Tatas’ mining lease to be extended. Radia gets the lease extended through the governor Syed Sibte Razi, and she is rewarded a “success fee” besides a Rs 1 crore reward to her team.

In conversations with Radia ranging from the cute to the colourful, Ratan Tata reveals more than just passing interest in the retention of A. Raja in the telecom portfolio. “I’m surprised that Raja after all that you supposedly did for him is playing this game,” he says in one conversation. “I guess the only concern I have is that Maran is going hammer and tongs for Raja. And I hope Raja doesn’t trip or slip or…”

These one-liners only add grist to a delicious rumour, twice repeated, that Ratan Tata actually wrote a hand-written letter to Karunanidhi on Raja’s “rational, fair and action-oriented leadership” in December 2007. To now see the same Ratan Tata say that if the government did not step in and uphold the rule of law, the environment of scandals could see India slide into becoming a “banana republic” and to see that he is thinking of invoking the right to privacy and moving the Supreme Court is revealing in a Freudian sort of way.

Obviously, doing business in India and growing at the kind of rate the Tatas have, is not a walk in the park. Equally obviously, the Radia conversations do not represent the full story. Still, have the tapes removed the halo from around the head of the Tatas? Is Ratan Tata right in seeking shelter under right to privacy, or is he trying to hide more dirt from coming out? And has Ratan Tata proved no different from his much-reviled peers?

The most noise usually comes from the people who have the most to hide.

Also read: Tatas, turtles and corporate social responsibility

External reading: The Niira Radia tapes and transcripts

What what can can Sri Sri tell tell IITians IITians?

27 October 2010

PanIIT, a conglomeration of alumni of the seven Indian Institutes of Technology, is to hold its 2010 conclave from  October 29-31 in New Delhi. The focal theme of the three-day meet is “Sustainable Transformation: Our New India“.

“Participants would have the unique opportunity to tap into the experience of globally recognised thought leaders, to learn from peers in a collaborative learning environment…,” reads the mission statement.

Among the globally recognised thought leaders providing gyan at the gab-fest are the likes of economist Jeffrey Sachs, technologist Nandan Nilekani and columnist Thomas L. Friedman.

And “India’s future Nobel laureate“, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

In session “S20″, on the concluding day of the conclave, “Mr Shankar” is expected to throw kindly light between 10.45 and 11.30 am. Not all IITians are enthused by the thought. Below is the full text of a press release issued by “PanIIT Ravi Shankar Protest Committee”:

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The mantra of PanIIT conclave for this year is “Sustainable Transformation: our new India”.

Will Ravi Shankar be able to help us in being a role model in achieving this objective? Even a cursory glance at his achievement sans all the spin by the media will show how IIT alumni will be totally misled and get the wrong message.

PanIIT conclave is an opportunity to send strong messages by inviting those leaders who have been successful in projecting good values. Ravi Shankar has certainly been a superb salesman in marketing sudarshan kriya. His Art of Living foundation has been successful in earning huge profits while being a charitable organization.

Unfortunately, the values represented by his activities are not the ones for us to emulate. Especially when corruption is the top agenda item in India preventing the proper development of India, should we invite some one like Ravi Shankar?

Would we invite Ambani brothers despite their enormous wealth to give a talk on values and sustainability?

In one of the satsangs, when he was asked about global warming and climate change, Ravi Shankar seriously compared it to the Y2K problem, and how Y2K was not a problem and so also global warming. Either he was not aware of the enormous efforts by the world to avoid Y2K or he gave a wrong analogy.

When he was asked how to solve Kashmir problem, his “insightful” comment was that youth should get involved. Was it supposed to be a joke?

While the web sites of AOL give all the information about how to enroll for basic and advanced courses, how he has been involved in solving all the world problems like Iraq, Kashmir, Kosovo, Sri Lanka, there is no information on what happens to millions it has earned or the assets it has accumulated over the years.

It is true AOL does help the poor, educate the needy and supports worth causes. So do many of our corrupt political leaders and unethical businessmen. Do such acts of goodwill wash their sins?

Any charitable organisation seeking donation is expected to be transparent and publish its accounts. Why has AOL not published them? Has it paid any income taxes on its earnings as any business activity would? What kind of values it transmits when there is no transparency?

It is possible to give a long list of reasons why inviting Ravi Shankar was a wrong decision. But the above short explanation should be more than adequate. Some of us protestors, even at the risk of being rude to an invited guest (we do feel guilty), wanted to send a message to organisers to be more vigilant in inviting the right kind of people for future conclaves. We also invite attendees even at this late stage to show our disappointment by not attending the event where Ravi Shankar would be speaking.

Suresh Adina, Convener, PanIIT Ravi Shankar Protest Committee

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Also read: The the great great Sri Sri NGO NGO scam scam

For one godman & his devotees, ignorance is bliss

When a newspaper recites the Gita to a godman

CHURUMURI POLL: Target Sri Sri Ravi Shankar?

Dalits, Brahmins, Muslims and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

How namma Vijay floored namma Gopinath

12 January 2010

Captain G.R. Gopinath, the founder of India’s first lowcost airline has penned his story.

Titled ‘Simplify Fly (HarperCollins), the autobiography includes this passage (excerpted in the latest issue of Business Today magazine) on how Air Deccan eventually landed in Vijay Mallya‘s stable.

“Vijay Mallya called me a little after 10. He spoke endearingly and in a spirit of camaraderie. He said, ‘I know you have shaken hands with Reliance. It doesn’t matter what they have offered you. I am willing to better every term in the deal. You quote the price. I will not negotiate. Let us do the deal.”

“Mallya was calling from Monte Carlo where his $100 million personal yacht, the Indian Empress, was berthed. He was hosting his famed annual party on the eve of the Formula One race. He said: ‘I am at the dinner with a host of VIPs. The Prince of Monaco is here, the stars of Formula One are here. I am calling you in the midst of all this because it is very important to me. Please make a note of all the major terms of the deal. I will call later.’

“The phone rang at about 4 am.

“I said, ‘Vijay, I want you to know this is serious. I’ve already shaken hands with Anil Ambani, but they need 5-6 days more….”

