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Protest againts Vedanta for its operations in India.

Protest againts Vedanta for its operations in India.

It was a quest for survive that pushed Vedanta to find another, lucrative business. In fact its plan for more than $5.8 billion to increase the Aluminium production has been rejected by the government, due to mounting international pressure to protect the Adivasis in Niyamgiri Hills[1]. The repercussion of that failure is big enough to be the mover for the challenge against Ambani’s Reliance.

 Cairn main assets in India are in Rajastan, a huge field estimated in billions of dollars. That was the jackpot for a small venture like Cairn; But to compete with Reliance, you need to be much bigger and much linked to political power. Requirements that Vedanta matches. On the other hand, to exploit Vedanta’s economy of scale, Agarwal needed to grab any possibility on the market.

The Mannar Basin oil fields were ideal. Unfortunately the Sri Lankan civil war was a major obstacle, with the fierce LTTE ready to go all way for the cause of independence. The Sri Lankan government lacked the political will to annihilate the rebels.

A march of the Balck Tigers, the LTTE special forces for suicidal attacks.

A march of the Balck Tigers, the LTTE special forces for suicidal attacks.

In fact 20 years ago, when the Indian Peace Keepers intervened in the fight, Colombo incredibly re-armed the rebels, just to kick out New Delhi from the island[2]. In 2005 the parties were close to a peace treaty. But while Sri Lanka was ready to devolution, the LTTE wanted a clear path to secession. Meaning: conflict could last for another generation.

So the new President Rajapaksa changed the strategy[3]: now it was complete destruction of the rebels. Why this stance wasn’t adopted earlier? Two reasons: civilian casualties involved in chasing the guerrilla forces. And India. New Delhi never really approved the elimination of the LTTE (though responsible of the killing of Rajiv Gandhi). But in 2006, the Indian position changed. Suddenly New Delhi offered complete support: maritime patrol, electronic surveillance, military and political backing (the Tamil nationalist sentiment in Tamil Nadu were controlled by the then Chief Minister, Mr Karunanidhi, a hard-core supporter of LTTE, but involved in a personal scandal during that period[4]).

In 2009 80000 Tamil civilians have been massacred on the shores of Nandikadal lagoon and in Mullivaikal.

In 2009 80000 Tamil civilians have been massacred on the shores of Nandikadal lagoon and in Mullivaikal.

The rest is history: from the bloody shores of the Nandikadal lagoon, 280 000 Tamil civilian come out, leaving behind possibly more than 80000 dead. The fate of the Tamil population in their land now is the one of an occupied country. The military presence is strangling any activity.

But the Mannar Basin fields are blooming. In 2013 Sri Lanka launched another bidding round, this time everybody in the sector was queuing: Exxon, Total, Gazprom, Eni[5].

Clearly the news of Cairn-Vedanta success reached the big players of oil and gas.

The question now is: who could provoke a radical change in the Indian policy towards Sri Lanka? Cairn is out of the question.

Vedanta entered the game only in 2011, when the war was over since 2 years. If you believe in conspiracy, you could suspect that Vedanta chased the deal much earlier, convinced the Indian government to intervene in its favour and Cairn to spearhead the negotiation to avoid attention.

Of course this is just an exercise of speculation.

The signing ceremony of the agreement of petroleum resources between the Government of Sri Lanka and Cairn India (Pvt. Ltd) . President Mahinda Rajapaksa,  Minister of Petroleum and Petroleum Resources A.H.M. Fowzie and Indrajith Benerjee, Chief Finance Officer and Ajay Gupta Head of Commercial and New Business of Cairn India . Photo Sudath Silva

The signing ceremony of the agreement of petroleum resources between the Government of Sri Lanka and Cairn India (Pvt. Ltd) . President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Minister of Petroleum and Petroleum Resources A.H.M. Fowzie and Indrajith Benerjee, Chief Finance Officer and Ajay Gupta Head of Commercial and New Business of Cairn India .
Photo Sudath Silva

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Mr Agarwal, founder of Vedanta and Mr Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries

With the purchase of Cairn India, Mr Agarwal, boss of the mining powerhouse Vedanta resources, officially challenged the dominance of Reliance Industry, the Ambani’s giant in petrochemicals and refining[1][2]. Vedanta and Reliance were undisputed kings in their respective sectors: complementary and parallel. Both can count on mighty political clout and this feud showed their potential: in defence of Ambani’s Reliance went in Mr Sharma, chairman of the state-owned ONGC and Petroleum Secretary Mr Sundareshan. On the camp of Agarwal’s Vedanta, nobody less than UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron[3].

Mr Cameron pubblicly lobbied in favour of Vedanta with Mr Singh.

Mr Cameron pubblicly lobbied in favour of Vedanta with Mr Singh.

The bone of contention is simple: oil. In Sri Lanka[4]. Offshore of the Mannar Basin lie reserves up to a billion barrels. Reliance Industry was drilling on the Indian side of the Strait, but when the government of Sri Lanka offered the exploration rights in 2007, they Ambani’s group declined. Why?

