According to an exclusive report on the front page of the Indian Express newspaper, the Essar group, a multinational conglomerate with investments in the sectors of steel, energy, infrastructure and services, routinely gave gifts and favours to politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists in exchange for favours and classified information.
The report is based on a series of emails that were allegedly leaked to the newspaper by an unnamed ‘whistle blower’ (the paper does not offer any clue as to the identity of its source, be it government or within Essar).
Essar for its part has responded with a detailed statement which claims parts of the material cited by Express as ‘fabricated, and that the company had been recently the target of blackmail attempts that cited similar emails. The statement adds that ‘stealing mails is theft’ and says the Delhi police is ‘taking strong steps against persons stealing information’, adding that the theft of company data was a serious offence that could be prosecuted under the Indian Penal Code.
At this stage, it is impossible to ascertain the credibility of either Essar’s response or the emails, but the emails put out by the Express reflect the following:
The company made a point to ‘cultivate’ up and coming politicians, as well as ministry employees
One mail suggested that the company give a number of cherry picked 200 ‘up and coming politicians’ high end phones, as they are said to be ‘tech savvy’ and modern. The mail also says that the company will provide them with SIM cards and also pay the bills, which they have estimated to be around Rs 5,000 per month.
Everyone was on the receiving end of such corporate sops, including lower and mid level ministry employees during the festival season.
Union minister Nitin Gadkari went on a private cruise on the Essar luxury Raft Sunrays, while vacationing in Europe with his family
The leaked emails also indicate that a Essar yacht visit in the south of France was arranged at Gadkari’s request – “Mr Nitin Gadkari (former President of BJP – the opposition) is in Europe and would like to spend 2-3 days aboard Sunrays…” An email sent from the Essar corporate office to the captain of the Sunrays yacht says, “Guests are very important people as discussed. Kindly see they are comfortable”.
However Gadkari has responded to the allegations, saying that there was nothing untoward about the visit.. He is quoted by the Express as saying, “I was going to Norway with my family and all air tickets and hotel bills for the holiday were paid by me. I did take a ride on the yacht of the Ruia family and that is because I have known the Ruias for over 25 years. When they learnt I was visiting Europe, they invited me. I see no conflict of interest here since at that time I was neither the BJP president nor a minister or MP. I will not do so now since I am a minister but at that time, where was the problem?”
Essar held 200 vacancies to accommodate referrals made by politicians across party divide
An Essar executive calls them “VIP referrals”: Candidates for job vacancies referred to Essar by politicians. Among politicians named by the Express are Varun Gandhi of the BJP, Congress General Secretary Digvijaya Singh, and then Coal Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal. Given the frequency of the requests, one leaked mail, purportedly by a senior executive of the company, proposes that a certain number of vacancies be reserved for such candidates since politicians would often get annoyed if the requests were not honoured by the company — even demanding that a member of the Ruia family come armed with offer letters to a meeting with Jaiswal.
The newspaper got in touch with most of the politicians named in the mail, and barring minor variations, the answers were all the same – that the references were only made on behalf of talented young people who had approached the concerned politician for help.
Essar would often put company resources at the disposal of prominent journalists
Though none of the journalists, or the publications they work for have been named by the Express, the kinds of favours doled out to these individuals have been listed out in great detail.
Among these are use of company vehicles for extended periods of time, free accommodation and use of the company guesthouse for journalists to host personal functions:
Essar would get important papers out of ministries
The leaked mails cited by the newspaper seem to indicate that Essar also routinely got access to important ministry papers.
A few mails cited by the paper are as follows:
On July 19, 2013, a top Essar executive wrote an email regarding Essar’s Mahan project in Madhya Pradesh. “I write to share the attached draft note of the Ministry of Power that… has sourced this morning. It addressed our issue ‘not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially’ as Pandit Nehru put it.”
On January 13, 2014, a senior executive sends an email with an August 6, 2010 11-page document from the Prime Minister’s Office detailing inter-ministerial discussion on forest clearance to coal blocks and status report on end-user plants. The email gets a response: “Tks so much… Great job@ such a short notice. I agree — this is very helpful.”
The last may be the most damaging given that Essar is also one of the companies named in the recent corporate espionage scandal. But given the unruffled responses of all named by the Express, it is unlikely that this particular ‘scoop’ will have lasting repercussions. It indicates the extent to which low level bribery — in kind rather than in tens of crores — is almost routine, even acceptable in Indian politics.