Recent events have highlighted the need for more comprehensive and stringently enforced anti-trust laws to hold back the tide of unchecked corporatisation in India
The erstwhile Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission was denounced by all shades of liberal opinion as an integral part of licence raj. However, despite the expressed intent of preventing monopolies, as the entity's name suggested, India's major corporate houses flourished as monopolies under its regime. It restricted only new players to enter their preferred business, rather than obstructing the expansion of existing monopolies to expand into any sphere of activity at will.
The story with the Competition Commission of India is not very different. The 'Competition Act' of 2002, the Indian version of the anti-trust law of western democracies, does not mind if corporates attain dominance in any particular area, unlike the western laws, which view every move by companies to consolidate their position with suspicion. The Indian law is not bothered about dominance by any player, and the objection is only for the use of an entity's dominance to control the market and manipulate prices of their products and services.
Despite the so-called 'turbo-charged' anti-competition law, Indian corporates have grown into the likes of Korean chaebols, which have been associated with everything undesirable in corporate clout, including politics, policy formulation as well as the evolution of the country's industrial and business ecosystem.
'Salt to Steel' is a nice catch line associated with Tatas for long, but it is a gross understatement of what the leading conglomerate is all about. There is hardly an activity that one can cite, where a group entity is not present. And yet, Tatas are not the best representation for an Indian corporate poking into every possible economic activity. In this respect, the Tata group pales in insignificance when compared to Reliance.
Some 1,600 towers in Punjab owned by Reliance JioInfocomm have been vandalised by the agitators to protest against the corporatisation of agriculture as envisaged by the Government's new farm laws. One of the most serious grievances of the farmers against the new laws is that these are meant to bring prosperity to corporates rather than provide benefits to the farming community.
Reliance's footprint in the country's agricultural sector is relatively new, but that is no indication of the sweep of its presence. Its hold on the agriculture sector has already become all-pervading, with no specific sphere or activity spared. The company's all-encompassing 'farm-to-fork business' envisages a delivery cycle from harvest to the store by sourcing nearly half of all vegetables and fruits required for its retail chain, which has grown by leaps and bounds through meticulously planned acquisitions, handing over the entire business to the group on a platter. As much as 90 per cent of the country's agritech is believed to be in the hands of one single corporate.
Reliance is now drawing up big plans to leverage its new partnership with Facebook to further consolidate its agritech business with the JioKrishi app, which will offer farm-to-fork supply chain support as well as data analytics. JioKrishi, which will help farmers undertake precision farming based on big data analysis. The app will alert the farmers about the best time to sow, irrigate and fertilise their crops to increase productivity and yield.
So, when farmers see the communication towers as the symbol of corporate tyranny into their domain, the emotional quotient of their action is not difficult to imagine, although this may not be the most constructive way of expressing their frustration. There are also political undertones to the complaint, with the company alleging that the police of the government of the opposition-ruled state is following a deliberate policy of remaining silent spectators to the vandalism. State Governor VP Singh Badnore has intervened on behalf of the company to summon state chief secretary and police chief to the Raj Bhavan to record his serious concern about the problem.
While Rahul Gandhi's 'Ambani-Adani' refrain may have become a cliché due to its overuse in and out of context to denounce the PM, he is not far from the truth, as such groups are lionising all business deals under the present Government. We have seen how the management of the country's major airports have been handed over to corporates, although they have no experience whatsoever in running an airport. Examples of such crony capitalism abound if one were to analyse all the deals entered into by the Government over the past few years.
Views expressed are personal