Essar’s industry of influence

01 August 2015

| ONE |

THE TRACK AT THE MAHALAKSHMI RACE COURSE, in Mumbai, runs around a large field that almost touches the Arabian Sea. As horses gallop to the finish line, they pass the course’s colonial-era grandstand, just behind which stands the high column of Essar House. On the twentieth floor of this building, the billionaire brothers Ess and Ar—Shashi and Ravi Ruia—sit in two corners of a shared office, a room nearly 30 feet long.

The chrome and glass exterior of Essar House usually mirrors the green sward of the race course, but not on the afternoon of 22 January 2014. A little after 1pm on that day, six people dangling off the facade, ostensibly hired to clean it, dropped a large white banner. On the sheet, 72 feet long and 36 feet wide, was a message: “We Kill Forests: Essar.”

The banner bore Essar’s logo, and pictures of Manmohan Singh and Veerappa Moily—respectively, the prime minister and environment minister of the United Progressive Alliance government. In less than an hour, about 50 protestors, holding up placards, joined the crowd congregating under the building. About 30 of them were volunteers with Greenpeace India, the local wing of the global environmental non-profit. The rest were from villages near Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh, close to the Mahan forest, where the government had allotted Essar a coal block for captive mining in 2006. The villagers were part of the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti, an organisation protesting Essar’s planned mining.

By the time harried Essar employees hustled the climbers safely back into the building, they realised they had been ambushed. The cleaning firm they had hired was bogus, and those posing as its workers were actually members or volunteers of Greenpeace. The fake cleaners were arrested first. According to Ruth D’Costa, an employee of Greenpeace India who turned up with the protesting villagers, the police came for the protesters standing outside at about 5pm. They were taken away from the site as the sun was setting. Behind them, “We Kill Forests: Essar” was still visible for kilometres around.

In January 2014, Greenpeace India workers and volunteers covered the facade of Essar House in Mumbai with a banner that criticised the group, as well as the UPA administration, for their plans to mine for coal under the ancient Mahan forest in Madhya Pradesh.

The Mahan forest became the company’s softest spot as the year wore on. Ever since it had been awarded joint ownership of the coal block with another big corporate house, the Ruias had lobbied hard to get a full set of government approvals to start mining. They had secured loans, and started to build a power plant on the Mahan site before the final clearances came through. But in September 2014 they lost the block altogether ,when the Supreme Court cancelled the allocation as part of an investigation into widespread corruption in the allocation procedure.

Mahan looked to be a lost gamble, one prompted either by a lack of caution or an unnatural degree of confidence. Both these qualities have definitively shaped Essar, which is one of India’s largest corporate houses, but also one of its most beleaguered. It has risen and expanded in little over a generation, but its success, it is now feared, will exact a heavy price from its backers. The company’s vertiginous ascent looks like the kind of success story that many in Indian industry dream of. Shashi and Ravi Ruia’s father, Nand Kishor Ruia, was a Marwari businessman settled in Madras, where the brothers grew up. (They speak fluent Tamil.) In 1956, Nand Kishor founded a business exporting iron ore. Ten years later, he won a contract to stevedore iron ore—load and unload it—at the Madras docks. His sons took over in 1969, and by then the company had already diversified into shipping. By the time India opened up its economy, in 1991, the brothers had expanded into the steel business, and were ready to jump into oil refining and power production, both set up around a steel plant they had built at Hazira, in Gujarat.

In addition to these heavy industries, the Essar group’s interests include construction, engineering, infrastructure, and retail. Until 2011, it was the Indian partner of the mobile network operator Vodafone, formerly Hutch. This aggressive expansion was financed by heavy borrowing from domestic retail investors, bond markets, international investors and Indian banks, among others. But it backfired. By the turn of the millennium, Essar was deep in debt. The conglomerate has grown since, keeping pace with India’s economy, but its dues have risen exponentially. A Business Today story about the Ruias, published in February 2003, pegged the total amount the group owed in loans at Rs13,800 crore.

Depending on whom you ask, the group’s total debt now stands somewhere between Rs1.2 lakh crore and Rs1.4 lakh crore. A Credit Suisse report from August 2013 pegged the group’s debt at Rs985 billion, or over Rs98,000 crores. This did not include loans on either the holding company, Essar Global Funds Limited, or on Essar’s Steel’s units outside the country. Essar Power, which defaulted on paying its lenders in 1999, did so again this year. At least two banks have declared their exposure a non-performing asset.

Narendra Modi, pictured here in 1998, allegedly organised funds from Essar for elections in Madhya Pradesh that year.

Yet the Ruia brothers remain two of India’s richest people, worth just under $4 billion according to a Forbes report published this June. An Essar spokesperson told me last month that the group’s revenues have touched $35 billion.

Chronic indebtedness, accompanied by a lack of transparency, is by no means new to the world of Indian enterprise. Many firms comparable to Essar in size are deep in the red, and Essar is not the first company to cause alarm among its observers. Yet, in spite of its successes in the last decade, the company has never wholly regained its reputation. In my attempts to investigate the group this summer, which covered Mumbai and Delhi as well as rural Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, I found persistent support for the charge that the Ruia family was, above all, out to protect its own interests over those of its lenders and shareholders, or of those whose lives stand to be permanently affected by the group’s pursuit of land and resources. That accusation is further substantiated by the emails now called the Essar Leaks.

AT THE END OF LAST YEAR, a person with access to Essar’s internal communications approached the Delhi-based lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan. This whistle-blower was privy to details of the company’s attempts at managing the government and the media. Bhushan’s team went through hundreds of pages of the whistle-blower’s trove, and found proof that the company provided favours to numerous political leaders, bureaucrats and journalists. Bhushan used this evidence to file a public-interest litigation, or PIL, against Essar in the Supreme Court this February.

Like everyone else, I first learned of these emails through reports in the Indian Express earlier this year, which revealed details of various services Essar performed for its powerful friends. Notably, the current minister for road transport, Nitin Gadkari, was found to have enjoyed a free stay aboard the Ruias’ yacht, named Sunrays, while in France in July 2013. Gadkari responded to the Express’ queries stating that he was neither a member of parliament nor a member of the Maharashtra legislative assembly at the time. He neglected to mention that he was a member of the state’s legislative council.

Over the last five months, I read through five tranches of emails—three of which I received through Bhushan’s office, and the rest directly from the whistle-blower, whom I met several times. After news of the emails went public, the whistle-blower has received several death threats from unspecified callers. He told me he got one phone call right after leaving The Caravan’s offices, following a visit in mid July—the last time I saw him before this story went to press. “You’re in Jhandewalan right now?” he says the unknown caller asked. “We’ll shoot you right here.”

The emails I saw concern a wide range of Essar’s operations. Many of them focus on the activities of its corporate affairs division, which handled important questions or decisions about “gestures” to government and police employees. A substantial number of the emails I saw were written by or addressed to Sunil Bajaj, a director of corporate relations; Rajamani Krishnamurti, a senior vice president with Essar Services; and Ashish Rajgarhia, who works in the “Chairman’s Secretariat,” suggesting he is associated with Shashi Ruia’s office, although he also appears to work closely with Prashant Ruia, Shashi’s elder son, and Essar’s chief executive officer.

I found details of the bureaucratic sophistication involved in handling the clearances for Mahan, as well as of the simpler give-and-takes that characterised some of the company’s interactions with local power-brokers in the state of Chhattisgarh, where it plans to build a steel plant in the verdant, politically conflicted region of Bastar. Over the last decade, residents of numerous villages in both these mineral-rich, critically sensitive areas of the country have accused Essar of illegally acquiring land for its projects. In Bastar, Essar is suspected to have paid off leaders of the Maoist movement in order to protect its interests in areas under their control—but it is also accused of influencing state machinery, and having links with leaders of the counter-insurgency movement, Salwa Judum.

Amiliya village in Madhya Pradesh is perched on the edge of the Mahan forest. Essar’s activity here was at a standstill when I visited.

All told, the emails substantiate what the chief executive of a bank that has lent to Essar in the past told me: that Essar is better at managing the government than managing its finances. “For a lot of large and mid corporates in India,” he said, “the business acumen may or may not be there, but their USP is environment management”—or what is colloquially known as lobbying.

A former senior official in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government, who is also a longstanding sympathiser of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, told me of an incident from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s time as a general secretary of the party. Modi was sent to oversee the Madhya Pradesh elections in 1998, and allegedly asked the NDA official, “Can you tell somebody to help me a bit?” The former official claimed that he asked Ruia to call Modi. Later, Modi reportedly told this person, “Woh ho gaya. Unhone kar diya.”—That is done, they did it. The person said he doesn’t know “the exact amount of money, but Modi was happy. They had given for the election fund.” Back then, he said, “Modi had no life beyond politics. If you gave him money, it would go in party fund.”

In 2001, Modi became the chief minister of Gujarat, a state key to the Ruias’ business. A person who worked with Essar in a leadership role told me, “I went one or two times to Gujarat when Mr Modi was the chief minister.” He remembered Modi calling state bureaucrats to instruct them to help the company, categorically declaring that Shashi Ruia helped the party. The former Essar employee recalled Modi’s approach being, “‘Here’s a bureaucrat, here’s Shashi’s thing, now you talk among each other.’ I think that’s a very clear way of doing things. That also sends a message to the bureaucrat: Don’t overstep.”—that is to say, don’t overstep Essar.

