Friday, March 16, 2018

A Feast of Vultures - Josy Joseph

Josy Joseph is an award winning investigative journalist and the National Security Editor of The Hindu. Some of his stories are on the Adarsh Apartment scam, The Naval War Room Leak, Commonwealth Games scam, 2G Spectrum allocation scandal etc. The book's blurb quotes him - about how he was offered a bribe by a company that was facing criminal investigation to be silent because an article he had written had dented the chances of the company's raising a 3000 crore FDI - '..boss wanted me to tell you he can take care of whatever your needs are - car, house, whatever...' says the company representative Such is the power the media wields, such is the money that is involved. All it needs is a curtain of integrity to separate the right and the wrong, legal and illegal, ethical and unethical - and just do what you are supposed to be doing. But then, everything has a price, there is no pride of respect left once you have taken a rupee as a bribe. And if any information that is backed by evidence has not been reported because of fear or because of greed, that is the day one should resign and join the enemy.

Josy Joseph starts tentatively (and with good reason) with a prologue about a small village called Hridaychak in Bihar that suffers for lack of roads, access, etc. One person from the village, Anwer, who works in Delhi, through his persistence gets some work done for the village. It is a story that most Indians are familiar with - endless applications, visits, betrayals, bribes, red tapism, blatant corruption - until finally the job is done. In most cases the job is already done on paper, as in the movie 'Well Done Abba', and we need to get it really done now - only now there are no funds for it because the paper shows the village already has a road. Does not matter  if it is clearly shown that there is no road. The paper is stronger.

From that sedate start Josy takes us into the world of middle men who can organise and fix anything in the capital for a fee. They know everyone and can get anything done - clearly they form the layer of communication between the system which does not have the time for the people and the people who somehow need their work done by the system. The middlemen will listen, will open doors, will get work done - all for a fee. Goes without saying that a part of the fee will go to the babu who will finally sign the papers - for which he is already getting a good salary and benefits from the tax payers money already. We get an insight into the rise of R.K. Dhawan, Indira Gandhi's typist and confidant, who rose from nothing to being one of the most powerful men in India. Where the typist amassed his fortune is for anyone to guess. Interestingly Dhawan was present with Indira Gandhi when she was gunned down by three bullets from her bodyguard Beant Singh who was guarding her for ten years and thirty rounds from Satwant Singh - Dhawan was hardly two feet away - and not a bullet grazed him. Then comes a chapter on the corruption in the procurement of arms where the decisions involved are taken by the Chiefs - certainly they are not innocent in the manipulations of tests and results. From Bofors guns to purchase of helicopters, one can see the system has been manipulated and in may times, compromised, to line many pockets. The case of Admiral Nanda's son (his grandson Sanjeev was the famous BMW case where he ran over people sleeping on the roadside after a late night party and killed seven of them) and his involvement in some deals comes through. Anyone who believes that the army is fighting with the best they are supposed to get from the money the tax payer is paying needs to think twice - our patriotic politicians and some top level brass are not letting those chances go. There is talk of Quatrocchi and how he fled the country hours before he was to be arrested, of Ranjan Bhattacharya, Vajpayee's son in law, of Robert Vadra.

For those who think that Modi's campaign against black money is on track - here is a nice story. Modi constituted a Special Investigation team to probe black money.  The biggest black money case (until the time the book was published) ironically discovered by the SIT was Gautam Adani's Adani group which is involved in a Rs. 5000 crore plus siphoning off of money to tax havens. According to senior ED officials it is a water tight case with a trail of documents showing how the group diverted Rs. 5468 crores to Mauritius via Dubai. With penalties the group will have to pay Rs. 15000 crore to the government "if the case reaches its logical conclusion". The ED registered a preliminary case in Ahmadabad. But since the Modi government came into power, the officer heading the Ahmedabad branch of the directorate was raided by the CBI on charges of possessing disproportionate assets which it failed to prove. Two senior officers who oversaw investigations were forced out of the agency. The tenure of the person heading the directorate was cut short abruptly. Now to put it in context - Modi's hectic campaign for the 2014 elections was made possible thanks to Adani's chartered aircraft. Also, Adani is the first big black money case that the SIT has found and the government has done nothing to take it forward. In fact despite all the talk of corruption and black money all these names we hear about are still free and continuing with their lives while the common man is fighting a hard life with no cash.

The rise of East West Airlines and its promoter Thakiyuddin Wahid who made it big in the airline industry and his murder by the underworld in 1995 comes up. I was under the misperception that he was connected with the Dawood Ibrahim gang as most media led us to believe then and even the investigative agencies said that he was killed by Chota Rajan's gang to retaliate against him being Dawood's man. But it emerges and with substantial proof that there was more to it than meets the eye. The family claims that they had no connections to Ibrahim and that the false news item published by Times of India that Tiger Memon left India on tickets purchased from East West (it was a different company and not this entity but the damage to its brand and credibility was huge - I wonder of ToI even issued a correction!). Turns out that a business rival and from the book it appears that Naresh Goyal of Jet Airways seems to be closer to Dawood and perhaps knows more about this sordid story than most. There seems to be evidence linking him to the underworld. Naresh Goyal, now in London, and a dollar billionaire, seems to have enough reason to live there. His life is constructed in the chapter 'Fly By Might Operator'.

