In a paper that Desmond Fernandes and I wrote in the late 1990s, entitled “Deep Politics, Liberalisation and Corruption: The Mangalore Power Company Controversy”[i], a paper that exhaustively discussed implications to India due to liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation of the economy, we presented the then government’s claim of what such policies would result in, as follows:
“In the early 1990s, the Indian government committed itself to a World Bank-International Monetary Fund (IMF) inspired economic liberalisation programme as part of its New Economic Policy (NEP) …(and) suggested that this programme would usher in a new era of sustainable economic growth, efficiency, public accountability, transparency and an open, democratic and less corrupt governance. Through a process of privatisation, Trans-National Corporations (TNCs) and Independent Power Producers (IPPs) were to be actively approached and invited to present a lead in instilling model ethical codes of conduct in various sectors of the economy, including that of power generation, transmission and distribution (T&D).”
By the end of the 1990s, we had already encountered massive corruption in the privatisation of power sector. This was most spectacularly revealed in the scandals involving two US power corporations: Enron’s Dabhol Power Corporation case exposed by the Prayas group[ii] and Abhay Mehta (who also wrote the splendid book “Power Play”[iii]) and the Cogentrix Inc. promoted Mangalore Power Company project exposed by Environment Support Group, Arun Agarwal[iv], and others. Both projects were successfully fought on a variety of grounds – social, environmental and economic injustices, and also in exposing massive fraud and corruption systemic to such mega projects. While the Dabhol project was built, but the Enron controversy did not allow the project to function, it resulted eventually in contributing to the comprehensive collapse of the giant Enron Corporation in the USA and put several of its tops bosses and Chairman too in jail. The Cogentrix power plant was never initiated and was eventually abandoned.
These struggles in exposing corruption and fraud succeeded because of systematic and dedicated research and campaigns led by researchers, backed by small independent groups and the work of impacted communities. In the end, justice got a chance. Many lessons had to be drawn from these experiences, which left to governments would have been deliberately ignored. As were then the efforts by the then Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who “fast-tracked” power sector reforms – involving financialisation of public sector assets, unbundling, and eventually farming out many mega contracts to various foreign corporations – on the claim that they were all going to bring to India extraordinary levels of transparency and accountability, and efficiency. By implication, our public sector was corrupt, and by privatising our public assets, corruption would go away. The Paradise Papers released recently by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists[v], as with the Panama Papers they released last year, have a very different narrative and story to tell. And we must pay very careful attention to what has been revealed.
When challenged to prove assumptions about the efficacy of neo-liberal economic reforms, its become normative for the political set up to respond with rhetoric. Governments and the Private sector pushing such controversial reforms, rarely tackled by the media and academia, pass off such ‘reforms’ by posturing – rarely transparency and empirical evidence. The dominant narrative of the times when these reforms were pushed in India was that the “Hindu rate of growth” had not built India enough. And in an age of globalisation, one needs to integrate national economies with that of the world, as that would create jobs and productivity. As a result, any major transnational corporation CEO or Chairman coming was thrown the red carpet welcome, and there often was the entourage that accommodated this: the Ambassador, Commerce Minister or Head of State would all provide assurances of the grandness of the benefits of such investment. Based on such assurances, deals were struck, agreements rushed, and projects cleared into execution keeping even Legislatures and Parliament in the dark. If any information about the deep and extensive implications of such mega investments came to be revealed, and there were dozens of such investments made in the 1990s and 2000s in India, it is largely because of the uncovering done by ground level action, and which was done with great difficulty and risks.
When an academician like V. Ranganathan, then a Professor of Economics at Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore spoke out against the Cogentrix deal, including by writing various articles, and argued that the project (which was a model apparently) was fraught with systematising massive corruption and inefficiency, there were a rash of aggressive responses from the corporate sector and senior leaders of the Government – both State and Centre. When he continued to write, his institute asked him to back down. Then when he attacked with a massive defamation case, his Institute should have stood by him but did not. Ranganathan stopped writing. At about the same time, Arun Agarwal, an ex-banker, exposed the massive scale of the corruption hidden in the Cogentrix deal, including how clear channels had been created to syphon the extortion levels of profits into tax havens, such as the British Virgin Islands, and that by an Agreement with the state. If such revelations had not come out, for every bureaucrat and politician who knew of this fraud chose to remain silent, it could potentially have derailed not just the project, but destroyed Karnataka’s economic base – for so extensive was the loot that was built into the contract.