IN SPITE OF WHAT THE EMAILS REVEAL, the Ruias are not exactly India’s pioneering force in environment management. They learned the craft from Dhirubhai Ambani, the founder of Reliance Industries. Several people connected with both the Ruias and the Ambanis told me that the Ruia brothers consciously tried to model their company after Reliance.

The former NDA official said that, in some ways, the Ruias are even better at lobbying than the Ambanis. “Ambanis stamp on toes,” he told me. “Ruias don’t stamp on anybody’s toes.” They are “extremely docile and low-key,” while the Ambanis would come after you if you crossed them, he claimed. This had helped the Ruias “maintain excellent relationships with politicians of all sets.”

This undated photo of Sunil Bajaj, an Essar director, with Pranab Mukherjee, now the president of India, was discovered in the whistle-blower’s documents.These leaked emails indicate that Mukherjee’s office asked Essar to provide jobs to three people.

A person who worked closely with Ambani, and is also connected with the Ruias, had a different view. He told me that Dhirubhai Ambani was the “trendsetter” and the “real originator” of environment management, and the Ruias only “a poor carbon copy” of him. When this person decided to quit Reliance, Ambani first tried to convince him not to go, and then said he would let him leave “on one condition: don’t join Essar.” Ambani told this person that he had once walked alongside Shashi Ruia at Shastri Bhavan in Delhi, where the petroleum ministry’s offices are located. “While walking with me,” Dhirubhai allegedly told this person, Shashi Ruia “tried to overtake me, stomping on my toes.” The former Reliance man smiled. “I wouldn’t put it beyond Shashi Ruia,” he said.

In Mumbai’s financial circles, the Ambani–Ruia rivalry—which reached its height in the 1990s, when both their companies were racing to complete and commission oil refineries in Gujarat—is the stuff of folklore. But in spite of its appetite for competition, Essar has never quite managed to acquire the same sort of clout with the government or media that Dhirubhai Ambani once enjoyed. Reliance Industries Limited, currently led by Ambani’s eldest son, Mukesh, far outstrips its rival for now.

Everyone I spoke to who has researched or tracked Essar’s actions, both in India and abroad, told me that none of Essar’s problems are unique. Companies such as the Adani Group and Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, a breakaway corporation led by Mukesh’s younger brother, have acquired loans worth Rs80,000 crore to over a lakh crore each. The story of how the Ruias manage their behemoth of a company today has parallels in most of the country’s large corporate groups. Still, several of my interviewees in Mumbai unconsciously echoed each other when they said, “These guys”—Essar—“have taken it to another level.”

| TWO |

ON A SCORCHING AFTERNOON THIS MAY, I went to Amiliya, a village on the edge of the Mahan forest, to meet members of the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti. Most of the village’s mud huts had no electricity, but the wind was slightly cool and the air fresh.

Essar’s Bailadila plant manufactures steel pellets that are shipped to its port and steel plant in Hazira, Gujarat.

This was in stark relief to neighbouring Singrauli and Shaktinagar, twin towns on either side of the border between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. They have about half a dozen coal-based thermal power plants, some of which began operation in the late 1970s. According to an article published in The Guardian this May, these plants produced close to 20 gigawatts of electricity in 2014. The plants also generate employment, and the towns bustle with activity. But as I approached them on a local bus, I realised what the Amiliya villagers were trying to prevent their home from becoming. Mining had denuded the surrounding hills. The air, dense with ash generated by open-cast mines nearby, was barely breathable. It coated everything in sight in a layer of grey, and I felt it clog my throat. At least Amiliya’s villagers had land on which crops grew, and air that did not poison them. To them, the landscape of the towns was a warning sign.

Essar’s activity in Mahan was at a standstill when I visited, thanks in part to the Supreme Court’s cancellation of its coal block allocation. The quiet belied the pitched battle Essar had fought for permission to put its plans for the area into action, details of which I discovered in the leaked emails. Those exchanges show that the company’s top officials had access to classified documents from some of the ministries concerned, and indicate the character of the interactions between the company and government employees.

When the Mahan block was awarded jointly to Essar and Hindalco Industries in April 2006, both companies planned to mine coal that would feed power plants they were building in the vicinity. The coal block received an initial environmental clearance from the government in December 2008. But a forest clearance—distinct from the environmental one—was more difficult to obtain: Mahan is biodiversity-rich, with dense tree cover. The government’s Forest Advisory Committee met four times between July 2008 and December 2009, but could not achieve consensus on Mahan “due to complexity of the issues involved,” the Ministry of Environment and Forests said in a note. In February 2010, the forest was declared a no-go area for mining. At this point, the Ruia brothers and Kumar Mangalam Birla, the industrialist who owns Hindalco, both started to exercise their influence with the UPA administration.

On 5 March, Shashi Ruia wrote a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, requesting that he intervene and help Essar get Stage 1 forest clearance. Essar’s power plant, he said, was “65% ready,” which made the coal an urgent necessity. Jairam Ramesh, the UPA’s environment minister, to whom Singh forwarded this letter, was unsatisfied by this argument. “Shri Shashi Ruia says that the coal mine should be cleared because 65% of the power plant is ready,” he wrote back to Singh. “I cannot, Sir, agree to this logic. I have repeatedly raised my objection to such fait accompli arguments in Cabinet meetings, if you will kindly recall.”

The summer of 2010 was one of frenetic activity for both the Ruias and the government. In May, Shashi Ruia visited Jairam. The day after the visit, the environment minister wrote a note to TKA Nair, principal secretary to the prime minister, stating that he had tried to find a compromise by offering Essar another block, since “clearance of the Mahan coal block will open a Pandora’s Box which we should avoid at all costs.” On 24 May, Jairam wrote another note to the prime minister, reiterating the problem with granting the mining clearances. But in cases where power projects linked to coal mines were more than 60- or 70-percent complete, he held, he could argue for clearances even in no-go areas. “This is a fallback position I could adopt, albeit, most reluctantly if PM so directs,” he wrote.

A couple of months later, the prime minister’s office conducted an inter-ministerial exercise on the matter. Summary records of a meeting chaired by Nair on 6 August state that the attendees decided on six points to be considered in order to allow captive mining for power projects even in no-go areas: whether land and water had been tied-up, environmental clearance obtained, orders for main plant equipment placed, physical work at a site begun, substantial expenditure made or committed, and, finally, whether the plant was likely to be commissioned in under three years. All of these considerations seemed crafted to give Birla and Ruia their clearance—through earlier communications, both Jairam and Nair knew that the Mahan project would meet most, if not all, of these criteria.

One leaked email, a 2014 message sent from one senior Essar employee to another, came with the entire summary note of that inter-ministerial meeting attached. It is not known how or when Essar obtained it. Immediately after the meeting, Ruia wrote to Manmohan Singh again, to tell him that an inter-ministerial committee had visited the plant site in Mahan, and was “satisfied” with its progress. “I would be very much grateful if necessary instructions are given to the Hon. Minister of Environment and Forests to expedite necessary forest clearance at the earliest,” he wrote.

As it happens, the environment ministry did not issue a clearance, and the matter was referred to a specially constituted group of ministers, created in February 2011 and led by the finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee. In January and February 2011, both Hindalco and Essar wrote letters to Mukherjee, sent independently but similar in tone and conclusion. Birla wrote personally for Hindalco, while Sunil Bajaj represented Essar. Bajaj wrote: “It is also requested that any decision about grant of Forest Clearance should be prospective and cannot be applied retrospective as it will dampen the overall economic development of the Country.” Of course, since Essar and Hindalco had not already received clearance, their issue was very much a prospective one.

The chartered accountant and RSS associate S Gurumurthy at a gathering with the BJP leaders LK Advani and Nitin Gadkari in 2012.

The leaked emails indicate that, throughout 2011, Essar pursued what turned out to be a pretty successful strategy for creating goodwill with decision-makers in government: jobs for their friends and family. In July, Sunil Bajaj wrote an email to Rahul Taneja, a senior vice president and head of corporate human resources at Essar, which mentioned that UP Singh, a former joint secretary in the steel ministry, had referred one Kushagra Kumar for a job with the company. With the same email, Bajaj also forwarded the resume of a person named Abhishek Agarwal. Bajaj wrote that Agarwal “comes to me recommended by Shri Anand Sharma (Minister of Commerce & Industry), for a suitable placement in our Group.”

Bajaj sent Taneja another email in November 2011, on the recommendation of “a very senior politician.” The resume was that of Santosh Reddy, son of the Hindu spiritual leader NB Reddy. “This is an important one for us as the concerned senior has again checked with me today about the status of his case,” Bajaj wrote. “Please do the needful.”