“Mallya spoke to me in Kannada. He was disarming in his tone. He sounded urgent and winsome. He said it was his philosophy to address all the segments of the market: low, middle and high. He had done this with whisky and with beer. He said he was aware of my commitment to a lowcost airline and he respected that. Together, we would be good for the industry. However, with Reliance’s entry into the fray, the bloodbath would continue. Our coming together would altogether transform the scene.

“Mallya asked me if I had the list ready. I read out my list, which included conditions that would deter Mallya. I said: ‘If you are serious about investing in Deccan, you will have to make a deposit of Rs 200 crore immediately’.”

Also read: Munde Magane

World’s largest landbank holder is namma Creema

When Azim Premji‘s father said no and no again

How V.G. Siddhartha built the Coffee Day dream cup by cup

‘Imagine what will happen to India if he leads’?

9 September 2009

unny

The astonishing part about the 2004 “encounter” that consumed 19-year-old Ishrat Jahan and three others is not that it has now been declared to be “fake” but that the police officials in “India’s best governed State” were so clumsy in their attempt to cook up evidence to curry favour with “The Other Great Debator“.

The police planted the AK-56 rifle on one of the four yet said one of the four was killed by an AK-56. There was no trace of gunpowder or ammunition on any of the four suspects. The name “Salim” had been scribbed in English on the back of a photo of a Pakistani. There was only an identity card on one of them. The police magically knew the code of the number lock that contained cash of Rs 2 lakh.

Etcetera.

And now, some short messages from our corporate sponsors:

Anil Ambani: “Now, imagine what will happen to the nation if he leads the nation.”

Mukesh Ambani: “If India has 10 Chief Ministers like him, we can overcome all challenges.”

Cartoon: courtesy E.P. Unny/ The Indian Express

Will you switch off your phone on January 30?

18 January 2009

The impromptu endorsement of Narendra Damodar Modi as the Next Prime Minister of India by the chieftains of two major cellphone companies—Anil Ambani of Reliance Communications, and Sunil Mittal of Airtel—on top of a similar endorsement by Ratan Tata, who too has a cellphone company in his bouquet, has sparked a novel protest form.

The call to switch off your cellphones and observe Friday, 30 January 2009 as “Cellular Silence Day”.

The following open letter accompanies an online signature petition.

***

Dear Messrs Ratan Tata, Sunil Mittal and Anil Ambani

I am one of a billion Indian citizens.

I am somewhere in the middle of that pyramid that you wish to give voice—from bottom to top—through wealth creation.

I am proud of the brands you represent that have made India proud.

I am one of the burgeoning Indian middle-class that share your aspirations of mutating India from indolent elephant to thundering tiger.

It ends there…

I have hitherto been accused of being indifferent and apathetic, simply because I am overawed and felt overwhelmed in a system replete with Goliaths.

But when I saw you embrace the fascist mastermind of state sponsored genocide as a future Prime Minister and endorse the Modi-fication of India, it was disappointingly apparent that the brands that aspire to make India rich shall continue to languish in ethical poverty.

While I am filled with revulsion at your endorsement of Narendra Modi, I must respect your right to do so as a fellow citizen.

In writing this petition I am a mere David amongst the mightiest corporate Goliaths but I feel empowered to address your collective amnesia—through recollection of the Gujarat pogrom of 2002—by the true Goliath among Gujaratis in particular and Indians in general, Mohandas Gandhi.

All those who sign this petition will switch off their Tata Indicomm, Airtel and Reliance cellular phone and broadband connections from midnight on 30 January 2009.

It is eminently possible that I might be the one voice in a billion who will observe the 61st death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi on as Cellular Silence Day.

Then again, there might be close to a billion who could join me on 30 January 2009 expressing their solidarity and silently insisting that the captains of India Inc adopt an ethical, compassionate path to wealth creation rather than the single-minded pursuit of the bottomline.

We shall know that by the end of 30th January, 2009.

Sincerely

A David among corporate Goliaths

Sign the petition here: PetitionOnline.com/30JAN09/petition.html

Also read: CHURUMURI POLL: Good for them = Good for us?

‘The man who sowed the dragon seeds of hatred’

CHURUMURI POLL: Good for them = Good for us?

17 January 2009

When General Motors president Charles Wilson was appointed secretary of defence by President Dwight David Eisenhower in the early 1950s, the possibility of conflict of interest was very real. Asked if he could make a decision adverse to the interests of GM, Wilson said he could not, but added he could not conceive of such a situation, “because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for GM and vice versa.” That statement has sinced morphed into “What’s good for GM is good for America.”

In a week when captains of Indian industry have plumped for Gujarat chief minister Narendra Damodar Modi as the next prime minister, it is worth asking: “Is what is good for Indian industrialists, good for India, too?”

# Airtel chief Sunil Mittal has said: “We have seen CEOs running good companies, but Modi is that successful CEO who runs an entire state. We need him in Delhi.”

# Anil Ambani of ADAG has said: “If one Dhirubhai Ambani could do so much just imagine what ten Dhirubhais could have done. For Modi, too, one can say the same thing. He is the next leader of India.”

While such a rousing endorsement must be sweet music for Modi, 58, it does two things.

One, it throws the BJP leadership issue into a tizzy. The designated PM-candidate Lal Krishna Advani, 82, is waiting in the wings, 85-year-old Bhairon Singh Shekawat has thrown his hat into the ring, and there are other claimants. And two, it opens up the old debate: can a state, or a nation, be run like a company? Can a nation be run like a business, with all the focus on the “bottomline”? Is what is good for India Inc, good for India?

In other words, because Gujarat has shown good growth under Modi, is it naturally presumed that Modi has it in him to overcome all the big issues of the day?

Whoever said you can’t build castles in the air?

29 December 2008

E.R. RAMACHANDRAN writes: The competition between the Brothers Ambanis, Anil and Mukesh, is hotting up with no holds barred, be it at home or at business.

If the fight was over marbles and kites during their early years it is over planes, yachts and sky scrapers now.

The new toys they have procured (and are procuring) arouse so much curiosity and questions that finally the brothers agreed to meet the international media and answer queries.

