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From his first investment in cling wrap, Gautam Adani built the third largest fortune in the world – but claims of stock manipulation have almost halved the value of his company. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The rise and fall of Gautam Adani

Gautam Adani speaks following the purchase of Haifa Port in Israel earlier this year.
Gautam Adani speaks following the purchase of Haifa Port in Israel earlier this year.
Credit: Reuters / Amir Cohen

He would love to say more. He really would. He would love to reflect, expansively, on the political economy of India and the influence of one of its largest companies, the colossal Adani Group, whose interests have now spread to almost every conceivable element of India’s public life. But he can’t.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is speaking to The Saturday Paper from his home in New Delhi. At 67, he’s a confident, experienced and multilingual man, who has practised journalism for almost half a century. He’s made documentaries, written books on India’s political history and debated on live television. But right now, Guha Thakurta is in the crosshairs of one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful men, Gautam Adani, and for the past two-and-a-half years he’s been subject to a severe gag order, issued by courts in Ahmedabad, which prevents him from writing or speaking in a manner contrary to the interests of the Adani Group. He is the only Indian citizen to currently have six cases of defamation against him by Adani and he has effectively vanished from public life.

And so Guha Thakurta must be circumspect. Offering no opinions, he says, and keeping only to the facts. The grounds of our interview are clear. “You ask me anything you wish to, and what I don’t want to say I will not say,” he says. “Simple.”

 

The rise of Gautam Adani has been spectacular, and his transformation from provincial businessman into history-making industrialist is now almost a national myth. Adani was born in the state of Gujarat, on India’s west coast, a region renowned for its long coastline and high levels of industrialisation. He was not born to great wealth, but from a young age he sought to acquire it. In the early 1980s, he quit his college studies and moved to Mumbai to dabble in diamond trading. He didn’t find his fortune with the gems, instead moving back home to work in the family business, producing cling wrap.

It may seem inauspicious, but Adani had found the germ for his future empire: polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. Astutely, Adani bought up local import licences for the product and began importing in high volume. He found a profitable surplus from doing so, and parlayed this into the importation of other industrial chemicals. His business grew rapidly, before he diversified again in 1995 by constructing a port in Mundra. His wealth and assets would snowball, but dogging his rise were serial allegations of cronyism, tax evasion, environmental degradation and the displacement of Indigenous people. Adani would also develop a reputation for his aggressive litigation of critics, notably journalists.

If Adani’s rise through the 1990s and 2000s was impressive, it became startling after the ascension of Narendra Modi to the prime ministership in 2014. Modi had previously been chief minister of Adani’s home state of Gujarat, where the businessman had assiduously courted the nation’s future leader. Together, they wrote a narrative of unstoppable Indian growth and positioned themselves as fundamental to it. An attack on Adani was spoken of as an attack upon India.

“There’s a notorious photograph of Mr Modi boarding an Adani plane, with their logo emblazoned across it, which followed Mr Modi’s successful election in 2014,” says Geoff Law, the editor of Adani Watch, an online publication that the Bob Brown Foundation established in 2019, and which describes its mission as covering financial, environmental and social justice issues related to the company. “That photograph sums up the relationship. The skyrocketing of Mr Adani’s wealth, and the fortune of the Adani Group, has virtually all occurred following Mr Modi’s ascension to prime ministership.”

In 2014, Gautam Adani’s net worth was about $US2.8 billion. Earlier this year, it was estimated at $126 billion, and Forbes magazine listed him as the world’s third-wealthiest man. The company has also established the controversial Carmichael coalmine in central Queensland and built a 200-kilometre rail line to Abbot Point port – recently renamed as the North Queensland Export Terminal – which it also owns. After almost a decade of protests, advertising campaigns and fractious applications, the mine, in a much smaller capacity than the one initially proposed, began its first shipments of coal in late 2021.

It is difficult to overstate the influence and control of the Adani Group in Indian public life. When Guha Thakurta lists Adani’s interests, so expansive are they that he’s at pains to recall them all, certain he’s forgotten something. He speaks for five minutes on this litany alone, listing Gautam Adani’s web of strategic assets and the enormous scale of his coal operations.

From that early investment in PVC, Adani today runs mining, power generation and transmission, ports, airports, food production and, with its recent majority stake in NDTV, media. The broadcast network was considered one of the last independent outlets in a country that resides towards the bottom of Transparency International’s global rankings, and its founders quit the board in protest. Several journalists have since followed. “Some people see him as a great entrepreneur,” Guha Thakurta says. “Others perceive him as an oligarch.”

Geoff Law says that the former view dominates coverage. “A lot of media reporting on Adani over the last two or three years has been puff pieces about his business ability,” he says. “Much of the reporting has had a certain breathlessness to it.”