Later emails from Bajaj made it clear that the “senior” in question was Pranab Mukherjee. On 1 May 2012, Bajaj sent an email to Prashant Ruia, Essar’s CEO. He wrote that he had met the finance minister the previous day, and asked him to “give an early date” for the group of ministers’ internal meeting about Mahan. (That February, Prashant Ruia had forwarded a text message to Bajaj which said, “I have requested. the PS to Finance Minister to fix the date for the GOM at the earliest. He has agreed for that.. Pl tell ur boys to follow it up…Daljit..PS to Coal Minister..”)

The UPA’s minister for petroleum, Veerappa Moily, seated centre, became the unwitting audience for a Greenpeace protest in 2014.

At Bajaj’s meeting with Mukherjee, the minister had “shown his annoyance that Mr. Reddy has not been recruited so far,” he told Prashant Ruia. The following day, a job offer was prepared for Reddy, with Essar proposing that he join the company by 7 May. On 30 May, the group of ministers granted Essar and Hindalco Stage 1 forest clearance to mine in Mahan. A week later, Rajamani Krishnamurti, the senior vice president with Essar Services, sent Bajaj and Prashant Ruia the minutes of this meeting, too.

Sriprakash Jaiswal, who was then the coal minister and also part of the group of ministers, also recommended candidates for placement with Essar—but a year after clearance was given for Mahan. In July 2013, Bajaj wrote to Ashish Rajgarhia, who worked closely with Prashant Ruia, that during his last meeting with Jaiswal, the minister “requested for recruitment of few people from his constituency.” He too, had “shown his annoyance” over the matter. “I discuss the same thing with Shri PSR”—Prashant Ruia—“who has agreed to recruit 8-10 candidates given by honorable minister of Coal in Aegis or anywhere where they can fit suitably.” Rajgarhia forwarded this email to a person called SM Gupta, and said, “Mr. PSR is expected to meet the Hon’ble Minister on Wednesday and we would ideally like to carry with us the offer letter of the 3 candidates.”

According to the minutes of the 2012 meeting at which they issued the forest clearance, the group of ministers had dismissed the environment ministry’s apprehensions that “such fait accompli situations are against the spirit of Forest Conservation Act.” Anand Sharma, who formed part of the group of ministers, even asked for a waiver of the suggested stipulation that five percent of the outlay on a project be spent on corporate social responsibility, or CSR. His colleagues agreed. Mukherjee said “that it is the responsibility of the Government to take holistic view of all the factors to ensure commercial viability of the project as well as its impact on the prices of end product.” The minutes state that, as a bonus to Essar and Hindalco, the ministers asked the power ministry to include their projects “in the priority list of the 12 Plan projects and forward its recommendations to Ministry of Coal for consideration of tapering linkage.”

Jairam had left the environment ministry over a year earlier. In granting the Stage 1 forest clearance for Mahan, his successor, Jayanthi Natarajan, noted in a file on 24 September that the group of ministers’ decision was made “despite reservations against diversion of the dense forest land, expressed strongly by MoEF.”


THE IMPACT OF ESSAR and the UPA’s machinations on Amiliya was invisible, if deeply felt, when I visited. Had mining commenced here, the village would have been uprooted, but for now it is still a busy, lively village, with a market and a paved main street on which autos ply—a very human landscape on the borders of Mahan’s dark, ancient sal forest.

Three days’ journey from here, another forest lies at the heart of an Essar dispute of a very different nature. The state of Chhattisgarh has about a fifth of India’s coal and iron ore reserves, as well as almost all of the country’s reserves of tin. A great deal of its mineral wealth lies under the cool, green forests of southern Chhattisgarh, which cover the Bastar and Dantewada districts. The bloody conflict between state forces and Maoist radicals who control much of the region regularly makes national headlines. For the last decade, Essar has been trying, without success, to set up a steel plant in this area. It has also been trying to protect its existing interests, which include a 267-kilometre pipeline connecting its steel pellet plant in Dantewada to Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. Maoist forces have attacked the pipeline at least four times.

My first port of call in Chhattisgarh was Naya Raipur, the state’s new capital. The state secretariat and several other important institutions have already been moved out of Raipur to the “Capitol Complex,” the nucleus of Naya Raipur, but the city is otherwise unoccupied. A few housing societies have come up close to the Capitol, but are sparsely inhabited. Out of his home in one of them, the journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary runs CGNet Swara, a voice-based online portal for local stories. Choudhary has worked in Bastar for over a decade, and knows the landscape and its problems well.

When I met him, Choudhary told me the story of his visit to Bastar in 2005. Staying at a hotel in Jagdalpur, the region’s main town, he was intrigued by the adivasi man in the room next to his and went up to introduce himself. The man, it turned out, was the sarpanch of Dhurli, a small village in Dantewada district, where Essar had just begun efforts to set up its steel plant.

The entire Bastar region—comprising the Bastar, Dantewada, Sukma, Bijapur, Kondagaon and Narayanpur districts—is a “fifth schedule” area. The tribal population here is constitutionally protected against the alienation of its lands by non-adivasis without the approval of a gram sabha—a village council that must include everyone listed on the constituency’s electoral rolls.

In June and July of 2005, the Chhattisgarh government signed two memoranda of understanding, with Essar and the Tata group, to establish steel plants in Bastar. Choudhary told me that the Dhurli sarpanch claimed to have forged the signatures of his fellow villagers to allow Essar a claim over their land. He also told Choudhary he took money offered by Mahendra Karma, a local adivasi leader and the leader of opposition in the BJP-led Vidhan Sabha at the time. Karma had parked the sarpanch in the Jagdalpur hotel, Choudhary said, because when the villagers learned of what he had done they wanted him killed.

The Dhurli area’s gram sabha was subsequently declared null and void, and a new meeting called. This time, Choudhary travelled to Dhurli to cover it, but wasn’t allowed to enter the village. “This was very, very blatant,” he said, claiming that he saw Karma “standing there and directing everything” at gunpoint. Karma had once been a member of the Communist Party of India, but by 2005 he was a key member of the Congress in Chhattisgarh. From 2000 to 2004, he was the minister of industry and commerce in the Ajit Jogi-led Congress state government.

Manish Kunjam, a former member of the Chhattisgarh legislative assembly with the CPI, told me Karma was generally considered close to the BJP state government of Raman Singh, which has been in power since 2003. I met Kunjam at the CPI office in Jagdalpur, where he is an influential local leader. Ten years ago, Kunjam had organised fierce resistance to the fraudulent gram sabhas. He claimed that Essar had tried to stop him, sending a senior company representative to his house in Sukma in order to convince him to desist. He recalled that the representative asked him, “Kya chahiye? Kitna chahiye?”—What do you want? How much? Essar, he alleged, offered to pay him Rs5 crore to stop the protests. He did not agree.

The government had struck the deals with Tata and Essar in spite of the Maoists’ hold over parts of the area the companies wished to work in. (Nearly half the region is now wholly or significantly controlled by Maoist forces.) The deals coincided with the first operations by the Salwa Judum militia, spearheaded by Mahendra Karma.

Karma, who was killed in a Maoist ambush in 2013, had vocally supported industries coming into Bastar. Most of the journalists, activists, politicians and lawyers I spoke to in Chhattisgarh claimed he had been close to Tata and Essar. Sudha Bhardwaj, a trade unionist and lawyer in Bila spur, called it an “enormous coincidence” that the memoranda of understanding “came simultaneously with the efforts to open up Bastar” through the Judum .

The leaked emails indicate that, on at least one occasion, Karma enjoyed Essar’s hospitality in Delhi. On 14 March 2012, the Essar vice-president Rajamani Krishnamurti wrote to his colleague Alok Chauhan in corporate affairs that he had “just received a call from Mr. Mahendra Karma” who was going to be in Delhi with his wife and three other Congress leaders. Karma, Rajamani wrote, “requested for two rooms” at any of their guest houses, “a double and another accommodating three persons on 15th and 16th March 2012.” The Congress leader also wanted “two vehicles (Indigo) at their disposal till they leave Delhi.”

However, the only document I saw that connected Essar to the Judum’s activities in any way was a 2007 memo from Dantewada’s district collector, which mentioned that Essar gave money to camps for villagers displaced by the movement. “For those who have expressed a wish to stay in camps permanently,” it said, “funds have been drawn from the food for work program, Bastar Development Authority and Essar Steel Regional Development Plan at the rate of Rs12,000 for each beneficiary to build 6369 houses at 32 places.”

Neither Essar nor Tata have taken possession of the lands marked out for them here, or started work on their steel plants. In an affidavit filed at the Chhattisgarh High Court in 2009, Essar said that land acquisition was still ongoing, and that on 22 May 2009 it had deposited Rs2 crore with the state government for distribution to the villagers. The memorandum of understanding should have expired after five years of no activity, but in 2012 the Chhattisgarh government extended it for another two years.

DHURLI IS ABOUT 100 KILOMETRES SOUTH OF JAGDALPUR, and connected to it by a smooth highway built by the Border Roads Organisation. Some 20 kilometres further south from Dhurli is a small mining town called Bailadila, where the National Minerals Development Corporation has been mining iron ore since 1968. Essar’s plant here processes iron dust collected from the NMDC mines into steel pellets before sending them on to its steel plant in Hazira, Gujarat.

