Adani's roadblock in Australia is about his record in India

The humble skink and the shy ornamental snake seem to have done what few could – halted the Adani juggernaut.

The news that a federal court in Australia has rejected approval for the Adani group’s $16-billion coal project in the Galilee Basin is noteworthy because it’s not like the group fell afoul of overly stringent environmental laws and hyperactive Greenpeace activism in that country. The case singled out the Adani group’s environmental record in India.

That often gets short shrift in India because we lionize industrial tycoons and often tend to think that the likes of a secretive burrowing yakka skink should not be allowed to hold up the forces of development. Much of the reportage of Gautam Adani in the media has tended to be political reporting anyway – about his proximity to Narendra Modi and his starring role in Modi’s Gujarat Model. In a country that was used to a license raj, it was the shining role model of how the sky was the limit if government and business could come together. But that does not mean it is necessarily a win-win for all.

 Adanis roadblock in Australia is about his record in India

AFP image

The Australian verdict is a reminder of the debates we just dismiss as jholawalla fulminations. The recent travails of Greenpeace in India have furthered the impression of environmentalists whose agenda is obstruction. And the likes of Greenpeace are painted as “foreign-funded” troublemakers conspiring to put the brakes on India’s rise in the world. But even if Greenpeace’s financial papers are not entirely in order, are their environmental conclusions also de facto null and void?

The Australian court clearly took their submission seriously. Greenpeace has a research briefing on Adani’s environmental record where it claims the Adani Group has a “long history of environmental destruction”. Some of the issues it highlights includes destruction of mangroves and mudflats while building its port at Mundra even though environmental approvals for the development explicitly cited no “existing mangroves shall be destroyed during construction/operation of project”.

Greenpeace based its report not on its own fact-finding missions but MoEF investigative committees. It also said Adani had failed to monitor groundwater regularly for salinity and pollution. According to the LSE, villagers complained they could not make a living off their land anymore because “the fly ash from the Adani power plant and sea water ingress from unlined canals pumping it into turbines to generate electricity have completely destroyed the once rich soil.”

A government-appointed panel however concluded that development was too far advanced in Mundra to revoke the Adani Group’s permission and recommended it pay $33million instead into a conservation restoration fund. The question said Gautam Appa, professor emeritus at LSE was “whether the Adani Group’s investments are too big to shut down.” The Gujarat High Court which had declared the Adani zone illegal then passed the ball to the federal government asking if it could be granted a belated environmental clearance. That “back-dated environmental clearance” was finally given by the new Modi government.

Calling the Mundra record “horrendous” Greenpeace told The Guardian in 2013 “The Great Barrier Reef is a world heritage area and we are about to place it in the hands of a company that hasn’t behaved responsibly in India.”

The Adani group has claimed that most of its non-compliances have negligible impact. It also touted the economic windfall the Carmichael project could bring Australia quoting Gautam Adani on its website:
"There has been a 50 percent jump in local employment by us. We are committed to our project in Australia, which is a joint collaboration with top Australian consultants, and is expected to create up to 5,000 jobs during construction and 4,000 jobs once we begin operations. We will train and employ locals, Queenslanders and Australians."

It also reiterated “its commitment to protect the environment” and played up its Clean Development Certification from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Adani group also lavished gifts like a silver and rock crystal compass and pashmina shawls on Australian politicians reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

But it still faced headlines like these in Australia.

Sydney Morning Herald
Concerns at Barrier Reef contractor’s humanitarian, environment record

The Australian
Reef port builder Gautam Adani facing fines

The Age
Is Australia ready for India’s Gautam Adani?

The Age raises the question “Adani has it in him to turn an arid desert land into a thriving economic junction. In India, the change came at the cost of locals and the environment. Is Australia prepared for an Adani kind of change?”

The court has answered that question for now.

According to The Times of India, the Adani group has blamed the setback on a “technical legal error” and is confident that it can be addressed.

But the larger question remains. Indian companies are often used to getting away with environmental violations or at least bending the law in India because it can always be managed – sometimes by spreading money around, sometimes through political largesse, and sometimes thanks to protracted and expensive court proceedings. Ultimately a project can become just too big to fail. But this Australian ruling proves that what happens in India does not have to stay in India. Indian media might not have blown up Mundra’s case into an enormous national story but its effect was still felt on Adani's global ambitions far away in Australia.

Just as a company like the Adani Group's reach is no longer limited to India, it has to remember that environmental activists opposing it are also playing on an international stage. Mundra might be pushed through in India but the shadow of Mundra can fall on a coal mine in Queensland and upset the best laid plans of an all-powerful corporation.

Updated Date: Aug 07, 2015 07:47:04 IST

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