“Your 400 crore yacht christened Tian is the talk amongst sailors right now. It is a hell of a toy. Aren’t you worried what might happen if you take her to the high seas with Somalian pirates on one side and non- state Pakistani actors on the other, scaring even the most peaceful sharks out there?” was the first question.

That was to younger Ambani, Anil.

“I have hired the services of US VI Fleet to guard us when we go out on a cruise. Tina and kids wouldn’t even feel anything going wrong around us. The largest Russian submarine will also be keeping a watch at handshaking distance.”

“What about the $50 million Airbus 319 you have presented to Nita, Mukesh? With jets and politicians making screaming noises in your region, how do you intend keeping Nita and children safe when they go around in the flying toy?”

“You can’t be sure of anything these days. When we enter Europe, the EU air defence system and NATO at Brussels will escort us as long as we are in Europe. Ditto, with US airbases giving us cover as we enter different territory. They will also do formations as we zoom along. Of course it will cost me a bit more. We want to make sure both safety and fun become part of our outing.”

“Your $2 billion 27-storey home ‘Antilia’ is really a 60–storey building that has hit headlines across the world, Mukesh. It would be quite a task overseeing maid servants when they clean and swab your place.”

“We can’t depend on humans any more, so we are getting robots to do the job for us. Robotics from New York will supply their machines. At the press of a button from the 27th, the robots in 14th and 9th floors will start dusting the sofas. I can spray jasmine room freshener for the 21st and rose for the 22nd from the ground floor.”

“Wow, that’s wonderful!”

“If we are coming back from vacation, say in the Bahamas, we can switch on all gadgets in kitchen, decide on the menu and get the dishes working so that our dinner will be ready as we land on the rooftop. Even champagne or lassi will be chilled to the right temperature”

“What about security?”

“Shabak, the Israeli security service, will provide internal security. We are also discussing with Scotland Yard and hope to have an agreement in hand soon,” replied Mukesh.

“What about you, Anil?”

“It’s in the drawing board stage is all I can say right now.”

“Can you share some highlights?”

“Well, basically, we are planning a home which will be a yacht in water, a jet plane while in air and a building with garden rest of the time. Depending on where we want to eat, go sightseeing, it will change accordingly. Something like, Sunrise in Tokyo followed by lunch in Thames’ waters in London or see the sun set as we fly into in Los Angeles is what we have in mind. The nitty-gritty will have to be worked out.”

The competitive spirit among siblings was truly overwhelming. As the reporters left the media conference, one of them was overheard saying, “What will they be fighting for, say ten years down the line? May be who controls Mars, Venus or who has already pocketed Jupiter or Saturn? Sky is not the limit for sibling rivalry.”

Also read: One question I’m dying to ask Mukesh Ambani

Madness, megalomania or hard-earned fruits?

Coming soon: Reliance hair-cutting saloons

Who would you like to see on the moon mission?

6 October 2008

E.R. RAMACHANDRAN writes: After the exciting launches of Chandrayaan I and II, the government quickly announced the dates for a manned spacecraft to land on the moon in the third Chandrayaan mission.

Along with space scientists, ISRO thought they should include the ‘Aam Admi’ for the historic mission. Applications were invited from various groups for possible selection. While some genuinely wanted to serve the cause of ISRO, others wanted to send their opponents thinking it may end up as a one-way ticket.

Since ISRO was planning to send a lunar vehicle, the all India truckers association chief Tractor Singh wanted a member of their association to be included in the team.

“Driving in the potholes of Grand Trunk road has given us the backbreaking experience of tackling any surface. Iske samne Chandrama kya chheez hain? We have enough experience of pushing our trucks even if the axle breaksdown in moon,” thundered Singh.

The Keraleeya Packet Lunch Sangham was the next to meet the ISRO chief.

“All we ever need is just a ladle and bandlee. With that we can whip up any food—Chinese, Punjabi, Mughalai, Chettinad, Udupi or any food which our astronauts want. If ISRO wants our scientists to come back safe and sound, better include our cooks as we can prepare food for any stomach to digest,” said their secretary.

Politicians, businessmen and sports stars too jumped into the fray.

The CPM chief Prakash Karat wanted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to be packed off with the 123 agreement neatly folded in his packet with a quicker countdown ‘321’ for blastoff.  He offered to finance the project from the Leftists’ fund and raise more money from China if necessary.

The PM on the other hand wanted ISRO to send both Advaniji and Karat so that they could at least form a Progressive Party in moon.

Mamta Banerjee, having evicted the Tatas from Singur, thought Moon would be an ideal place for the Nano Project. But here too she wanted only 400 acres to be earmarked for Nano and not a square inch more.

Ratan Tata suggested they would bear all the costs, if the trigger-happy Ms Banerjee could be packed off to moon and beyond so that she could do as many dharnas as she wished to. They thought the lunar terrain somehow agreed with her mental makeup.

Each of the feuding Ambani brothers wanted the other sibling sent to moon.  Looking at the tumbling share market, Dalal Street and Nifty wanted both of them to be sent to moon to start their new ventures there without troubling the courts ever so often.

Cricket too had its share of choices.

Former Chairman of selectors Dilip Vengsarkar, who originally wanted Sourav Ganguly to go to moon to practice fielding, has had a change of heart. Now he wants the new chairman of selectors dashing Kris Srikkanth be sent to sharpen his skill in logic and reasoning and practice running commentary in his spare time.

Closer home, H.D. Kumaraswamy, the former chief minister, thought B.S. Yediyurappa would be the ideal candidate for moon to maintain communal harmony in Karnataka.

The story doing the rounds in mining circles is that the CM, who talks only in terms of crores of rupees these days, has reportedly promised Rs 1,000 crore if the entire family of Deve Gowda migrates to Moon. When last reports came they were still negotiating the price and dates.

While ISRO is in a fix wondering whom to select from Aam Janata, they are also happy about the choices available to them for future lunar missions.

Do you have any candidate whom you wish to serve in moon?

Hopefully, Telgi paid the IT guys genuine notes

6 August 2008

Having a good chartered accountant is the key to becoming (and staying) rich.