Mining has destroyed Bailadila’s water bodies. Two rivers that flow close by, the Sankani and Dankani, are both the colour of rust. NMDC employees and their families live in a neat little township of their own, while the tribal villages nearby have been left to fend for themselves.

A single, narrow road connects the town to all these villages. Barely 4 kilometres from Bailadila, Mangal Kunjam, a local journalist I was travelling with, pointed out a brown patch of mud. On this spot, he said, less than a week earlier, Naxalites had used a bomb to destroy a Chhattisgarh Armed Force vehicle, killing five policemen. More than ten kilometres on, passing tents housing armed guards placed at regular intervals, we reached a hamlet called Pullpaar.

The adivasi residents of Pullpaar, most of whom belong to the Marya and Murya tribes, do not have individual names on their land records. The villagers live and work collectively, and one or two among them are registered as landowners with the authorities. Everybody pitches in to pay taxes. When I reached Pullpaar, about 50 men and women were digging what looked like a trench, but the land was not theirs anymore.

A villager named Sarma Alba, in whose name the land had been registered, had sold his title to Essar Steel sometime in 2007 or 2008, and vanished. The villagers only realised what had happened in 2009, when Manish Kunjam arrived to tell them about it.

I was told that Dhirubhai Ambani, the founder of Reliance Industries, was the “trendsetter” in “environment management,” and the Ruias an inferior “carbon copy” of him.

A group of Pullpaar villagers told me there had never been a gram sabha about selling the land. Yet, when I checked the records with local authorities, the land was registered with Essar Steel India Limited. When company representatives started arriving in Pullpaar around 2009, the villagers protested, which stopped Essar’s people from returning. Now, the villagers said, Essar officials were coming around again, to demarcate the land under their ownership—an area of close to 200 acres. I asked the villagers if they would protest again. One person replied that if they did, the police would arrest them for being Naxalites.

It is not uncommon for the area’s police to arrest locals on trumped-up accusations of being Maoists or Maoist sympathisers. The insurgents, for their part, have also been known to shoot people they suspect of being state informants. The locals, with no power and no influence, walk a fine line: to survive, they must upset no one.

Some of the leaked emails show why local police and state authorities might sympathise more with the company than with impoverished adivasis. For instance, Essar provided Shivraj Singh, a former chief secretary to Raman Singh, with a “superior room” at a company guest house on a visit to Delhi in 2012, as well as a car—“Corolla and above.”

In 2012, Varsha Jha, an Essar employee, reported in an email that she met the commissioner of Bastar, DC Mishra, at his residence, along “with a few prominent people of Jagdalpur.” They had discussed Essar’s CSR work, and “the fund distribution in between Sukma and Dantewada,” following which Mishra had requested accommodation and a cab in Delhi. Unfortunately, Jha told him, the company guest house was occupied. Later that month, Essar provided Mishra an Innova cab from Delhi to a town near Gwalior, to visit a temple.

In July 2013, Narendra Bhadauria, a corporate affairs advisor, wrote to Bhakthavatsalam K, the head of Essar Steel’s Visakhapatnam complex, saying that he had met Girdhari Nayak, “DGP of jail, Chhattisgarh.” Nayak, he wrote, “had demanded some financial help (2.00 L) from us for sponsoring 6 students of National Law University, Raipur.” Bhadauria referred the matter to his senior, Rajamani Krishnamurti, who responded, “We should do this, as he is going to be DGP, Chhattisgarh from January 2014 and has more than 7 yrs of service with him. Make it a CSR activity.” Nayak did not become the director general of police for Chhattisgarh, but other emails show that he also took company cabs and stayed at Essar’s guest house in Delhi.

THESE SOPS TO STATE FORCES go hand-in-hand with persistent suspicions that Essar has also paid protection money to Maoists—something that, if true, would mean the company has directly helped fund one of India’s worst internal conflicts. The vital pipeline connecting Essar’s steel pellet plant to Visakhapatnam runs through Pullpaar. The pellets are pushed through from Bailadila to the Andhra port town, from where they are shipped to the Hazira plant. “In other words,” as a former joint secretary in the steel ministry wrote in a letter to a colleague, “this pipeline is the lifeline for the survival of their steel plant in Hazira.”

To prevent insurgents from attacking the pipeline where it runs through a thickly forested area under their control, Essar has allegedly paid Maoists using contractors and NGOs in Bastar. While the company has denied this multiple times, every single person I spoke to in Bastar claimed to know either Essar officials or Maoists who had admitted to this arrangement. An Essar official’s boast about it to an American consular staffer was recorded in a diplomatic communication in January 2010. That memo, made public in a Wikileaks release in November that year, mentioned that a “senior representative of Essar” had said “that the company pays the Maoists ‘a significant amount’ not to harm or interfere with their operations; when the Maoists occasionally break this agreement and damage Essar property or threaten personnel, Essar sets different Maoist groups against each other to suppress the situation.”

Nandini Sundar, a Delhi-based sociology professor, also wrote about such a deal in a 2011 essay:

For instance, this author was told by a surrendered Maoist from Orissa that a senior official of the Essar Group appealed to him to allow a pipeline to pass through his territory. This pipeline is meant to pump iron ore from mines at Bailadilla in Chhattisgarh to Visakapatnam port. The Essar official said: ‘Since you are the local government here we will pay you the same rate of royalty we pay the government.’ Given that this rate is abysmally low (considerably less than U.S. $1, or 27 rupees [R] per ton), and given that the market rate for iron ore is U.S. $120 (about Rs5600) per ton, this did not constitute much hardship for the Essar Group.

A former director general of police in Chhattisgarh, Vishwaranjan, told me that a senior Essar executive, after he had retired, admitted privately that the company used to pay protection money to the Maoists. Vishwaranjan also claimed that Arvind Ji, a politburo member of the CPI(Maoist), told him that the Maoists merely allowed industrialists a “temporary lease of life” in areas they controlled. Once the Maoists had achieved their goal, Arvind Ji told Vishwaranjan, “these people will be rid.”

In September 2011, Chhattisgarh police arrested a general manager of Essar Steel, DVCS Varma, two weeks after they had arrested a contractor named BK Lala and a journalist named Pawan Dubey, who used to run an NGO. The police claimed that the company had been paying Naxalites through Lala and Dubey. Essar had hired Lala for local construction work in 2010, and had paid him about Rs13 crore between that time and August 2011. Essar, the police held, had used over-billing to channel part of the money to the rebels.

Dubey’s case was a little more complex. In a December 2011 article in the Indian Express, the journalist Ashutosh Bhardwaj reported that OP Chaudhary, then the collector of Dantewada district, told him: “Essar is supposed to spend CSR funds on development of the area, instead it is diverting it to Naxals.” Bhardwaj also wrote that Dubey had sent letters to Ravi Ruia asking for “Rs1 crore immediately.” The journalist accessed an internal Essar email that asked for Dubey’s NGO to be given the money immediately, since it was “essential to maintain the operation of Kirandul pipeline”—the one connecting Bailadila and Visakhapatnam. The money was duly sent.

When I met Dubey in Raipur this summer, he told me that Essar, through its CSR fund, had paid between Rs9 crore and Rs10 crore to his NGO, Jai Johar Seva Santhan, over 2010 and 2011. He denied that anything was paid on to Maoists. He said the money was meant for medicine and scholarships for local villagers, although he could not tell me how many scholarships, and of what value, his organisation had provided over that period.

Immediately after the arrests, Essar released a statement to say that “baseless allegations are being made to hurt the image and reputation of the group, which is a law abiding corporate.” The case was handed to Chhattisgarh’s special investigations team. A person who was part of the inquiry told me that, on the day after the arrests, Nehchal Sandhu, at the time the director of the Intelligence Bureau, wrote a letter to P Chidambaram, who was then home minister, to ask that the case be handed over to the National Investigating Agency. Sandhu allegedly retracted this letter a few days later. Sandhu did not respond to my messages regarding this letter.

The case is now in cold storage, with all of the accused out on bail. Prashant Bhushan’s PIL stated that BK Lala had turned into a “government approver,” and claimed to have evidence against top officials of the Essar Group.

In Dantewada, a person involved with the case told me Essar was initially scared that it would implicate the group’s higher-ups. The case was delayed in local courts, and there have been no new developments since.

| FOUR |

THE NAME OF DESHBANDHU, a widely read Chhattisgarh newspaper, crops up in the emails in a message dated 7 June 2012, in which Rajamani Krishnamurti wrote that he had met Dev Sharan Tiwari, the newspaper’s Bastar bureau chief. Tiwari “was an influential journalist,” Rajamani wrote, “and can be a big help to us in terms of information and opinion building, if we encash him to our advantage and at the same time will be of great nuisance value if we ignore him.” Tiwari had issues with “being discriminated and bypassed in contracts for last two years,” apparently. But when he met Rajamani he promised to help “set the records properly” for some land the company had acquired in Kirandul, an area that includes Bailadila. The email ended with, “I , Therefore, request you to oblige him with a small quantity of business”.

Tiwari comes up twice in the messages after that—once in connection with an unspecified local problem he seems to have informed Rajamani about, and once about an upcoming meeting between Essar officials and some persons wanted by the police. Tiwari suggested in his message that if these people were arrested from Essar’s office, the company would become party to the case. “SIRF AAPKI JAANKAARI KE LIYE,” he ended—just for your information.