In subsequent decades we have had a fantastic surge and range of such scams: in telecom, mining, water privatisation, road building, Special Economic Zones, industrialisation, education, medical tourism, power sector, port development, purchase of aeroplanes; you name the sector and you can find a mega scam. What’s interesting is that there is a pattern: the more mega a project, say like the POSCO steel and Vedanta alumina proposals in Odisha, the more massive the loot. None of the resources extracted are meant to benefit India. And Chief Ministers and Prime Ministers too will jostle with each other to claim such projects are great for India. The Janardhan Reddy’s who stack walls with gold and pad their sofas with millions of loot money, by stealing our iron ore, get caught, despite India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s blessings. But what of those who are so clever that they build deals in a manner that hide their tax evasions and fraud through institutionalised methods? Like we now discover through the Paradise Papers (which has at least 750 Indians on the list of fraudsters, including Rajya Sabha members and Ministers), or the earlier revelations of the Panama Papers?[vi]
All this throws neo-liberal economics into the sewer. As world economies struggle to create jobs and help put food on peoples tables and ensure they are able to afford their kids’ education, or good health, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, G8 and the EU push the billions into austerity measures. It is claimed such measures are critical to buoy the world’s flagging economies. What they won’t tell us in their annual reports, however, is that their numbers do not add up. And that they know it. There are ugly gaps in accounting for massive tax revenues. The small people mostly pay their taxes. And if they don’t they are penalised even for their small mistakes, or not being able to pay. Our governments and these big financial institutions know there is massive drain syphoning off tax revenue into off-shore financial havens, that a minuscule number of the super-rich have systematically looted our money and stashed it away in tax havens. But they won’t tell you. For they do not want you to know who these tax fraudsters are. These criminal fraudsters that our government and these institutions protect come as yours and my President, Prime Minister, Corporate CEO, your daily night talk show host, your most popular mega-star – you name them, they are right there in front of you. Pretending as though they are an epitome of all virtue and law abiding. Until, one day, we get the Paradise Papers, or the Panama Papers, or Wikileaks. Like our governments and these institutions did not notice when the super-rich threw their money around on all those flashy clothes, held fashionable parties for ‘good times’ for the ‘nice people’ on super luxury yachts? For all the research and documentation and reporting these institutions claim to do, did they not once notice that someone is paying for such most insensitive indulgences of the super rich? And that this was costing millions their blood. That this cost them their kids’ lives and entire villages and forests plundered for resources that were looted? Makes one ask: what if there was no internet to spread the word on these leaks? And a deeper question for us: now that we know of these leaks, what do we do?
You can connect this blood loot stashed away in tax havens to the rape and butchering of thousands in Congo (so Minerals flow cheap into phones, laptops, and every freaking electronic stuff produced), to brutal trade of chimpanzees and gorillas (driving them to extinction, so the super-rich can have their horrendous private zoos where these unfortunate evolutionary cousins are drugged to smoke and perform weird sex acts), to the shoes that keeps us ‘fit’ (while over exploited labourers slog in dingy sweat shops), to the magical software that keeps us glued to screens of all sorts and sizes (as software developers work overtime in air conditioned enclaves fed on junk food in prison-paradises). This is how modern slavery comes.
It’s high time to call this super-rich out. And honestly, to use a proper English word: get these rascals out and lock them away in jail. We must care because their greed and dishonesty is costing us not merely our tax money, but our very lives, livelihoods and the future of our children and their children. There won’t be much left to worry about if we don’t worry now. Here are extracts from The Guardian[vii], which was part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that exposed through the Paradise Papers the massive tax fraud that has been systematically covered up, which should worry us very deeply indeed:
“The world’s biggest businesses, heads of state and global figures in politics, entertainment and sport who have sheltered their wealth in secretive tax havens are being revealed this week in a major new investigation into Britain’s offshore empires. The details come from a leak of 13.4m files that expose the global environments in which tax abuses can thrive – and the complex and seemingly artificial ways the wealthiest corporations can legally protect their wealth.”
“The material, which has come from two offshore service providers and the company registries of 19 tax havens, was obtained by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with partners including the Guardian, the BBC and the New York Times.”