Together, Mukesh Ambani and Anil Ambani, the two sons of Dhirubhai Ambani, may control everything from books to cell phones to spectacles to vegetables—and petrol and plastics thrown in. They may be buying companies, setting up power units, and building skyscrapers.

But, neither brother figures in the list of India’s top-100 income-tax payers though their mother, Kokilaben, does! The real shocker is Abdul Karim Lala Telgi. The prime accused in the supposedly Rs 3,000 crore fake stamp paper scam paid Rs 6.5 crore in income-tax for 2007-08.

# Income-tax paid by Infosys co-chairman Nandan Nilekani: Rs 5.16 crore

# Income-tax paid by Wipro chairman Azim Premji: Rs 4.68 crore

Also read: Why the Indian media doesn’t take on the Ambanis

One question I’m dying to ask Mukesh Ambani

Was CNN-IBN right not to air Amar Singh sting?

23 July 2008

Tuesday’s disgraceful scenes in the Lok Sabha—when three BJP MPs heaped currency notes of nearly Rs 1 crore to show that they were being bribed to abstain from the trust vote motion moved by the Manmohan Singh government—has a media angle to it.

The buying and selling of legislators, it turns out, was captured on film by CNN-IBN at the instance of the MPs. But the channel declined to air the “sting” and said it would hand the tapes over to the speaker of the Lok Sabha, Somnath Chatterjee.

The media website Hoot speculates that the channel did not air the story either because its contents did not pass muster with editor-in-chief Rajdeep Sardesai or because Anil Ambani, a shareholder in Network 18 which owns the channel, leaned on bossman Raghav Bahl not to air the footage meant to discredit Amar Singh, a politician close to Ambani.

Media commentator S.R. Ramanujan asks a few questions on The Hoot:

1) Is it the job of a TV channel to provide proof to any Constitutional authority, in this case the Speaker, before it could telecast the news to its viewers?

2) Does this not give handle to critics to allege that the channel was silenced? In fact, in a panel discussion in another channel, this was hinted.

7) Is the reluctance to telecast due to the fact that the concerned MPs preempted the channel by disclosing the “Cash for Votes” operation on the floor of the House violating an understanding?

8) “Publish and be damned” is the idiom mediamen are taught right from the journalism schools. How far is this relevant today?

The sight of the BJP, whose president Bangaru Laxman was stung by Tehelka, demanding that the latest sting be made public, is not without irony.

In an editorial on the issue, The Indian Express joins issue:

“The relationship between sources and reporters is always tricky business and that’s why the need for strong editorial filters. The TV channel made an error of judgment when it claimed, just minutes after the MPs rocked the House, that it had the “tape” of the incident the MPs were allegedly referring to and then argued that it didn’t meet its editorial standards. The channel has the opportunity now — and the responsibility — to take the right call.”

Read the full story here: To sting or not to sting?

Rajdeep Sardesai on why the sting wasn’t aired

Also read: Why the Indian media does not take on Ambanis

Is this man the new media mogul of India?

Why Rajdeep, Barkha must decline the Padma Sri

Cross-posted on sans serif

Lok Sabha TV: Programme highlights for July 22

21 July 2008

E.R. RAMACHANDRAN scoops the programming highlights of the Lok Sabha channel for Tuesday, 22 July 2008:

***

Highlights for 22 July 2008

0000 Movie: Dealwale dulhaniya le jayange (continued)

0130 Midnight Masala (parental guidance advised)

0330 Batwara: Independents (special appearance: RLD, JMM, JDS) 
0400 Gupth Samaveshan: videoconference with MPs in jail 
0430 Blood money: Meeting with fixers

0530 SuprabhatHum ko shakti de bhagwan (Congress)
          Low power transmitters to delink and play Loh Purush ( in BJP states)
          Better red than dead (in Kerala, West Bengal, Tripura)

0600 Live coverage of leaders’ visit to  Swami Malai Mandir, Birla temple, Gurudwara, Jama Masjid

0700 Classroom: What is this nuclear Deal? ‘123’ classes to MPs by Anil Kakodkar

0730 What the czars foretell: live from Dalal Street

Behind the Scenes
0800  Deve Gowda with Mayawati
0810  Deve Gowda with Amar Singh

0820  Trailer: Deal tho pagal hain

0830 Business breakfast

0930 Amne Samne: Manmohan Singh with L.K. Advani
1000 Hum aap ke hain kahan?: Advani with Atal Behari Vajpayee 

1100 Live telecast of vote of confidence moved by honourable prime minister (In the chair: honourable speaker)

1300 Aap ka swasth: Medical checkup for all MPs

1400 Lunch: courtesy Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group

1500 Audio-visual: ‘How to vote & cross vote in Lok Sabha’

1530 Lecture-demonstration: How to abstain

1600 Topsy Turvy: How to cope with last-minute changes in agreements

1700 Closing Bell: Live from parliament

1800 Uranium 360: A 235-degree take on the day that was

2000 Cocktail-dinner: courtesy Mukesh Ambani

2100 Movie: Pati, patni aur woh

2200 Yeh kya hua, kaise hua?: Fixers from various parties

Coming soon: Reliance Hair-Cutting Saloons?

13 July 2008

Our Lactose-Deficient Correspondent in East Delhi reports that he has started drinking “Reliance Milk” from today. A half-litre packet of full cream milk, branded Dairy Pure, costing Rs 13 and made by Reliance Dairy Foods with its offices in Bombay, landed at his doorstep while he was asleep.

Tongue firmly in both cheeks, OLDCED writes: 

“After textile fabrics, petrol, petrochemicals, plastics, power, vegetables, wellness, mobile phones, mutual funds, chappals, groceries, books, spectacles and broom sticks, the mighty empire of Mukesh Ambani and Anil Ambani has deigned to sell me doodh.

“Only two things remain untouched by Dhirubhai Ambani‘s sons: haircutting saloons and autorickshaws. If India legalises the sex trade, Reliance will be the first to bid for it, too. After that we can stop holding elections and ask Reliance to bid for the government.