Well there are always a lot of risks associated with oil extraction, first of all, there is no guarantee of discovery, second it could be not commercially viable to extract it.

But the Mannar Basin case was even riskier: it was the theatre of a civil war. The area was under the control of the LTTE, one the fiercest guerrilla army in the world. Surely if you buy, you want some guarantees that your will be able to access your property.

The LTTE navy, the Sea Tigers, guaranteed the security of sea lane supply for more than 30 years.

The LTTE navy, the Sea Tigers, guaranteed the security of sea lane supply for more than 30 years.

Now the company that was awarded the concession was Cairn, a small venture based in Edinburgh (with the bulk of their interests in India). What was the level of political leverage that Cairn could exercise to demand for assurance? Null. The management of Cairn, we are supposed to believe, bought the exploration rights with no further collateral for their purchase, no political promise that their property will be their hand soon.

But in 2011 Vedanta saved the “Scottish” company with their offer[5]. The operation was hardly contested by the Indian government; as we have seen, the move was an aggressive entrance in the landscape of Reliance and Ambani’s clan didn’t particularly welcome the new comer[6].

Agarwal acknowledged the leading role of Ambani: “They (Reliance) will continue to be the largest player. But, at the same time, there is enough water in the sea for other players to also do business.” [7]

If you are familiar with the Indian capitalism, you know very well that the big players are running monopolies supported by political protection. Competition is sacrilegious. So why Agarwal decided to challenge so directly Ambani?

Adivasis fighters.

Adivasis fighters.

Rumours go that he was concerned for his venture in Orissa[8]. Vedanta was involved in a billion mining project; they received of course all the authorization from the central government, but a small detail was blocking the operations: 80 million of Adivasis, the Indian Aborigines. The inconvenience was due to be quickly removed with mass evictions; this led the Adivasis to join the Maoist guerrilla, but Vedanta wasn’t worried: in fact the central government declared this insurgency (sometimes the Adivasis attacked with bows and arrows) as the nation’s main security threat: more than the archenemy, atomic-armed Pakistan. Operation Green Hunt was launched to eradicate the Maoist[9] and incidentally, any obstacle to Vedanta manoeuvres. Unfortunately for Vedanta, public and international outcry sprung in favour of Adivasis and suddenly the big deal, despite all the political support, was in peril[10]. The Orissa crisis urged Vedanta to look for alternative business[11]. Quickly.


Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Mrs. Jayalalithaa

Mrs. Jayalalithaa, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister requested to scrap the plan of training personnel from the Sri Lankan air forces. The site designed to hold the course is Tambaram, in Tamil Nadu. Without a particular intent to stir controversy or to chase an easy populist stance, I think the Chief Minister asked for something like a minimal basis of reciprocal understanding: if we want to build a solid partnership between the two countries, it is recommended to implement first the basic needs of displaced Tamil in the island. She manoeuvred cleverly around the issues and without openly attack the Colombo’s actions during the war, pointed out that the Tamil people were victims of what happened and the Sri Lankan army is involved in those operations.
It is definitely not a strong accusations. But it is stating the obvious: that Tamil civilians suffered (also) because of the Sri Lankan army. So it is not a wise step to establish a new deal, starting from the military side.
Difficult not to agree, in this case, with Mrs Jayalalithaa.

But I think that the episode is also quite enlightening. India and Sri Lanka are allies. And not since yesterday.

SLNS Sayura

The two countries conducted joint navy exercise in 2009 and subsequently in 2011 (Slinex II). The Sri Lankan navy received an Indian ship, the INS Sarayu ;then renamed SLNS Sayura. The Sri Lankan flagship for the offshore patrolling came from the Indian navy and it is still under Indian responsibility for the maintenance and refit of the vehicle. Indian navy assisted Sri Lanka in intercepting LTTE Sea Tigers. International reports (Jane’s International Review and e Woodrow Wilson School of Politics and International Studies) claimed that Sri Lankan navy before the IV Eelam War was highly disupted and overtaken by the SeaTigers. For the LTTE the control of the sea was always a vital matter and they survived because they have been able to take and maintain that control.

Indian Navy Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Nirmal Verma and Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
courtesy Sri Lanka Ministry of Defence

Now, the defeat of the LTTE by the Sri Lankan has made possible by India intervention (intelligence, electronic surveillance and satellite coverage); during the operations Indian officer were actually present on the field, to monitor what was happening.

In a nutshell, India was actively involved in the military side of the defeat of the LTTE. This simple fact is clearly difficult to handle politically for obvious reasons. I think that Mrs Jayalalithaa is right in saying that a minimal sense of decency for the Tamil brethren should avoid the training of Sri Lankan personnel in Tamil Nadu. Will she so brave to tackle also the bigger question of the Indian responsibility in the massacre of Tamil civilians?