In Jagdalpur, I went to the office of Deshbandhu, under the stands of the city’s sports stadium, from where many other local media units also operate. Tiwari is a large, middle-aged man with a bushy moustache and an easy smile, which did not slip away entirely even when I asked him whether he had colluded with Essar. “Aap prathishta ki baat kar rahe hain?” he said, with a touch of impatience—You talk of prestige?

Tiwari was recently appointed the editor of the newspaper’s Bastar edition. During his time as a bureau chief, Deshbandhu did not pay him a salary. Instead, he earned a commission on the ads he brought in; not enough, he said, to look after his family. It seemed easy for Delhi journalists to talk about press ethics. If no one in Bastar would pay Tiwari to be a reporter, he could hardly be blamed for being Essar’s “eyes and ears in the region,” as Rajamani called him.

Kaunsa gunaah kar diya?”—What is my crime?—he asked me as we parted ways, after I asked him about a deal he made with Essar to hire out some of his vehicles. I could have pointed out that getting contracts in exchange for favourable coverage is wrong, but I realised that his justification was not untenable, even if I disagreed with it.

But the whistle-blower’s emails also provide detail after detail of Essar’s fulfillment of petty requests from journalists whose situations are far from precarious. Essar’s media relations operations included offering or granting favours to some of the best-known reporters and editors at India’s top English-language media outlets. The company communicated closely with some of the country’s top journalists, politicians and bureaucrats, and kept tabs on its dealings with them.

For example, a spreadsheet dated 1 November 2010 lists over 200 people, from across the political spectrum, to whom Essar sent Diwali gifts of iPads—then luxury items unavailable in India—and notes whether these were returned. Only 21 people were recorded as having sent the iPads back. The Caravan’s reporters spoke to many of those to whom the iPads were delivered. Several denied it, or said that they were unaware that it had been sent. Among those we contacted were the former media advisor Harish Khare, who said he did not remember who had sent him an iPad; the CPI (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury who said that his office returned all gifts on principle; and Arun Jaitley, whose office told my colleague to “Stop being a nuisance.”

In some emails, Essar’s executives claim to their bosses that they have managed to plant stories in newspapers and magazines, on television channels and news wires. These claims are not always easy to prove, since it is tough to know how often Essar’s people were simply claiming credit for honest reports that happened to be in the company’s favour.

The executives not only claimed connections with reporters and editors who could plant stories, but also kept tabs on desk-level newspaper staff. On 9 July 2012, a general manager with Essar’s corporate relations group, Parikshit Kaul, wrote to Saurabh Saxena of Adfactors, an external public-relations firm, telling him to “catch hold of desk guys” to ensure that the following day’s headlines, about actions the Gujarat government was taking against Essar, were written in “our favour or at least neutral.” Kaul ended the missive saying, “I believe Mint is carrying a negative headline we can try to get it mild.” (There is no evidence that they succeeded: the Mint headline the following day read, “Gujarat seals Essar’s bank accounts”.)

One trail of correspondence, running from August to October 2011, involves Ravi Ruia and the journalist Shantanu Guha Ray. Guha Ray, who was then the deputy editor of India Today magazine, wrote to Ravi Ruia on 11 August to say that he had met Peter Hassan, who once handled government relations for Essar, “and relived some old memories, especially how I managed stories on shipping and steel from you during my days with The Times of India.” Guha Ray also mentioned a recent story he’d written for India Today that featured Shashi Ruia, among others, on the cover. He referred to a meeting “with my friend” Shivnath Thukral, a former NDTV journalist, “now a director” with Essar.


Guha Ray then mentioned that his daughter, Oindrilla, had recently graduated with a degree in sociology from Delhi University. “Shivnath talked about some great CSR the Essar group is doing across India,” he wrote. “Can she work with the Essar CSR team?”

Nearly two weeks later, Ravi replied briefly to Guha Ray: “Please stay in touch. Your daughter, Oindrilla is welcome to work with our Essar Corporate Social Responsibility Team. I will ask Manish Kedia to co-ordinate if it is OK with you.” Oindrilla was subsequently interviewed and placed with Essar in Delhi, even as Sunil Bajaj wrote to two HR executives, Rahul Taneja and Adil Malia, that he was reluctant to take her on, and unsure “as to what she will do in CSR at Delhi”.

“I distinctly remember asking Ravi Ruia for a job for my daughter,” Guha Ray said in an email in response to my questions about this. “In my opinion, it’s perfectly logical for a father to seek a job for a daughter, or a hand for her marriage.” He added, “I am a bridge builder with my sources, my contacts. I do not burn them.”

In a follow-up application to his PIL, Prashant Bhushan attached a story published by Tehelka magazine in December 2011, which the document claimed was compromised. The piece, written by the journalist and current Aam Aadmi Party leader Ashish Khetan, was titled “Madness in CBI’s Method,” and reported that the CBI was aggressively targeting Essar for its involvement in the 2G scam due to the group’s undisclosed relationship with Loop Telecom. In an email to Sunil Bajaj and Parikshit Kaul, a corporate communications executive listed all the journalists she had met, and claimed that she had “coordinated” a “Story on Essar- Loop in Tehalka and Business Today.” Khetan’s was the only article in Tehelka that month on this subject. Essar was also the principal sponsor for Tehelka’s inaugural Think Fest event, held in November 2011, for which, according to Bhushan’s PIL, it paid the magazine Rs3 crore.

THE SHEER SCALE OF ESSAR’S machinations may be indicated by the fact that the group was named in both the major corruption scandals to shake the UPA government. One was “Coal-gate,” which locked Essar out of Mahan. The other was the subject of Khetan’s story—the second-generation spectrum allocation controversy, or the “2G” scam. Through the whistle-blower’s cache, I got a sense of how hard the group was working to tackle the problems presented by Loop, a telecommunications company whose existence has shadowed Essar, as well as the Ruia family personally, for several years now.

In 2008, Loop won 21 telecom licenses for a number of areas through an arbitrary and allegedly illegal allocation of second-generation spectrum by Andimithu Raja, who was then the telecom minister. Loop’s promoters included Kiran and Ishwari Prasad Khaitan, the sister and brother-in-law of Shashi and Ravi Ruia. In a 2011 chargesheet, the CBI claimed that Loop was a “front company” for Essar, which had a stake of more than 10 percent in it. The chargesheet stated that Ravi Ruia, Anshuman Ruia—Shashi’s younger son—Kiran Khaitan, Ishwari Prasad Khaitan, and one Vikas Saraf of Essar, had “fraudulently suppressed the facts of association” between the two groups. Essar, which had already won 22 licenses through Vodafone, in which it owned a 33-percent stake, allegedly broke the rules of the licensing agreement by also bidding through Loop. Essar claimed that it owned only 2.15 percent of Loop when it applied for the 2G spectrum—a stake that would not violate the agreement.

Back in August 2008, when complaints were first made on the matter, the department of telecommunications referred the investigation to the ministry of corporate affairs. This, I discovered, was a problem that Essar was extremely keen to nip in the bud. Essar produces a Monthly Information System report, a tabulated summary of all current issues that require attention, with notes describing their status and corresponding action plans.

The report for the month of December 2009 was prepared by Manish Kedia, now Essar’s senior vice president of corporate affairs, and shared with Shashi, Ravi, Anshuman and Prashant Ruia. The issues in each MIS are categorised by the ministry they pertain to, and by location—relevant information for deciding who should tackle a problem, and how.

The top points in this report all concerned Loop, and were linked to the Ministry of Corporate Affairs. Kedia noted that copies of official complaints had gone to the Enforcement Directorate, the Central Board of Direct Taxation, the prime minister and the director of the Serious Frauds Investigations Office. The action plan described in the MIS required Essar to either “suppress the issue” at the ED, or to “arrange favourable” reports from the ED and the CBDT and a “favourable reply from DOT to PM.” In a column titled “Current Status,” Kedia wrote that that a member of the department of telecommunications had approved a note that called for sending a show-cause notice to “the company,” and sent this to the telecom secretary. The secretary, the MIS said, “cleared the file and said in clear terms that No. show cause notice is required to be sent.”

Also in the MIS, Kedia mentioned that the ministry of corporate affairs had raised two queries about managerial remuneration paid to S Subramaniam, Loop’s chief executive. Under the Current Status column, Kedia wrote and highlighted: “(we should avoid referring this in future)”. Clearly, not every stratagem Essar tried in this matter worked. Even though Essar exited the telecom sector in 2011, selling its stake in Vodafone Essar to its international partner Vodafone, the cases against Ravi and Anshuman Ruia, the Khaitans, and Saraf, are still active.

S GURUMURTHY IS A CHARTERED ACCOUNTANT, not a journalist, but his reputation as a crusader against industrial corruption was cemented in the late 1980s by stories he published in the Indian Express, revealing grave irregularities in Dhirubhai Ambani’s dealings with the government. I called Gurumurthy after his name came up a number of times in my interviews, especially among people who had known either Ambani or the Ruia brothers and had followed their respective careers closely. The former Essar executive, the former associate of Ambani, and ex-NDA official who is a BJP sympathiser, all claimed that Gurumurthy had been close to the Ruias for decades.