“A modh bania from Porbandar called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi wanted to fetch us self-reliance. What the modh banias called the Ambanis from Chorwad are giving us is Reliance, plain and simple.”

Photograph: courtesy India Retail Biz

Also read: Why the Indian media doesn’t take on the Ambanis

Surprise, Reliance gets fresh without fanfare

CHURUMURI POLL: Should Ambanis be selling avare kai?

What role should swamijis, religious gurus play?

8 July 2008

   

NIKHIL MORO writes from Mount Pleasant, Michigan: The alleged use of “mine power” by the Bharatiya Janata Party to lure newly elected legislators from the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka is passé.

The real story is elsewhere.

Star of Mysore reports that swamis “of Veerashaiva mutts” are in an “operation to woo” Siddaramaiah into the BJP. No matter that Lal Krishna Advani continues to condemn “vote-bank politics”.  Or that Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay rejected politics which impeded “integral humanism.”

Without commenting on what might, or might not, make Siddaramaiah politically eligible, the real story is how the BJP has given a new meaning to Swami and Friends: Should swamis, who are presumably living vows of renunciation, associate with particular castes?

Should they be playing such an avowedly political role?

Further, is communal advocacy consistent with Basava’s teachings?  Might it create disaffected communities, cynicism, bitterness; even lead away from the constitutional egalitarian ideal?

Specifically, should Shivarathri Desikendra Swamiji (of Suttur) and Shivamurthy Shivacharya Swamiji (of Taralabalu) visibly advocate for Veerashaivas? Should Balagangadharanath Swamiji (of Adichunchunagiri) bat for Vokkaligas?

These questions are not new. But they gain importance in the context of the Election Commission’s proposals for electoral reform and continuing reports of Vidhana Sabha candidates abusing caste.

But most interestingly, the swamis’ political activism exposes a severe disconnect between theory and practice.

Vedanta, the system of philosophy which forms “the foundation of the spiritual culture of India” (Swami Nikhilananda) lays an unequivocal emphasis on vairagya—a renunciation of temporal objects and of ego. 

Swami Vivekananda in Raja Yoga declares renunciation as the “real heart of all spiritual culture,” central to the four yogas of religious practice—Karma, Bhakti, Raja and Gnyana.

The goal of religious practice, Vivekananda writes, is to manifest the

“Divinity [which is] within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy—by one, or more, or all of these—and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.”

Separating religion and politics may not come easy in Hindu cultures because Vedanta prescribes merging of the temporal life with spiritual.  That’s why Hindu dharma is sometimes described as a pan-religious “way of living”. Still, that’s little threat to Western-style democracy or secularism, given that Hindu religious practice is inclusive and personal (non-proselytizing).

Karnataka has more than 50 large mutts which, together, possess real estate worth numerous billions, manage vast business and philanthropic empires in education or healthcare, and seem to be treated with kid gloves by reverential tax authorities.

The mutts are led by swamis who command the reverence of millions. Many swamis are renowned less for spiritual accomplishment, or for intellectual wherewithal, than for social service.

Which begs the question: What sort of religious gurus do we want?

Should they resemble spiritual giants such as Vivekananda or Ramana? Economic titans like Ratan Tata or Anil Ambani? Storytelling maestros like Morari Bapu or Bhadragiri Achyut Das? Intellectual hulks such as Rajneesh or Rajaji?

The “Veerashaiva swamis”, acting as BJP agents, are recruiting a six-time legislator whose persona is underwritten less by statesmanship than by an abiding frustration. From being part of a 1980s’ “dream team of second-line leaders” Siddaramaiah today seems clueless to confront Deve Gowda’s Machiavellian politics. 

So why is the BJP recruiting him other than to access the substantial Kuruba vote which he controls?

What should be swamis’ social role, if any?

Should they indulge in scholarly pursuits—explications of philosophy, tradition and ritual? Give us new interpretations of text? Prescribe tests for dharmic hypotheses? Or run schools and hospitals?

Or act as agents of political parties?

They should know best who own the least.

Photographs: (Left to right) Shivamurthy Shivacharya swamiji of the Taralabalu mutt, Visvesateertha swamiji of the Pejawar mutt, Deshikendra swamiji of the Suttur mutt, Balagangadharnath swamiji of the Adichunchunagiri mutt

Why the Indian media doesn’t take on Ambanis

16 June 2008

Anand Giridharadas has a lengthy profile of Mukesh Ambani, the bossman of Reliance Industries, in Sunday’s New York Times.

As usual, there are a couple of paragraphs on the Ambanis’ messy relationship with the media.

“Critics say Reliance has been especially effective at managing the press. [Two] former Reliance executives, who requested anonymity for fear of angering Ambani, say the company has actively curried favour with journalists to help it track the progress of negative articles.

“A prominent Indian editor, formerly of The Times of India, who requested anonymity because of concerns about upsetting Ambani, says Reliance maintains good relationships with newspaper owners; editors, in turn, fear investigating it too closely.

“”I don’t think anyone else comes close to it,” the editor said of Reliance’s sway. “I don’t think anyone is able to work the system as they can.”

“And the net result is plain: although India’s raucous news media have brought down many a powerful person and institution, Ambani and Reliance are rarely the subjects of hard-hitting Indian reporting.

“Reliance disagrees, regarding itself as the target of relentless media attacks. “There is malicious and negative stuff being written all the time. So where is the influence?” the Reliance spokesman said. “Ambani has told me that he will never pick up the phone and talk to the owner of a publication to say, ‘Write positive stuff’ or, ‘Stop writing negative stuff’.”

Read the full profile: Indian to the core, and an oligarch

Link via Chetan Krishnaswamy

‘First businessmen, now their agents in the RS’

29 March 2008

Anil Ambani‘s decision to hitch his wagon to the Samajwadi Party and become a member of the Rajya Sabha was generally seen to have been one of the contributing factors to his split with Mukesh Ambani. Like their father Dhirubhai Ambani, Mukesh was rumoured to have been of the belief that, while political influence was important for the group’s business operations, there was little to be gained by openly aligning with political parties.

