March 4, 2021

India’s Way: Billionaires’ Rise Aids India, and the Favor Is Returned

The ship, the Vanshi, was carrying coal from Indonesia, a two-week trip across the Indian Ocean. India has its own abundant reserves of coal, which raises a question: Why did India need to go so far to get something it already had?

For Gautam Adani, the power mogul, the answer was simple: the easiest and most profitable way to meet India’s rising demand for electricity is to avoid the obstacles, divisive political confrontations and practical inefficiencies of India. In the spirit of the workaround ethos typical of India’s private sector, Mr. Adani is working around the subcontinent itself.

He owns the Indonesian coal mine, the Korean-made cargo ship (named for his niece Vanshi), the Indian power plant and, most important, the private Mundra port. He owns coal mines and a major port in Australia, and has built his own private railroad spur in India. His business plan is to do as much as possible without relying on the creaky infrastructure of the Indian state.

“He is able to do so well partly because he is very entrepreneurial and has found the right opportunity,” said Eswar Prasad, an economic adviser to India’s finance minister. “But it’s a symptom of a dysfunctional state. He is able to deliver something more effectively than the state.”

Today, India is increasingly turning to the private sector to deliver the electricity needed to maintain rapid economic growth into the future. India’s economy is growing at more than 8 percent annually, but is badly constrained by an inadequate power supply after years in which the government dominated the power sector and failed to keep up with growing demand.

The rise of Mr. Adani attests to a broader shift, as the private sector is playing a greater role in areas once controlled by the state like telecommunications, ports, airports, banks and infrastructure. At a global level, this contrasts sharply with China, where huge state-owned enterprises dominate strategic industries and lead the country’s global expansion. Mr. Adani recently had to outbid the Chinese for his Australian port.

Within India, though, the success of private tycoons has created a paradox: India’s moguls are essential to the country’s success and admired for their ability to get results. Yet their staggering wealth is made possible in part by their coziness with powerful politicians who help arrange environmental clearances, land use rights and other thorny issues. That raises accusations of crony capitalism.

India in the 21st century is now often compared to the United States during the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when robber barons dominated the American economy. The country has 55 billionaires whose aggregate wealth of $250 billion is equivalent to almost a sixth of the nation’s annual economic output.

“No question, there is an oligarchy developing that has an enormous amount of influence,” said Arvind Subramanian, an economic adviser to the Indian government. “That is a matter of great concern. But in India, these are also the guys who are performing. In some cases, they may be gaming the system, but they are also performing despite how bad the system is.”

Mr. Adani is now India’s sixth-richest person, with a fortune valued at $10 billion. He was an import-export trader during the 1980s when the Indian government tightly controlled trade and industry through high tariffs and an abstruse licensing regime. During the 1990s, after India embarked on economic reforms, Mr. Adani expanded his trading business and befriended influential politicians, including the powerful and controversial chief minister of his home state, Gujarat.

Mr. Adani entered the power business partly because of criticism that traders were just “intermediaries” who did not own anything or contribute to society. He decided to start acquiring things, only to find that India’s new business climate would mean shopping around the world.

Going Vertical

It was a singularly Indian dilemma: tigers versus electricity.

Hari Kumar contributed reporting from Mundra, and Nikhila Gill from New Delhi.

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