All these people told me that Gurumurthy, an associate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, had helped bring the Ruias closer to several people in the BJP, including the former deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani. A Delhi-based lobbyist said the Ruias had an old “Chennai connection” with Gurumurthy. When I called Gurumurthy, he said he did know the Ruias from Chennai, from before they relocated to Mumbai in 1973. But he was affronted when I asked him whether he had connected the Ruias with the BJP, and refused to speak further.

One financial expert I spoke to attended a meeting between Gurumurthy and Shashi Ruia in the 1990s. At this meeting, Ruia declared that he had planned to set up an oil refinery in India before Ambani did. Ambani opened India’s first private refinery in 1998 at Jamnagar, next to Vadinar, the site of the proposed Essar plant. Work on both the companies’ plants, began at around the same time, but Essar’s plant took seven years longer to commission. The delays, I was told, were partly due to Dhirubhai’s influence in Delhi, Mumbai and Gujarat.

A cyclone that hit Gujarat in 1998 further delayed the Essar project. By the time the refinery was up and running, Essar had lost the sales-tax break that the Gujarat government had offered it at the start of construction—one that Reliance had availed. Following years of litigation, last year Essar finally paid the Rs7,185 crore in sales tax that it owed the Gujarat government.

“See, Reliance is known to be devastatingly brutal towards any competition,” the former Essar senior executive told me. “They wanted Essar to close down.” The former official of the NDA agreed. “Dhirubhai Ambani did not want to see anybody in the same space that he was.” He hoped to destroy his rivals, the ex-official said. Ambani, he alleged, “told all the banks not to give them more money,” and even told the finance ministry not to help them.

Reliance and Essar have been implicated together in at least two cases related to their petroleum businesses. Most recently, in February this year, Delhi police arrested executives of both groups—along with those from three others—for stealing sensitive government documents from the petroleum ministry. Reliance Industries issued a statement distancing itself from the accused executive. Essar chose to remain silent.

While the whistle-blower’s emails show no evidence of such theft, in this case or in any other, they do indicate that Essar officials have been privy to a great deal of notionally confidential government communication. The leaked documents attached to the emails I saw include communications from the finance, coal, petroleum, environment, steel, railways and shipping ministries—all directly connected with prominent Essar businesses. One email even came with budget proposals from the petroleum ministry for the 2012–13 financial year attached.

Not all of these came from high-level bureaucrats or ministers’ offices, either: a message from Bajaj, sent before Diwali of 2013, spoke of the high expectations for festive gestures “at all levels” in government offices. Diwali and New Year were occasions for gifts to be distributed “to person in the middle and the lower ranks in various ministries,” he wrote, “who are very vital in sustenance and procurement of important information and documents.”

In February 2013, Bajaj wrote to Prashant Ruia about a new proposal to levy custom duty of 1 percent on crude oil. Naresh Nayyar, the CEO of Essar Oil, had told Prashant that “the PSUs”—public sector undertakings—were resisting it, but if forced “they would pass on the impact to pvt sector. They have indicated that we should use our influence to stop this.” Prashant forwarded this email, at just past midnight on a Saturday morning, to Sunil Bajaj, asking Bajaj to call him, saying, “We need to stop this.” Bajaj responded, within half an hour, “Will call in morning Prashant ji, will meet Moily ji and connect you also.”

Going by the emails, Veerappa Moily, the UPA’s minister for petroleum and natural gas, appeared to be in continuous and close contact with the group’s executives throughout 2013. Bajaj and his colleagues seem to have met Moily several times to talk about issues directly affecting Essar’s interests. In one email, Prashant Ruia wrote that he met Moily, who had “very clearly agreed with our option” of “price discovery” for a coal-bed methane block in Raniganj, West Bengal.

In another email, Vaidyanathan Ramachandran, Essar Energy’s president of corporate relations, wrote to Bajaj and Ashish Rajgarhia, among others, about a just-concluded meeting with Moily about the Ratna-R Series oil block—a site off the coast of Mumbai that Essar had been awarded in 1996, which had since been mired in red tape. Essar wanted to get moving on exploiting it. The minister “was convinced with my argument & asked his PS to send a strong note from the minister’s side to the Secy to take a decision on Ratna within 7-10 days,” Vaidyanathan wrote.

In November, in two emails marked “Recd from media sources,” Rajgarhia forwarded Moily’s note to the petroleum secretary on Ratna-R, as well as a note from a joint secretary in the ministry to the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, the CCEA. Moily, clearly impressed with Essar’s argument, wrote that while it might be convenient to resort to fresh bidding on the block, the ministry had to be aware both of the legal implications of doing so, and of the impact of such decisions on investors’ sentiments. He noted that the finance ministry had already sought the law ministry’s opinion on this matter, which he did not find satisfactory. Instead of a law ministry clarification, he wrote, “it is appropriate to place the matter before the CCEA with detailed analysis of all the available options which also include the finalization of the contract with Essar.”

JUST AFTER THE GENERAL ELECTION IN 2009, Sunil Bajaj wrote two internal office memos to Prashant Ruia. In one, he said that “it was decided to strengthen the Corporate Affairs work at Delhi.” Bajaj had noticed that many parliamentarians, “especially the young,” were “techno-savvy,” preferring emails and texts to “traditional letters.” He suggested that Essar gift about 200 “top-end cell phones” to some of these MPs, as well as to top bureaucrats, with “SIM cards supported by us by about Rs5000/- per month.” Many corporate houses such as Reliance and Airtel were “already doing this” to build relationships, he said, “and experiencing the benefits of such a strategy.”

The second internal note concerned, once again, the matter of jobs. “Almost all corporate houses come across the phenomena of ‘job requests’ from the power centres, ie Govt offices that they interact on an everyday basis, or from powerful politicians, or bureaucrats,” he began. Such requests would have to be entertained, particularly since the Delhi team interacted regularly with some of the country’s most important political leaders. In any case, he continued, the suggested candidates were often “highly qualified.” So, “as we are recruiting people from outside, why not entertain these people?” He concluded by saying, “I request at least 200 jobs be earmarked for this kind of requests.”

The pressure on Essar to act on government representatives’ employee recommendations extended far beyond the Mahan episode. In the whistle-blower’s emails, I found multiple instances of bureaucrats and leaders of several political parties suggesting, even putting “pressure” on the group to hire favoured candidates, some of whom were close relatives. Most blatantly, Pranab Mukherjee, both in his capacity as finance minister and after he assumed the office of president of India, recommended three hires. One of them was his granddaughter, Suchismita Mukherjee, for whom the president’s office facilitated an internship with Essar’s office in the United Kingdom.

The emails reveal a laundry list of such cases. In early 2013, the treasurer of the Congress party, Motilal Vora, sent in the resume of Surbhi Purohit, whose husband already worked with Essar in Mumbai. In an email to Rahul Taneja, Bajaj wrote: “Since Vohra ji has personally requested me and the candidate is very close family linked with Vohra ji. I would request you to kindly look into it.” Vora “generally does not tell any work,” he said.

In his PIL, Bhushan stated:

Out of the 60 people who want their candidates to work with Essar, there are candidates referred by Mr. Beni Prasad Verma (then Steel Minister), Mr. Sriprakash Jaiswal (then Coal Minister), Mr. Sanjeev Kumar (private secretary to then Minister for Petroleum & Natural Gas), Mr. Mohan Prakash (Congress general secretary in-charge of 3 states), Mr. Digvijay Singh (senior Congress leader), Mr. Varun Gandhi (BJP leader) and Mr. Yaswant Laguri (Lok Sabha MP from Keonjhar, Odisha).

In another email, in August 2012, Bajaj sent across a recommendation from the BJP Rajya Sabha member Prabhat Jha, who was then also the party president for Madhya Pradesh and is now the BJP’s national vice president.

In many of these cases, the offer letters issued to suggested candidates are also attached to the email threads. The PIL stated that all those who made the recommendations had “official dealing” with Essar, or could “help them in its business by the use of their influence,” thus possibly amounting to offences under “the Prevention of Corruption Act”.

Another set of emails reveals that Syedain Abbasi, a joint secretary in the steel ministry, made use of Essar’s guest house in Delhi—even though, as a secretary to the union government, he would have had a house allotted to him in the city by the government. A 2013 email from Rajamani Krishnamurti described Abbasi as “a very important person for the steel vertical,” as “majority of Essar’s issues were being handled by him.” Among other matters, Rajamani wrote, Abbasi had “informally” told him about a cabinet note that the minister of state for steel was preparing on industry issues. He had also advised the company to move against a government proposal by acting through“industry bodies like CII, FICCI and ASSOCHAM.” He was behaving, in effect, like a personal consultant to the company.

| FIVE |

I SENT ESSAR AN EMAIL with questions about many of the issues raised by the whistle-blower’s emails and my own reporting. Manish Kedia, the senior vice president of corporate affairs, responded on the group’s behalf. He did not directly answer any of my questions about the group’s financial problems, its alleged political links, or its modus operandi in Mahan and Bastar. “Considering the earlier articles published by you,” Kedia wrote, “and having regard to the nature and content of your present queries, we have every reason to believe that you intend to publish an article containing imputations to harm Essar’s reputation.”