That bit of conventional wisdom has come unstuck in the week gone by. At least three Mukesh Ambani men—two of them (Parimal Nathwani and Y.P. Trivedi) wholetime directors of the elder Ambani’s Reliance Industries, and the third (former bureaucrat N.K. Singh) a visiting fellow at the Reliance-sponsored thinktank Observer Research Foundation—have entered the house of elders, drawing the support of BJP, NCP, JMM, JD(U), among other parties.

There is even talk that a fourth Mukesh Ambani candidate may sneak through, although one news channel which did a story on the Reliance link has reportedly been served a legal notice. With so many businessmen sneaking into the Upper House—think Vijay Mallya, Rajeev Chandrashekhar, Rahul Bajaj, M.A.M. Ramaswamy, the late Lalit Suri, et al—and with so many parties helping them do so for not entirely political considerations, there were obvious questions to ask. Now, with their henchmen doing so, the circle it seems is complete.

In Jharkhand, Parimal Nathwani stood as an independent. Yet, according to unconfirmed reports, a number of cabinet ministers were willing and, in fact, did vote against the official UPA candidate while the chief minister himself abstained.

Harish Khare writes in The Hindu:

“Whether or not there was a quid pro quo, the critical aspect is that the industrialists have secured their passage with the cooperation, indulgence and votes of the established parties….

“The role of money in our public life has had a deleterious impact on the policy choices and moral integrity of political institutions. Apart from the aberrant case when an odd money-bag deemed it expedient to try to suborn the loyalty of a political or bureaucratic executive in order to sabotage or promote a policy, the business houses have over the years acquired a quasi-institutional voice for themselves. As the electoral process has become very expensive, the role and reach of money power has become all too obvious.

“However, it seems that the industrialists are no longer content with acquiring leverage in the political process by donating large sums of money during and between the election times. They seem now keen to pack the Upper House with their “men.” They want to have their agents in the middle of the action.”

Read the full story: One more invisible line crossed

Also read: Why Narayana Murthy will make a poor President

Five (real) lessons for Chamalapura from Dahanu

16 March 2008

The decision of the Karnataka government to pick out Chamalapura in H.D. Kote taluk off the map of Mysore for a 1,000 MW coal power plant of the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), has led to the usual suspects taking their usual positions and mouthing the usual cliches with the usual certitude.

Those saying “aye” talk of energy needs, of “infrastructure”, of development—and paint those opposed as speed bumps, litigious publicity hounds on the path to progress, who will oppose anything. Those saying “nay” drop dark hints of why the place was picked. They talk of the loss of fertile land, livelihoods and lifestyles; they warn of temperatures shooting up, of air quality going down; they talk of the displacement of 20,000 people from 12 villages.

Those are pat textbook positions to take on any plant anywhere. But, what is life really like near a coal plant? Writer, photographer and Greenpeace consultant SHAILENDRA YASHWANT, who lives in the shadow of India’s “cleanest, most modern coal plant”, owned by Anil Ambani‘s Reliance Energy Limited, in Dahanu, 140 km north of Bombay, has a story to tell. It is a story Chamalapura might like to hear.

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By SHAILENDRA YASHWANT

Those opposing the Chamalapura coal plant have put forward a variety of objections, most legitimate but jargon-heavy, some too fuzzy on science, and many clearly off on common sense. Therefore, most churumuri consumers from H.D. Kote to Cote d’lvoire, couldn’t care less about the threat the proposed plant poses to the erstwhile kingdom of the Wodeyars.

And, really, why should you even worry, going by the inadequately articulated arguments of wanna-be Captain Planets, pseudo-environmentalists, professional protestors, and assorted achanak mitra mandals who take to the streets to get their media orgasms (measured in square centimetres, micro-seconds and bytes).

After all, as the mantra of the moment goes, coal plants give electricity. Electricity is energy. Energy is development. Development means double-digit growth. Ask Swami Chidambaram or Sardar Manmohan, or your own SS Ravi Shankar of ‘breathe, beg but don’t drink poison’ fame.

I, for one, beg to differ.

I want to share with you some first-hand experiences and lessons learnt in the shadow of the tallest chimney of the cleanest coal plant in India, the ultra-modern but hugely controversial Reliance thermal power plant (previously BSES), in Dahanu, the lungs of Bombay, the erstwhile ‘food bowl’ of Maharashtra, and the heart of Warli country.

In less than 15 years of its operation, this 500 MW coal-fired power plant—half the capacity of Chamalapura’s—has irreversibly impacted five critical aspects of life of our eco-fragile taluka, namely Food, Air, Climate, Economy, and Ecology. And believe me, you cannot afford to ignore any of them, even with the iPod blasting in your ears, your nose stuck in masala dosas, and your fingers furiously texting naughty messages to your mates.

HOW INDIAS CLEANEST, ULTRA-MODERN COAL PLANT AFFECTED OUR FOOD:

The true indicator of a potential crop is the flush of colour when the buds blossom into flowers. The coming of age of tiny buds—when the mango trees are profuse with yellow, the chikoos with white, the lilies awash with pink, and the veggies in mostly yellow, tiny-tiny flowers—is the first sign of hope for a farmer and the beginning of the first desperate rush to guard against pests, bad weather, lack of water and other tangible and intangible (including God’s will) threats that do not stop the flower blossoming into a healthy fruit.

Unfortunately, the last few years we have regularly experienced quick annihilation of the flowers, of our food—of our hopes. Toxic dust in the form of black soot settles on the flowers, suffocates them, and before you can say “ayyo Rama“, your hopes are blown off the trees.

The culprit is not pests, not bad weather, but soot, invisible in the air to the human eye but all too real on the flowers to snuff the life out of them. From the only chimney in the vicinity that releases vast quantities of sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, mercury and other deadly substances as it combusts coal to light up the lives of Mumbaikars and their ‘outsiders’.

The self-same ones, who relish our sweet chikoos, our juicy mangoes, our fragrant lilies, and survive on our vegetables, all of which was not costly and delicious and fresh, because of the short-distance it had to travel. Really, Dahanu was Bombay’s backyard vegetable patch and fishing grounds.

