Vivian Fernandes is a senior journalist with nearly 30 years of practice, 19 of them in television, all of which he spent at TV18. Vivian’s last assignment was as executive editor of a book on India and China written by the founder of the Network 18 group, Mr Raghav Bahl. He has been an observer of Indian business and politics, and had reported on economic policy making as reporter, chief of Delhi bureau of correspondents and economic policy editor. Vivian has traveled abroad with Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. He was also reported on the World Trade Organization’s trade talks from Cancun, Hong Kong and Geneva. He continues his association with the Network18 group, but not as an employee.
In 1990, I joined the Business and Political Observer (later called the Observer of Business and Politics). Every big business group had a newspaper. If size of business and scale of ambition were the criteria, the Ambanis qualified to own one. To distinguish itself from other financial dailies, BPO was printed on pink paper like the Financial Times of London. The launch was delayed by many months. Vishwanath Pratap Singh was the Prime Minister. He nursed a grudge against the Ambanis and raised hurdles. That gave rival Economic Times a head start. Under editor T N Ninan, it became India's first pink paper.
We saw a young Anil Ambani dart in and out of office. He was always in a hurry and full of energy. He looked dashing like one of those 'Only Vimal' models. The Ambanis introduced modern HR practices. They structured our salaries to make them tax-efficient. This was a novelty for journalists low down in the heap. For the first time we were getting taxable salaries. My previous employment at Hindustan Times was a socialist utopia. Wages - salaries would be an overstatement- were decided by a tribunal appointed by the government. Years of service were no ground for discrimination. Novice or veteran earned about the same. On pay day, one of us would collect cheques for everyone in the department. The wage tribunals had banished envy.
The Ambanis are Gujaratis. I suspect they were Sikhs in the previous birth. At the newspaper, they ran a langar or community kitchen that was as busy as we were idle. Food was free. Initially, even non-vegetarian fare was served. We would order for ourselves and colleagues. The newsroom was an arena of competitive generosity at company expense.
I am no longer an employee of the Ambanis. I am their customer. Power distribution was privatised in 2002, in the month (July) that Dhirubhai Ambani died. We were happy to see the back of that abomination of a state utility, the Delhi Vidyut Board. Delhi was the second state to privatise power distribution after the failed attempt by Orissa. The Delhi government has staked political capital on the initiative. The private companies were seen as mascots of power reforms. They carried the burden of expectations.
Under Anil Sardana (now MD of Tata Power), the Tata utility gave a fine account of itself. But the two Anil Ambani companies gave privatisation a bad name. The top management was competent but it was not empowered. Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit was apologetic. She blamed the rivalry between the brothers. I recall ending a TV report on CNBC-TV18, saying: "Anil Ambani talks corporate governance in Mumbai, he must walk the talk in Delhi." Business Standard editor T N Ninan, in his column in the paper, said: "It is not enough (for Anil Ambani) to make great presentations and wow everyone with financial deal-making. Running a business requires focus, sustained application, team-building and meeting customer expectations." Quite an earful.
A couple of years later, the power regulator found BSES inflating capital expenditure by Rs 535 crore through an intra-group transfer of assets. Though BSES's service has improved, Delhi consumers pay high rates, even though power lost to theft and in the course of transmission has fallen to low double digits from over 60 per cent and the Delhi government has written off a loan of Rs 3,000 crore. Like BPO's journalists, the BSES companies are always hungry for more.
And now another Anil Ambani company has let us down. It has shut down the metro service between Delhi international airport and the city centre, citing defective bearings, on which the tracks rest, as a safety hazard. The 23-km express line failed to keep date with the Commonwealth Games, it has been running slower than target speed and it is losing money. Public-private partnership metro projects have not been successful the world over. Is this a ploy to cut losses before they start piling up?
Without sincerity of purpose, PPP infrastructure projects will have the possibility of privatising gains at public expense. Given the level of morality in our governance system, strong covenants will be of little help. Unscrupulous private players (and this is no insinuation against Reliance Infrastructure) can induce officials and ministers to renege on commitments and walk out of a contract.
Companies indeed have a responsibility to shareholders. But they must also honour the trust that society has reposed in them.
You cannot legislate integrity.
The airport metro has been working for just about a year. It is too early for the operator to throw up their hands. It must operate the line on a 'best endeavour' basis. If after a couple of years it is found that the line is genuinely unviable, the government could re-auction it to the one who seeks the least subsidy.