All Essar’s companies “have created significant value for its stakeholders and each one of them meets the standard financial norms as prescribed by the Reserve Bank of India and other regulatory authorities,” the response continued. Further, “Till date, no court of law has held that any company owned by Essar has violated any provision of law.”

As for local communities affected by Essar’s businesses in rural India, Kedia said, the group has “an extensive program to support” them. “We suggest you first visit some of these villages and communities before drawing any wrong conclusion based on selective inputs from people with vested interests. We also suggest you visit our website to understand the activities and achievements of Essar Foundation, in particular.”

The former senior official with Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA government told me a story from Vajpayee’s time in office—an anecdote about how promoters such as the Ruias understand the function of banks and the restructuring of loans. In 1999, Essar, unable to meet its interest payments, was being hounded by several banks, mainly the State Bank of India and IDBI Bank, both PSUs. When the group approached the government for help, the NDA’s deputy prime minister, Lal Krishna Advani, called up the former official to try and figure out a solution.

“They were in bad trouble,” this person told me. “Ambanis had them cornered. Their Jamnagar refinery was not moving. Their steel-making business was bad.” The official studied the issue and came up with an industrial restructuring plan. “Basically, I said, you sell your refinery; so much money will come; you put it here; the banks will give you loan.” The NDA’s finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, took a look at the deal and declared himself satisfied, the official said.

Then Shashi Ruia saw it. “Shashi came to my room and said, ‘You’ve done to me what even Dhirubhai Ambani couldn’t have.’ He said, ‘You’re asking me to hive off businesses.’” The official was taken aback, and said that this was, after all, what restructuring entailed. Then Shashi allegedly told him, “No. In India it’s not hiving off, it’s giving me more money.” The official told me, “He was so blunt. ‘Mujhe aur paisa chahiye. You get me more money.’” The official said he told Shashi Ruia, “For that you have to go to the politicians.”

Around this time, a senior SBI banker asked the official to tell the Ruias to bring some money they had abroad back to India. “Inko bolo bahar se paisa laye. Yeh bol rahe hain paisa nahi hai, bahaut paisa hai,” the official said he was told—Tell them to bring in money from outside. They say there’s none, but there’s so much.

The official says he duly asked Shashi Ruia how much money he had parked outside the country. Shashi asked him to take a guess. “So I said 200 million.” “‘You are downgrading me so much’,” Shashi allegedly said, and then proceeded to draw up a list of his companies. “Yeh kiski company hai? Yeh meri company hai.”—Whose company is this? It’s mine. “I’m worth 1.5 billion abroad.”

THE MONSOONS HAD JUST HIT MUMBAI when I landed there, and after the first day of the resulting floods—a seasonal ritual—the city mostly resumed its routine. I spoke to over a dozen people connected with the city’s financial services industry, trying to piece together a picture of how Essar was doing, and how it was viewed in the markets.

Indian promoters have historically relied on debt to grow, and the chief executive of a bank that has lent to Essar in the past told me that the Ruias were no different. But, he added, Essar does not have “the best possible reputation as a borrower.” Almost all the bankers I spoke to repeated an old quip, accompanied with either a scoff or a nervous laugh: Borrow a hundred rupees from a bank, it’s your problem. Borrow a hundred million, it’s the bank’s problem.

Almost everybody I met took a dim view of the company’s financial health. A senior analyst with a large international financial services firm said that, like many promoters of large corporate houses, the Ruias were “fairly savvy,” and “very clear: upside is theirs, downside is the banks.” Businesses have, largely, three sources for raising funds: borrowing from banks or institutional lenders, selling shares, or selling bonds that promise buyers a particular form of return. Essar has a history of unfavourable returns with all three sources.

Around 2005 and 2006, most Essar companies with assets in India—such as Essar Steel and Essar Oil—moved their parent companies outside the country, to places such as Mauritius, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and Cyprus. According to a note by Greenpeace, corroborated by a Directorate of Revenue Intelligence notice, these companies now come under the ownership of a holding company named Essar Global Fund Limited, owned in turn by two trusts based in the Cayman Islands. These two trusts are managed by the corporate trustees of two more companies based in Cayman Islands. Each of these companies has five beneficiary companies. Eight of these ten companies are wholly owned by the Ruia family.

Such structural complexity is not unique to Essar, and many international corporate groups are based in tax havens such as the Cayman Islands or the British Virgin Islands. These tactics discourage transparency: a researcher or an observer has no way to gauge the company’s overall financial health unless the company volunteers access to its books. Information about Essar’s finances, I was told by the chief executive of a bank that has lent to Essar, “is only available with the lenders.” Taking all of Essar’s companies into account, there are probably well over 20 banks lending to the group. Each bank gets access to company accounts relevant to their due-diligence procedures, but no more.

For this reason, it is impossible to definitively calculate the group’s total debt. For the 2013–14 financial year, a senior researcher with a credit-rating agency that tracks some of Essar’s companies put the figure above Rs125,000 crore, or $20 billion. The bank’s chief executive put it at Rs145,000 crore, or nearly $24 billion. “Debt is at every level” of the Essar group, he told me; the holding company alone owes more than $3 billion.

This tallied with the figure that an investment banker who has studied Essar’s books, including those of the holding company, shared with me. This investment banker told me that as of 2011–12, the holding company’s debt amounted to approximately Rs20,000 crores or $3.7 billion He also calculated in 2013–14, Essar’s steel units in the United States were in a combined debt of Rs15,000 crores, and the holding company’s “stand alone” loans were nearly Rs25,000 crores for the 2013–2014 financial year. In 2013, the ratings agency CARE termed Essar Steel a defaulter. Some credit rating agencies in India and abroad have now stopped rating a number of Essar companies altogether, because Essar does not provide them sufficient information to do so.

In response to my questions about the company’s debt, Kedia sent me a break-up of the debt for four of the group’s largest companies in India, which he claimed were the actual figures for the 2014–15 financial year. (Everyone I met in Mumbai was calculating from Essar’s 2013–14 financial declarations; their 2014–15 declarations will only be widely released in their annual reports by September.) For Essar’s steel, oil, power and ports businesses in India, the total debt is now Rs70,921 crores. If true, this will be a reduction of nearly Rs10,000 crore from the previous total debt of these companies, which, I learned, was over Rs80,755 crores ($12.7 billion at current rates).

If the group’s debt is worth more than $20 billion, even the annual interest payments to service it, assuming a rate of 10 percent per annum, add up to at least $2 billion. Essar’s largest exposure in India is to the State Bank of India. ICICI is another major domestic lender. Among foreign banks, the London-based Standard Chartered and VTB Bank of St Petersburg have large exposures to the group. If Essar fails, the bank’s chief executive said, and specifically so for its Indian lenders, “banks can’t afford to hold the problem.”

The chief executive also said that the group’s equity value—determined by whether it can honour its debt commitments even if it was to sell its assets—is now “questionable.” A Credit Suisse report released this June states that Essar Steel “has been recognized as NPA”—a non-performing asset, or a loan on which no payments have been made for 90 days— by two banks, HDFC and Bank of India. An earlier Credit Suisse report, from April, said Essar Steel’s debt was worth 16.2 times its equity—well over four times the ratio for other large steel concerns such as Bhushan Steel, with a reported figure of 3.8, and Monnet Ispat, with 3.7.

The total value of declared NPAs for India’s nationalised banks has risen steeply, from Rs75,000 crore in 2011–12 to Rs2.6 lakh crore by December 2014, according to a Press Trust of India report. But bankers and analysts believe that these figures do not represent the rise fully. It is neither in the businesses’ nor in the banks’ interest to declare an asset an NPA. Large NPAs not only stress banks’ books, they also affect the value of their shares in the capital markets. The NPA’s of nationalised banks pose a particularly huge risk for any economy, and India is now at “an inflection point,” according to the chief executive. “India can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” he said. “It will impact growth.”

Once a bank loses hope of recovering a loan, it can either write it off, or sell its exposure at a discount to an asset reconstruction company. Earlier this year, HDFC sold its exposure to Essar Steel, worth Rs550 crore, to the Edelweiss Asset Reconstruction Company at a 40-percent discount—taking on a loss of Rs220 crore. The chief executive said HDFC could afford to take the haircut, but other banks could not. “Debt compounds very fast,” he told me. “The longer they take”—to pay it back—“the bigger the problem.”

SPEAKING TO THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE, the top investment banker, the senior researcher with the credit-rating firm, and the analyst with a global financial services firm, gave me a latticed but solid sense of the scope of Essar’s problems, and of how the group is viewed in the neurotic world of Mumbai banking. None of these people were willing to be identified for this story; indeed, everyone connected with Mumbai’s financial services industry displayed a degree of paranoia I haven’t encountered when interviewing politicians in Delhi. Everyone asked that I anonymise them as far as I could.