Yeah, fish-kills too. The thermal plant has to release hot water from its cooling tower, dump excessive fly ash, and other assorted waste every now and then, which it does, straight into the Dahanu creek, where until a few years ago, you would find fishermen, wading with their nets for a lazy catch that would make finger-licking curry.

I don’t want to scare you with the mercury content in the fish, because it’s not worth the trouble; you are going to apply face whitening cream while you sip your Coke any way, right?

Anyway, now the Mumbaikars complain about the prices, not realizing that the longer the food travels, the more expensive it gets and, of course, less fresh. Freeze it as much as you want, but they are truly squeezed for good, and so are we, and the adivasis, and the fishermen and all those unwashed masses that they don’t want invading their city.

In other words, a coal plant impacts the livelihood of not just thousands of farmers, fishermen and traders but also you, yes you! Simply put, if this bunch doesn’t deliver to your fancy new air-conditioned grocery mega-store. Sorry no ingredients available for your akki rotti and bonda-sambar, bisi bele baath and fish curry rice.

Either it is Maharani K.M. Shaw‘s biotech pills or Maharaja V. Mallya‘s beer.

HOW INDIAS CLEANEST, ULTRA-MODERN COAL PLANT AFFECTED OUR AIR

Breathe in, breathe out. Take a deep breath. Focus on it, smell it, feel it traveling up your nose, down your lungs, to your stomach, in your guts. After the exhausting urban assault on my respiratory apparatus, the fresh air of Dahanu is like non-stop pranayama.

Until, of course, the winds change direction, which it does pretty regularly along our coast, and during the period when we are downwind from the thermal plant, it feels like K.R. Circle at rush hour. Really, I wheeze and cough as if twenty autoroaches (the ugly yellow top three-wheelers of our cities) just farted in my face together. Only the sound is missing. Okay, I am exaggerating, more like ten autoroaches.

Our family doctor has dispensed more medicine for respiratory diseases in the last five years in Dahanu than condoms stolen from the automatic-dispensers of Kamathipura.

The rise in assorted ailments and diseases amongst the people of Dahanu caused from the noxious emission from the coal plant is worrying everyone (and you don’t need to test emission samples to confirm this, the Central Pollution Control Board [CPCB] norms /limits are a joke and the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board [MPCB] testing machines that are supposed to test them, a bad joke, very bad joke) so much that those who can afford to, are looking to relocate to places with cleaner air.

This, from a place where Mumbaikars are dreaming of moving to, to escape the urban air pollution.

Just for a moment, imagine that you are a butterfly from the biodiversity hotpsot of Nagarahole or Bandipur, with its gorgeous but short life span. Imagine that you alight on an exhaust pipe of your Nano running in idle. What do you think you will feel? Nothing, because if you were really a butterfly, you would be a dead butterfly. Don’t get it! Go sit on top of a coal plant chimney.

Breathing in noxious fumes , however dissipated from the chimneys of our industrial landscape are slowly, insidiously, destroying the health of downwind communities, of down stream villages, and anyway down-the-shit-hole masses that comprise our rural population.

There is no ‘swalpa adjust maadi‘ with the air quality that you breathe and like love and fresh air, you cannot live on micro-chips and software alone.

You can ask that yourself to Swami Narayana Murthy.

HOW INDIAS CLEANEST, ULTRA-MODERN COAL PLANT AFFECTED OUR CLIMATE

The more that is said, written and presented about the impending climate crisis does not make its impacts any lesser. I am neither like Al Gore privy to huge physical evidence of climate change nor R.K. Pachauri with his access to the world’s best scientists working together with one purpose to get to the bottom (or top) of the biggest environmental disaster in making, dismissed by Michael Crichton in his almost-real State of Fear.

I only happened to be trying to make a living on an organic farm run by my wife, during the last ten years, which we now know were the hottest ever ten years recorded in the century of Dahanu.

In the beginning, the bewilderment of our old Warli workers and older Irani farmers did not make sense, until I realized that I no more needed sweater, jackets and gloves on winter mornings, a must when I used to go drop my son off to the school bus on a bike when I first moved to Dahanu.

The summers were always hot, but every year since the last five years, they have been unbearably hot. I am neither naive nor stupid to blame it on our friendly neighborhood coal plant alone.

Tens of billions of tons of carbon a year pass between land and the atmosphere, liberated from natural fires, and living things as they breathe and decay. Trees, crops, phytoplankton… all absorb CO2 to grow.

It’s an elegant and essential mechanism, except that the human race is messing up the works.

The smooth meshing of the carbon cycle’s many parts depends on large quantities of carbon being withdrawn from the atmosphere and stored in forests, oceans, and underground deposits of coal, natural gas and petroleum. Humans have disrupted this intrinsic cycle, releasing carbon prematurely from the reservoirs, beginning with the burning of forests.

Only half of the billions of metric tonnes of carbon dioxide released since the industrial revolution has found its way back to forests, grasslands and the waters of the oceans; the other half remains in the atmosphere, warming the planet. The molecular structure of CO2 traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space. It’s like an invisible blanket in the atmosphere or the panes of a green house.

In Dahanu, in the last five years, we have had the misfortune of already suffering the predicated impacts of climate change—scorching summers, flash floods, altered rainfall patterns, fierce storms, all of them have touched our lives with devastating effects.

We know that our thermal power plant is a mere blip on the global emissions charts, but it is doing its bit, for sure.

HOW INDIAS CLEANEST, ULTRA-MODERN COAL PLANT AFFECTED OUR ECONOMY

All right, you don’t have to be Amartya Sen to see how all of the above is making a dangerous dent into the much-hyped economy, skewing confident projections of over-confident vote seekers.

The drop in production of food crops in a country that was until recently driven by its economic growth from its agricultural sector, was responsible for the ouster of the BJP-led NDA despite the fact that ‘India Shining’ was truly what it showed on the market charts, following the surge in industrial production and the services sector.

Now, the planners are already despairing that the saturation point has been reached, the stock markets have acknowledged this with more regularity than ever, and those who keep tabs on the manufacturing sector are concerned, really concerned, about the lack of trained future man-power, the one that usually comes from rural India.

