Gas dispute rips family, country
A bitter feud between billionaire brothers goes to court, drawing world attention and making India hold its breath. Juggie Naran reports
ALONG-STANDING family feud between two billionaire brothers has landed in the Supreme Court, which has likened the dispute to a war between two countries but without hostility between the people of the two territories.
The wealthy Ambani brothers, Mukesh and Anil, faced each other in the New Delhi court this week, even though Anil had earlier made an impassioned plea for “divine intervention” to heal the dispute with his elder brother.
The dispute over natural gas from the Krishna-Godavari basin is not a fight between two companies but one between the two brothers, the Supreme Court in New Delhi observed as it started hearing the highprofile legal battle.
“It’s like two countries, where there is no fight between their people,” observed the three-member bench of Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan, Justice RV Raveendran and Justice P Sathasivam.
“The fight is between the two persons who are heading the country. But the fight has percolated down to the people,” the bench added.
According to the Forbes 2009 list of the world’s billionaires, Mukesh Ambani is the richest man in India and the seventh richest man in the world, with a net worth of $19.5 billion (R146.25bn).
Anil Ambani in March 2007 had a net worth of $18.2bn, making him the 18th richest person in the world.
His was the world’s fastestgrowing multi-billion-dollar fortune in percentage terms as his wealth trebled in one year.
During the two-hour hearing, the Bench said the battle was personal in nature.
Although their mother, Kokilaben, had reached a family settlement between the two feuding brothers in June 2005 by splitting the Reliance group, skirmishes between the two continued.
This included Reliance Communication, headed by Anil, calling off merger talks with MTN after Mukesh made a claim on the shares of Anil’s telecoms firm in July 2008.
This was followed by talks to create the world’s thirdbiggest cellphone group through a $24 million link-up of MTN and the Sunil Mittal-led Bharti Airtel, which collapsed last month after the Indian telecoms group said the South African government did not accept the deal.
The court asked the media to exercise restraint and said the judicial observations were intended only to elicit the views of the contending counsels and should not be construed as an expression of their views.
At the crux of the dispute is the supply of natural gas from the Krishna-Godavari basin, awarded for exploration and harnessing to Reliance Industries, before a split in 2005 in the group founded by legendary industrialist, the late Dhirubhai Ambani.
Based on a
family reorganisation pact, the Anil Ambani Group, Reliance Natural Resources Ltd (RNRL) wants 28 million units of gas a day for 17 years at $2.34 a unit.
But Reliance Industries (RIL) says it can only supply RNRL at $4.20 a unit, claiming this was the price approved by the government.
The Bombay High Court had upheld the claim by younger brother Anil Ambani’s group in a verdict delivered in June, which was challenged by Reliance Industries in the apex court.
The government, too, has joined the dispute as an interested party, saying gas was the property of the state and could not be fought over by two rival corporate houses.
Days before the beginning of the Supreme Court hearing, Anil Ambani also made a surprise truce offer to resolve the dispute cordially, but Mukesh Ambani questioned its sincerity without rejecting the proposal.
In a public statement on October 11, Anil said all the disagreements could be resolved within weeks, but RIL questioned the sincerity of the offer made “through the public domain” and said Anil could have easily contacted his elder brother directly.
RIL also asked Anil to demonstrate the bona fides of his intentions behind the latest overture, adding it “welcomes this positive indicator and will not be found wanting in responding constructively”.
In the gas dispute hearing, senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for Mukesh Ambani’s RIL, said the Anil Ambani-owned RNRL was indulging in nothing but shadow boxing.
Salve said, “If anyone has a private grievance over any issue, he should not convert it to company litigation. He can sue the other party. Private agreement cannot be a basis for shadow boxing.”
However, the court at the end of Tuesday’s hearing gave a loud clarification that its observations and queries relating to shadow boxing and other issues were merely an attempt to understand the dispute and not a comment on the merit of the issue.
Notwithstanding the clarification, its queries did elicit interesting answers reflecting the bitter relationship between the two brothers.
But the volume of documents that the three parties have saddled the court with posed a problem for the Bench.
It said there were 30 volumes of documents, many of which were duplicated by the parties.
“Could you all not sit down together and make a common volume of documents for easy and ready reference?” the Bench asked.
The parties agreed to do so.