The researcher and I met at a coffee shop in the midtown neighbourhood of Lower Parel, not far from Mahalakshmi Race Course and Essar House, whose gleaming towers house many of Mumbai’s financial services firms. As we talked about Essar’s opacity, the researcher said that a lot the company’s problems, and those of the Indian economy today, had come about because of banks that allowed large infrastructure companies to accumulate so much debt.

Banks, he said, “should be more prudent in lending,” and ask for more equity while transacting with these companies. Looking at the size of Essar’s projects, he said, “someone should have put their foot down and asked for money.”

The chief executive told me the problem was that PSU banks were like “zombies,” into which the government “keeps pumping in money.” Most of those I met from the financial and banking industries said that public-sector banks had no incentive to act against rogue promoters. Indeed, they often had considerable inducements not to—sometimes due to political pressure, sometimes because of plum favours awaiting their senior executives.

“Compared to the Tatas and the Birlas,” the senior researcher said, the Ruias’ financial discipline is “a tad lower.” This had exacerbated their problems during recent downturns in some of the industries they operate it. The global steel sector slumped across 2012 and 2013, the senior researcher explained. Then Essar’s power projects, including Mahan, hit a bad patch; and, as the company used to get its coal from Indonesia, “profitability was hit” when prices in that country went up but Essar couldn’t hike its tariffs in India. For its size and scale, the company needed “deeper pockets,” he felt.

The chief executive told me that a major reason for how bad Essar’s situation has gotten was the group’s “bad judgment” and “aggression.” Simply, they had mistimed some of their largest projects in the last few years. The senior researcher said the same thing. Essar’s debt had “ballooned,” he told me, because of delays, starting in the mid-2000s, with their steel and refinery projects. The company had taken on some massive projects, all in different industries, and tried to execute them all at once. “Shashi’s big kick in life is to build assets,” the leading investment banker told me. He said the company’s assets—even though world class—were all “built on debt,” then leveraged to take on more debt.

Ideally, the average debt-to-equity ratio for projects of the sort Essar pursues should be about 70:30 or 80:20, with the majority of the money pitched in by banks and the rest by the company. This does not, however, usually happen. A former banking secretary I met in Delhi told me that “all large infrastructure companies” masked their debt-to-equity ratios, getting banks to put up the entire amount of funding. They do so by inflating their bills. Say the actual cost of a project is Rs100, and the company is expected to put in Rs20. The company will peg the project cost at Rs120. For its 20-percent share, it will then have to bring in Rs24 in equity. After taking in the extra Rs20 from the banks, in effect it just has to put in Rs4. The promoters make their money back even before the asset starts functioning.

Last month, the journalist Pranati Mehra reported for The Caravan’s online publication, Vantage, on a show-cause notice sent to Essar by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence in March. The DRI claimed it had information that various Essar-owned companies had inflated invoices for imported equipment as a method of siphoning money out of the country. According to the notice, the UAE-based Global Supplies, a former subsidiary of an Essar firm, had acted as an intermediary between Essar companies and manufacturers and vendors of equipment in Europe, China and South Korea. The bills show that Global Supplies sold equipment to Essar firms at rates between 30 percent and 50 percent higher than those it had been billed at by manufacturers and vendors. In one case, equipment was over-invoiced by 300 percent; in another, a staggering 1,100 percent.

Essar paid the sums billed into various overseas bank accounts belonging to Global Supplies. From there, Global Supplies paid suppliers’ the amounts they had billed, and siphoned off the extra money. Global Supplies is “presently an independent company,” the DRI document states.

DRI’s investigating officials scrutinised invoices made between 2008 and 2011. They learned that a number of senior officials in Essar companies had worked with Global Supplies at some point or the other, many of them “on the direction and at the behest of Essar Group companies.” The DRI, after collecting these statements, said that it appeared “that GSF was shown on paper as supplier, while for all practical purposes, the Essar Group entities in India” were dealing with the manufacturers and vendors directly. “It further appears to indicate that GSF was created by Essar Group with the sole purpose of acting as an intermediary invoicing agent to raise inflated invoices on various Essar Group entities and facilitate over-invoiced clearances in India.” Through the 890 bills mentioned in the notice, the DRI claimed, Essar had over-invoiced equipment by more than R2,600 crore.

IN 2002, Essar Steel defaulted on its bank payments and was forced to undergo corporate debt restructuring. Soon after this, the global steel industry experienced a revival, which changed the company’s fortunes. It repaid its restructured loans to SBI and IDBI before they were due, in 2006. Around this time, it also sold part of its telecom business to the Hutchison group, bringing in some much-needed cash. (The senior analyst said that when Essar sold the business to Vodafone in 2011, it took the “$5 billion cheque, showed it to several people and took money.”)

The following year, the refinery in Vadinar was commissioned, with an annual capacity of 10.5 million tonnes, which was expanded to 20 million tonnes by 2012. In 2012, Essar even doubled the capacity of its steel plant at Hazira to 10 MT.

According to a report from the mid-2000s, prepared for a client by an international adviser on Indian markets:

Despite a well-documented string of defaults and accusations of financial shenanigans, the Ruias have fundamentally retained their access to Indian and foreign sources of capital that are key to their growth and, indeed, their survival. The family typically employs as little as possible of its own accumulated wealth—much of which is reportedly parked outside India—to enter new businesses or to expand existing operations. 

The senior researcher with the rating agency said that with multiple projects in different industries proceeding together, there is “more scope to juggle money.” The Ruias have been accused several times of siphoning money from their companies to stash it abroad, and disregarding shareholders’ interests in order to enrich themselves, but such charges have never been proven.

Today, a broker with a large brokerage house in Mumbai told me, investors, whether retail or institutional, wouldn’t “touch them with a barge pole.” The senior researcher said the Ruias’ issues went beyond the relatively simple question of returns to shareholders, which Essar has never been good with. There is “some level of opacity” about the group’s finances, he said. They did not make statements about or otherwise publicise their plans for the group. Essar’s standards of corporate governance and transparency compared poorly to those of other business houses—here the researcher brought up the Tatas and the Birlas again. All of this was making investors “sceptical,” he said, of Essar companies.

“Indian promoters don’t give a shit” about minority shareholders or retail investors, the bank’s chief executive said. “These guys”—the Ruias, and promoters of other large corporate groups—“will screw the minority shareholders for themselves.” The senior researcher tried to defend the promoters’ position, although he did not contradict the banker’s assertion. “It may be unprofessional or unethical,” he conceded, referring to the Ruias’ business practices, “but not illegal.”

JUST LAST MONTH, several news outlets reported that one of the group’s biggest companies, Essar Oil, received approval to delist from the Bombay Stock Exchange. In June, the senior researcher had told me that the Ruias were in the process of delisting their publicly listed companies. This was not just to keep their dealings opaque, he said; “they want the profits for themselves.” This contention would have sounded familiar a decade ago. In the February 2003 Business Today story, Brian Carvalho wrote about Essar, “To be sure, the Ruias have already been written off by the stock markets, and by most of its 13 lakh shareholders, from whom the Ruias have cumulatively raised close to Rs3,000 crore.”

The group listed Essar Energy, the parent company of Essar Oil, on the London Stock Exchange in 2010. The senior analyst told me the Ruias had tried to raise money in the United Kingdom since they no longer enjoyed a “good reputation” in Indian capital markets. A long-term observer of the oil and gas sector told me that “they were selling the ‘India Emerging’ story” in London, by claiming that India was energy-starved and Essar would enhance its production. The observer characterised the Ruias’ approach as “if you want to buy into that story, buy us.”

“One of Essar’s strategies to minimise the public impact of its financial problems is to de-list companies at a low buy-back price when there is no more scope to raise funds,” the senior journalist Sucheta Dalal wrote in June on The issue price of an Essar Energy Plc share in London was 420 pence. In 2014, the group bought back the public shareholding at 70 pence a share—an 80-percent loss for investors. Dalal wrote that the group seemed utterly “unfazed” by the resulting backlash. “It attempted to de-list Essar Oil and even sent notices to Indian stock exchanges. Essar Shipping and Essar Ports also informed stock exchanges that they had the required board approvals to de-list their shares.”

Even with the group’s issues and its history of controversies, the senior researcher was less pessimistic about Essar’s future than some others I met. He said that the company was “limping back.” Both steel and oil businesses should perform better in a year or two, he said, following the oil market’s emergence from a tough phase. Some indication of this appeared early last month, when Rosneft, the largest oil producer in Russia, agreed to buy a 49-percent stake in some businesses controlled by Essar Oil, for a reported $3.2 billion. The senior researcher told me that this deal had been in trouble because of negotiations over the valuation of Essar Oil. It was eventually struck on the sidelines of a BRICS summit in Ufa, Russia, presided over by Modi and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. If the Ruias “keep travelling with the prime minister” on his international trips, the researcher said, it was bound to help their businesses.

Banks, too, are helping Essar, since “everyone would benefit if they’re up and running.” Even though important lenders such as SBI and ICICI “right now have a negative bias,” the senior researcher said, they still believe that Essar has good assets. They have to. As the investment banker told me, “The good thing about Essar is, it’s too big to fail.”

Krishn Kaushik  was formerly a staff writer at The Caravan.