Again, simply put, all of your parents could afford your education, despite their humble mostly agrarian background, so that you could grow up to become desperate consumers to keep the economy booming. But if our crops fail regularly, as it does in Dahanu, then the first thing the farmer does is to pull his/her children out of schools and employ them in some unskilled sector (the deadly spoon-buffing units or balloon factories of Dahanu, but that is another story).

One of the deadliest secrets of our forced addiction to coal-fired electricity, is the huge amounts of subsidy borne by tax-payers and the state exchequer from the mines to chimneys. These economic advisors, have never even bothered to include the external costs including damage to health and environment. Year after ‘growth-driven’ budgets may have fired up an industrial sector in spurts, but the hidden costs and liabilities will clearly not be able to sustain the economy.

The blossoms on our trees are the prana of the economy, its very breath; miss one and it is bound to get a stroke, eventually.

Together with the increased burden of costs of health impacts, of compensating and re-compensating the unemployed with schemes and sops and waivers for farmers, of importing food, of everything else that is supposed to keep the economy ticking, all of it is threatened.

In a very microscopic way, the economy of Dahanu and all similar agricultural horticultural centres of the country, are really the prana of the Indian economy.

And you don’t have to consult your many swamis to confirm this.

HOW INDIAS CLEANEST, ULTRA-MODERN COAL PLANT AFFECTED OUR ECOLOGY

Look it up, You are involved!

The famous slogan of Greenpeace is a delightful eye-opener, if you ever bothered to look it up. I did, in Dahanu, and was flabbergasted to discover that despite the relentless assault for thousands of years by generations of the human species, swathes of it still remain intact in its entirety.

Slivers of forest covers across the landscape of India even now sustain exotic mega-fauna and thousands of undiscovered species of living things. Starting from the heart of Bombay, the fantastic Borivali National Park, there is an intricate network of forest tracts and wildlife corridors that extend into the Dahanu and Shahpur
forests. These are the foot hills of the Western Ghats, the beginning of the Sahayadri range that culminates gloriously, weaving its way through the magnificent Nilgiris into the biodiversity hotspot of Wynad-Mudumalai-Annamalai-Bandipur forests.

Six degrees of separation, anyone?

Ask Maharani K.M. Shaw and she will vouch for the fact that there are undiscovered secrets in these forests that may well be the panacea for all that ails humankind.

That is why, after constant pleas from a hyper-active housewife and farmer, Nergis Irani—my wife’s mother and my proverbial ‘mother-in-law’—the Supreme Court of India, notified Dahanu as one of the first three eco-fragile areas in the country.

Stringent norms that allowed only green category industries, strict conditions for operations of the coal power plant including installing flue-gas desulphurisation units, and a monitoring authority headed by an astute man, a rare commodity like the great alphonso mango, former judge Chandrashekhar Dharmadhikari, to execute its orders and stop further degradation of this eco-fragile taluka.

With the industrial belt of Thane-Belapur nudging from the south and the deadly chemical belt of Vapi-Vadodra destroying the ground water aquifers at its north, Dahanu was a natural choice, in more ways than one, to qualify for this special status.

With its large, heavily degraded but reserved forests, the sacred groves of the warlis, its orchards and vegetable farms, the presence of a large adivasi population, that seemed to survive better than their cousins in the neighboring Jahawhar-Mokhada talukas (infamous for annual malnutrition mortalities), the rich but fragile coast line protected under CRZ-1 and the fact that taluka has an important role in the larger scheme of things i.e. ecology.

Sometimes, my mother-in-law practices what she preaches. And the best example of that is the forest that she regenerated to cover about 20 per cent of the family’s land bordering the heavily degraded revenue forest land of the government. The farm and the forest patch at its north east, is known as Forest hills, both after the intention and due to its topography.

Effectively, Forest Hills is a tiny sanctuary that connects to the network of forests, connected by the slim-corridors, which allow passage of creatures across the six-lane highways of death that until recently had Swami Vajpayee waving at you from every toll booth.

My family and I have had the rare pleasure of encountering, boars (wild boars not the self-important drones on TV), hyenas (no, I am not talking about ambulance chasing reporters), wild-hares and wild cats (and I really don’t mean the folks escaping police raids at rave parties outside Bombay), all of whom have darted into the Forest Hills, for refuge, for sanctuary, for a breather.

That these endangered creatures have actually survived and not made to the cooking pots of adivasis or fallen to the shot-guns of Irani farmers, in itself has been an important lesson for me. A humbling one!

Fifteen years of personal observation to confirm the first sutra of ecology—the natural world on this blessed earth is an inter-woven magic spell, too intricate to unravel, for survival of all life. In the last fifteen years I have seen Forest Hills, grow into a bio-diversity hotspot from a barren piece of patchy grass land.

Here I have seen how earth heals itself when allowed to and I have witnessed how it nurtures not only us but many other creatures that have survived centuries. I bet you cannot trace your family tree to 500 years ago.

Therefore, the three dots that form the pyramid, like in the Suzlon adverts, my dear residents of Tipu Sultan land, look it up, Ecology, it involves you, ignore it and your progeny will suffer the worst of the Warli curse, ‘May your children eat coal!’

Also read: SAVE MYSORE FROM CHAMALAPURA PROJECT

When the fence starts grazing the crop of life

One question I am dying to ask… Mukesh Ambani

3 November 2007

While their father was loth to ostentatious displays of the family’s gazillions beyond a point, the Brothers Ambani are very happy setting new benchmarks. Mukesh Ambani, whose net worth of Rs 249,000 crore recently made him the world’s richest man, has gifted his wife Nita a custom-built Airbus worth Rs 290 crore on her 44th birthday.

When he turned 50 in April this year, Nita gifted Mukesh a biopic made by Rakeysh Mehra of Rang de Basanti fame with Pandit Jasraj helpfully singing a couple of shlokas in it. Two years ago, she gifted him a Maybach worth a few crores, and next year, Mukesh will gift her a Rs 4,000 crore, 27-storey “house”.

What is the one question you are dying to ask Mukeshbhai? And what is an appropriate gift for Nitaben when she turns 50?

Also read: Madness, megalomania or hard-earned fruits?


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