Dadri’s Omkara

In politics one has to be lucky with enemies, for it is the enemies who define you. This is VP Singh’s tactical forte. And this time, he has chosen them well: Amar Singh, Mulayam Singh and Anil Ambani better watch outMohan Guruswamy DelhiIt is apparent that while VP Singh’s body may be ravaged, his political instinct is still sharp. He has not only picked the right time and place to launch a campaign against the Mulayam Singh Yadav regime in Uttar Pradesh, he has also chosen the right mascot in Raj Babbar, behind whom he intends to rally his rag-tag army of dissidents of all hues. As an “outsider” in the sense that he is not a professional politician like a Sharad Yadav or Ram Vilas Paswan, Babbar comes unencumbered by the odium that accompanies all politicians these days. But it is not as if he doesn’t have the experience with make-believe. What then is Bollywood all about? Babbar’s role in this drama is like the cameo he enacted in Umrao Jan Ada where in one memorable scene he castigates the effete elite of Awadh as debauched and corrupt. In the coming run-up to the UP assembly elections we can well expect Babbar to pillory Amar Singh as just that. And Amar Singh is fully entwined in popular perceptions with Anil Ambani and Mulayam Singh Yadav.I have always believed that in politics you have to be lucky in terms of enemies, for it is the enemies who define you, even if it is all make-believe. This is VP Singh’s forte. While Babbar picked a quarrel with Mulayam Singh over Amar Singh, who he has described in colourful terms as a bit of a “fixer”, VP Singh has zeroed in on the gangotri in the form of Anil Ambani. Anil Ambani, as we know so well, was till recently, the champion of ethical corporate governance. He is a natural bedfellow of the Samajwadi Party. By zeroing in on Anil Ambani’s big gas-based power project in Dadri, VP Singh is centring on the kind of crony capitalism and crony politics, both crooked, that have become endemic. This is good politics and soon Anil Ambani will look like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming bus. VP Singh has chosen the issue well. He has picked the huge allocation of over 2,500 acres of fertile farmland acquired from the farmers in Dadri at rock bottom prices. This is not land stolen from poor adivasis in Orissa for a steel plant at throwaway prices, whom you can gun down for daring to demand a better deal from the state. And get away with it, while nobody hears their cry of anguish. The Dadri project is in the outskirts of Delhi and when the stuff hits the fan even CNN-IBN will be forced to cover it, sooner or later. Dadri is in the heart of India’s badlands, it is Omkara country where Langda Tyagis are a dime a dozen. And this is valuable land. According to an acquaintance in the real estate business in Dadri, which here is what the olive oil import business is to New York’s mafia, the land prices in Dadri town is around Rs 15,000 per square yard. My Langda Tyagi friend, somewhat philosophically, wonders who the bigger criminals are when 2,500 acres of prime land worth Rs 15,000 a square yard is acquired ostensibly for the “common good” at about Rs 120 a square yard?For a start, a gas-based power plant is not land-intensive, not unless you are building a DLF city-sized town with half-a-dozen glitzy malls studded with multiplexes, along with the proposed plant. Multiplexes are Anil Ambani’s main business these days. It’s another matter that the proposed gas-based power plant has no assured gas supply, which makes the project all gas, a mere smokescreen for a gargantuan land grab.Does a proposed 3,600 MW gas-based power plant, without an assured source of natural gas, really need 2,500 acres of land? The National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) operates a 440MW plant in Faridabad; it is now being expanded with additional turbines to generate 900MW. It occupies only 50 acres and has an integrated, self-sufficient township within it. The Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (ADAG) is proposing to build a power plant four times the size of that without an assured supply of natural gas. Assuming that land requirements are directly proportional to generating capacity, which they are not, ADAG will still need not more than 200 acres. Yet the UP government has allotted the group 2,500 acres of land.And why only <this land> abutting Delhi when there is so much less valuable and non-agricultural land elsewhere in UP which will do just as well for a power plant? I know a scenic spot or two near Mirzapur, south of the Ganges, which is also the stomping ground of an old friend of Amar Singh and Mulayam Singh, Dadua, who can keep the labour and land owners quiet. Or near Mulayam Singh’s home in Etawah, not as scenic but where the family calls the shots.Indeed, Anil Ambani and Amar Singh are men with big appetites and only Dadri, abutting Delhi, can be good enough for them. At about Rs 6 crore an acre, or land worth Rs 15,000 crore, this deal is more than a steal. ADAG gets the whole power plant for free for it can borrow hugely on the fair valuation of the land itself. The huge loans will then be paid by charges collected by ADAG’s Delhi-based power distribution company, Rajdhani BSES, which several resident welfare associations suspect of tweaking the meters. Surely, as sweetheart deals go, this is the son of Enron and much bigger than the original.There are other parameters that give a good inkling of how much land is required for a gas-based power plant. All across the US there are state laws called Land Siting Acts governing power plants that allow for maximum 65 acres for a 1,000MW natural gas plant. Apart from clean power, the other major attraction of a natural gas-based power plant is its minimal land requirement. A coal or feedstock-based plant needs huge storage areas and rail sidings to bring in smoke-spewing fuel every day. They emit noxious gases and need space for dissipation. That’s why the old coal-based power plants needed more land. In contrast, a natural gas plant is considered green. In picking the Dadri “land grab” as an issue, VP Singh has shown that he has lost little of that unerring tactical sense which took him to the pinnacle of political power in just a couple of years. Now he has put a mascot ahead to keep the crowds enthralled while he directs the play. Anil Ambani and Amar Singh are about to have their goose cooked. If you don’t believe me, ask Amitabh Bachchan.The Congress may be delirious that VP Singh is going to take on Mulayam Singh. But this battle is not going to end in Dadri. VP Singh senses a massive stream of discontent running through the country where the vast majority has been excluded by the development paradigm that was been mostly inspired by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the World Economic Forum. He is tapping that and if he strikes it, the logical conclusion would be the end of Manmohanomics in India. That is about how corporate India goes about its business and how people think it should. We can debate VP Singh’s vision or even the lack of it. What we cannot dispute is his unerring tactical sense.