In the last section titled the big league we deal with Vijay Mallya and his 9000 crore bank default and how as an MP he was on the parliamentary committee for civil aviation. Whoa! Here is an owner of a private airline sitting on the parliamentary committee for civil aviation! Josy cites several such cases where there is a clear conflict of interest but where such people have been on such committees. The story of Anil Agarwal of Vedanta and his visit to his school - he gives them away 1300 bags and watches with the Vedanta insignia on it and a promise to build a new building - not honoured yet. Parimal Nathwani a group President of Reliance won elections from Jharkhand and sits in the Parliament. The case of the Jindals and the exploitation of coal mines in Orissa and Chattisgarh. The coal mine scams and the beneficiaries all seem to be well.

And finally the building of Mukesh Ambani, Antilia, and some more stories of the growing Reliance empire. Mukesh Ambani, Josy says is estimated to be worth about Rs. 150000 crore so for him to build a Rs. 10, 000 crore, 4,00,000 sqare foot, 170 metre tall, home where about 500 employees work, seems a small thing. But the issue I think is that this house stands out in sharp contrast to the poverty around it. The stories of how the small eyesore shops of 100 sft near the house were offered or bought out for Rs. 3 crore are interesting. But what's more interesting is how the land came up to be bought - 4532 square metres of land on the prime Altamount Road.  An older member of that neighbourhood says that a Muslim orphanage stood on that land (and before the orphanage there was a graveyard) - there was some confusion on the fact that it was Wakf land - which cannot be sold. Antilia Commercial Private Ltd apparently bought the land for Rs. 21 crore from the trust where the price of the land at that time would have been twenty five times more (500 crore). Later an amount of Rs. 16 crore was paid by the Ambani company to the Wakf Board.

The DoT auction for 4G spectrum.for Internet broadband services is a a classic story. One company called Infotel Broadband Services with an annual turnover of Rs. 18 lakh and only one subscriber, bid aggressively across India for licenses  (despite its promoter defaulting on such earlier bids to the GoI) - he finally bid a staggering Rs. 12, 848 crore for a national license - 71000 times the company's annual turnover. No one questioned where he would raise the money from. He got the bid and within hours of the close of bidding, Infotel was taken over by Mukesh Ambani's RIL. A Central audit found several anomalies in the tender process including a possible forgery of bank guarantee. Add to it the famous unreported story of the KG Basin business and we have a fair idea of how the enforcers are not doing their job - I will not blame the Ambani's or any of the defaulters - it's the enforcers who are at fault. Each time something like this happens we must focus on the enforcers - who let them get away, who are benefiting. And the media cannot escape its complicity in this - I remember seeing a front page article on the KG Basin in The Hindu a few years ago and after that the story just died.

Other interesting snippets - how GMR was appointed to develop the 5106 acre Indira Gandhi International Airport (despite accusations by CAG of blatant favoritism) where clauses were made easier to extend the lease for sixty years and not just thirty, how the operator has been allowed to lease land for commercial exploitation at a rate lower than even the amount the government agencies were paying - Rs. 100 as annual rental and a one time payment of R.s 6.19 crore - to use land with earning potential of 1, 63, 557 crore over a concession period of 58 years (and GMR still charges a user fee for each passenger flying out of Delhi which was not part of the contact provisions). Also interesting to note that Ravi Shankar Prasad was a lawyer on the payroll of Reliance for several years (he was handling portfolios of Law and Telecom in which Reliance has a big stake) and now his son is a consultant with Reliance.

Josy ends with an optimistic note - otherwise we would all die. It is a book that certainly adds several new angles to our popular perception and Josy does it fearlessly. Obviously he knows far more than he has revealed but this is as far as he could put out. By the end of the book you feel disturbed and I am still shaking my head after a day. It is wonderful to see that this book did finally come out when it is far easier for such books never to hit the stands. If P. Sainath's Everyone Loves a Drought gives an appalling view of India's rural legacy, Josy gives a glimpse of the corruption and manipulation that goes on in the name of governance, justice and business. There are two laws that operate here - one for the common man and one for the others.

This is a time when there is a huge silence from the media in anything that can rake up the peace. But this is a book that had to be written, because it also shows that India is bigger than all this and there are a lot of good men and women maintaining the balance in every area. One must, like the note on which Josy ends, keep the faith. Because what we give out, comes back to us. Certainly recommended. Great job Josy. Hope to catch up with you sometime.

Thanks Abhinay for lending it to me. I gifted a good friend a copy today!

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