- Millions of pounds from the Queen’s private estate has been invested in a Cayman Islands fund – and some of her money went to a retailer accused of exploiting poor families and vulnerable people.
- Extensive offshore dealings by Donald Trump’s cabinet members, advisers and donors, including substantial payments from a firm co-owned by Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law to the shipping group of the US commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross.
- How Twitter and Facebook received hundreds of millions of dollars in investments that can be traced back to Russian state financial institutions.
- The tax-avoiding Cayman Islands trust managed by the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s chief money man.
- A previously unknown $450m offshore trust that has sheltered the wealth of Lord Ashcroft.
- Aggressive tax avoidance by multinational corporations, including Nike and Apple.
- How some of the biggest names in the film and TV industries protect their wealth with an array of offshore schemes.
- The billions in tax refunds by the Isle of Man and Malta to the owners of private jets and luxury yachts.
- The secret loan and alliance used by the London-listed multinational Glencore in its efforts to secure lucrative mining rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
- The complex offshore webs used by two Russian billionaires to buy stakes in Arsenal and Everton football clubs.”
Paradise Papers leak reveals secrets of the world elite’s hidden wealth. It’s time we need to use that in holding these fraudsters accountable and get back this money where it belongs: to us. For this is our money that they have inhumanely and illegally looted. That is the real point of democratic accountability. And nothing that our leaders claim as advancing transparency and accountability in tackling corruption with the hoary speeches they render from the ramparts of the Red Fort or White House or Trafalgar Square will help remedy this horrible situation. As argued in our paper exposing the Cogentrix fraud, which was written in the early 2000s, the situation is no different today, perhaps worse even. As we then discovered, “..under the process of liberalisation in India, deep political interventions continue to influence decisions. These are aimed at pushing through various statutory clearances, backing extremely controversial actions shaped to advance the entrenched interests of a vested few at an enormous and continuing adverse cost to the public at large.”
Such cases as Enron and Cogentrix are plenty today. They are almost systemic to how we invest public resources in private projects, often resulting in the massive profit for the private and major losses for the public. Almost every mega project is mired in such controversies. As the Panama and Paradise Papers reveal, this looted money is not in the least helping anyone at all in the world, except the super-rich. Its high time we put an end to this.
[i] Fernandes D and Saldanha L, ‘Deep Politics, Liberalisation and Corruption: The Mangalore Power Company Controversy’, 2000 (1)Law, Social Justice and Global Development (LGD). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/global/issue/2000-1/fernandes.html>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/lgd/2000_1/fernandes/>
[ii] Girish Sant of Prayas worked extensively in exposing the gross injustices endemic to this deal, which also was being promoted as a model for all of India’s power projects to follow. Girish passed away in 2012 and here is a tribute by Prayas that contextualises his contribution: http://www.prayaspune.org/peg/girish-sant-a-tribute.html
[iii] Abhay Mehta passed away recently. The critical importance of his contribution to public policy is discussed by Dilip D’souze in “Skullduggery in a time of Enron: Remembering Abhay Mehta”, 3rd August 2017, accessible at: http://www.livemint.com/Politics/Oopn7cssR4W9Rdz0Lfn3XP/Skullduggery-in-a-time-of-Enron-Remembering-Abhay-Mehta.html
[iv] A document submitted by Environment Support Group in the Permanent People’s Tribunal on Global Corporations and Human Wrongs, March 2000, Warwick, UK, contextualises this process and is accessible here: http://static.esgindia.org/campaigns/cogentricks/Cogentrix.html
[v] The extensive work of International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in exposing the tax frauds and other financial irregularities by giant corporations and the super-rich is accessible at: www.icij.org
[vi] See, for instance, Paradise Papers: Ranjan Pai of Sikkim Manipal University used offshore vehicles to fuel credit, The Indian Express, 9th November 2017, accessible at: http://indianexpress.com/article/india/paradise-papers-ranjan-ramdas-pai-manipal-education-and-medical-group-manipal-university-indians-in-paardise-papers-leak-icij-black-money-4928784/ and a whole range of other revelations with Indian connections to massive tax frauds here: http://indianexpress.com/about/paradise-papers/
[vii] Paradise Papers leak reveals secrets of the world elite’s hidden wealth, The Guardian, 5th November 2017, accessible at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/nov/05/paradise-papers-leak-reveals-secrets-of-world-elites-hidden-wealth?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other