All that changed on January 24.

 

Hindenburg Research is a curious financial analysis firm. Based in Manhattan and founded by investor Nate Anderson, it is named for the 1937 zeppelin disaster, which Anderson says was the “epitome of a totally man-made, totally avoidable disaster”. The firm takes a special interest in companies that may feature irregularities, excessive debt or corrupt practices. It then makes public its forensic reports, and seeks to profit from the companies’ subsequent decline in share value – something the firm declares openly.

On January 24, Hindenburg Research published a 32,000-word report on Adani Group, the work of two years’ research and analysis. Bluntly titled “Adani Group: How The World’s 3rd Richest Man Is Pulling The Largest Con in Corporate History”, the report alleged that Adani family members had been conducting a massive shell game of creative financing via a network of offshore entities in tax havens. The report also implicated Adani Group’s mining operations in central Queensland.

“[It] has engaged in a brazen stock manipulation and accounting fraud scheme over the course of decades,” the report reads. “Adani Group’s obvious accounting irregularities and sketchy dealings seem to be enabled by virtually non-existent financial controls.”

The effect was immediate and dramatic – the markets moved, entities divested, and Adani Group’s share value almost halved, a loss of about $74 billion. It became a global story, while Modi’s closeness with Gautam Adani was fiercely debated in the Indian parliament.

Adani Group’s response was bullish and very long – more than 400 pages. It emphatically denied any wrongdoing: “This [report] is rife with conflict of interest and intended only to create a false market in securities to enable Hindenburg, an admitted short-seller, to book massive financial gain through wrongful means at the cost of countless investors.”

Bravus, Adani’s Australian arm, which operates the Carmichael mine, added: “The Hindenburg Report presents transactions related to Adani’s Australian businesses in a misleading way to purposefully undermine the reputation of the Adani Group, in order to pursue their own profit by short-selling shares in Adani Group companies. All our businesses are Australian companies that comply with Australian corporations and securities legislation.”

Bob Brown, the former federal Greens leader, who led a convoy of protesters against the mine in 2019, told The Saturday Paper the report speaks for itself. “The markets don’t react like that to hollow or unsubstantiated reports,” he said. “Third-richest person on the planet, and he’s done that through extraordinary political contacts and a remarkable use of the courts to suppress criticism.”

Tim Buckley once worked as a senior equity analyst for Citigroup and Deutsche Bank – two of the world’s largest investment banks – before a spasm of disgust altered his career, prompting him to found Climate Energy Finance in 2022, a public interest think tank concerned with encouraging renewable energy. He has been a thorn in Adani’s side for years now. “What Hindenburg alleges is a $200 billion company expansively manipulating investors for over a decade,” he says. “It’s the largest con in world history, if what Hindenburg says is correct. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the Wirecard fraud in Germany. That was a financial services operator, worth about $24 billion, so much smaller than Adani, and in that case the auditors were asleep at the wheel, and politicians and regulators endorsed their business model, and that’s precisely what Hindenburg is alleging here.

“If proven, it means Adani has conned the three biggest financial institutions in the world – BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street – because they’ve played the index investors. Index investing means no fiduciary oversight, you’re just investing money, low-fee investing with no oversight. An active manager would be doing due diligence, but index is all about abrogation of any financial responsibility.”

Following Adani Group’s precipitous loss of value, headlines appeared questioning the solvency of the company. Buckley warns against hyperbolic predictions – not least because major investors, such as Israel and Abu Dhabi, have kept faith and don’t seem likely, at this point, to divest. Adani Group also enjoys a preposterous wealth of strategic, sometimes monopolistic, assets in India. “They’re first amongst equals,” Buckley says. “They get all the best contracts. Long, government-backed contracts. Adani’s not an idiot. He has high acumen and he’s now synonymous with the Indian economy.”

 

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is one of few journalists mentioned by name in the Hindenburg report. He says that he’s been waiting for this day for two years. He feels vindicated.

Guha Thakurta’s work has been costly, financially and emotionally. He’s lived under the threat of arrest, he’s lost jobs, and he’s lost the very essence of his professional freedom. But he says he has no regrets. “This is my work, this is my job,” he says. “I completed a postgraduate course in economics in 1977. The two years before that was a period of time where the government of the day, then headed by Indira Gandhi, imposed a state of emergency, and she shackled freedom of expression. And that’s the time I chose to become a journalist. I could have been something else. I could have joined the corporate sector, or the government. I could have become a teacher. But I chose to be a journalist. And I remained a journalist. It’s my duty to ask questions of those who are in positions of power and authority. And that includes corporate captains. I am not a crusader, or a martyr. I am just a journalist.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 11, 2023 as "You and whose Adani?".

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