‘Just four citizens’: the Australians who confronted Adani in India, and made a difference | Environment
I settled back into the seat as the Air India flight took off from my hometown of Sydney, unaware of just how relieved I would be to return there. I had been warned the Indian government might take a dim view of our mission to intercept the Queensland premier on her journey to have lunch with chairman Gautam Adani, who would be intending to impress on her the force and majesty of his major asset, the Mundra power plant – ironically, now for sale for one rupee.
I’d also been told there was a chance that either the government or Adani or both were intercepting all my communications. So there was a degree of apprehension even as I passed through customs in New Delhi, since I was travelling on a tourist visa and the sites we would be visiting did not include the Taj Mahal.
A journalist was waiting to interview me at the hotel, which proved more useful to me than to him. Both the Australian and Indian media were already interested in our mission. I was carrying a letter from over 90 prominent Australians, including a Nobel prize winner, a Pulitzer prize winner, the heads of major corporations, some of our most famous writers and many other prominent citizens.
But what caught the imagination of the Indian press was the inclusion of two former Test cricket captains, Ian and Greg Chappell. I’d asked Ian over a beer or two in a city hotel if he would consider signing our letter. He read it and held out his hand. He proved to be not just a signatory, but one of the key media components in the saga. And a saga it turned out to be, because our little “delegation” wasn’t only planning to deliver this letter to Adani or to meet Indigenous groups affected by its appalling environmental practices or to visit former ministers, lawyers and others with experience of Adani’s disregard for the law, but also planning to disrupt the visit of a “head of state” and her entourage.
Our delegation was small but diverse in character. It included a Queensland farmer who had never travelled out of Australia before, a Great Barrier Reef expert and activist, and a tourist operator from the reef. None of us had ever met before and the group had been assembled at the last minute, much like the letter from the 90 citizens which was compiled in less than a week.
Our major initial problem was that we had no idea where the premier, who was travelling with a group of local mayors, would be at any given time – which made interception rather difficult. Enter the journalist from my initial interview.
I had asked him if he would be covering the premier’s visit. He confirmed this. I rang him the next morning offering to meet with a few juicy quotes I had forgotten to deliver. “Not possible,” he said, “I’m no longer in New Delhi.” Nor were we as it happened, but I didn’t reveal this. We were in a town called Ahmedabad in the province of Bujharat – the headquarters of Adani and the hometown, coincidentally, of both Gautam Adani and prime minister Narendra Modi. I offered to come wherever the journalist was, but he said he was far away in the town of Bhuj, towards the Pakistan border. As we were driving around Ahmedabad, about to try to deliver our letter to Adani, I googled Bhuj. It was the closest airport to Mundra, the Adani port where the premier and her mayors were obviously heading. Google also provided flight times in and out of Bhuj connecting with an international airport. There was only one morning flight each day coming from Mumbai and arriving at 7.30am. She and the mayors must be on it, I reasoned, and we had to be there – to welcome her as only Aussies can do.
It is impossible to enter an airport in India without a valid ticket to depart on a flight about to leave. We bought two tickets on the 8am flight to Mumbai. These would be useful if we could get to Bhuj, but there was no flight from Ahmedabad and we were about seven hours drive away with a busy and risky day ahead of us at the Adani headquarters and elsewhere.
Our ground crew in India had instructed us not to try to enter the Adani head office and certainly not to alert the media to be outside. According to them, it was illegal to hold a press conference in the street and we would be arrested or worse. They said the press wouldn’t attend in any event. We ignored these remarks and set off, after I spoke to Gautam Adani’s PA and told him we were on the way, despite his claim that his chairman wasn’t in the country. He was, I replied, because he was meeting the premier the next day.
When we arrived at the Adani office building, there were many press and TV crews gathered in the street along with an equal number of security people who, remarkably, allowed us to enter the premises. A young woman on the reception desk said she was authorised to accept our letter. Unfortunately, I replied, I could only give it to a senior executive of the parent company. She insisted on her statement and I on mine. “Do you have a business card?” I asked. She did not. “Therefore I cannot give it to you as I must be able to identify the recipient.”
The stalemate was broken by the arrival of the director of corporate affairs. I gave him my business card and, somewhat reluctantly, he returned the compliment. The only copy of our famous letter in my possession was a somewhat tattered page signed only by me, but I presented it as if it were the Magna Carta and then we proceeded immediately into the street to hold our “illegal” press conference. I held up the Adani director’s card so he could be properly identified – I thought he would want that. And then we were chased off the street by a multitude of security persons. I asked one of our ground crew if he was police or Adani security and he replied, “one and the same”.
Now we needed to get to Bhuj fast but the only possibility was a seven-hour drive through a blighted, dystopian landscape of industrial wasteland and salt farms. This was not the India of maharajahs’ palaces converted into luxury hotels or flower ceremonies on the Ganges. But we made it to Bhuj late in the evening, undernourished and on edge.
The two of us who had agreed to enter the airport arrived the next morning with our small bags packed as if we were bona fide travellers, presented our tickets and were duly admitted into the airport. The premier, according to my calculations, would arrive in about half an hour. We were sitting alone in the vast entrance foyer and who should enter but the Adani welcome group with dancers and drummers. They weren’t there to welcome us, but the leader immediately came to me and asked, “What are you doing here, Mr Cousins?” I had never met him but he obviously recognised me from press coverage. “Heading for Mumbai,” I replied, somewhat evasively. “Travel well” was his only comment as he led the girls with floral leis away to another area.
But now the police approached us. Our plane was about to depart – why had we not made ready to board? Thinking as quickly as I could with adrenalin pumping into the autonomic nervous system, I said that one of our colleagues hadn’t arrived and we couldn’t leave without him. My partner-in-crime picked up the cue and tried to reach this imaginary person on her phone. We were now in a federal security facility on a doubtful mission with statements that may not have been entirely accurate. The police insisted we board our plane, but we dithered and dallied and the plane left without us – so we were asked to leave the airport.
Serendipity is a lovely word, but its outcome is seldom experienced in real life. This day it was. As we left the terminal, under the watchful eyes of the police, so did the premier and her extensive entourage. I was able to manoeuvre around the media pack and the minders and greet her at the door of her car as the TV cameras caught the somewhat surprised expression on her face. The pictures ran right across India and Australia.
In many ways, neither this successful interception nor the presentation of the letter to Adani was the most important part of our delegation’s journey. We met with Jairam Ramesh, former minister for the environment of India, who gave us the compelling quote: “Adani is a company that never bothered to meet environmental conditions in its own country, why do you imagine they will do so in yours?”
We met with a lawyer who had conducted over 60 court cases against Adani and he showed us satellite photos of coastline which he claimed Adani had “illegally reclaimed over many years”. He told us the story of a lighthouse that was several kilometres from the sea. It had been built on a sea cliff, as most are, but there was speculation that more illegal reclamation on a massive scale had stranded it well away from any useful purpose. We weren’t able to verify this but the story stuck with me.
More importantly, we met with those Indigenous fishing communities whose lives and livelihoods had been destroyed by Adani development. They told us of broken promises of employment and compensation and took us on the back of motorbikes down a rough bush track – now their only access to the sea. To our right, the line of mangroves (those essential plants that are the guardians of the land against infertility from salination) had completely disappeared under industrial spoil. To our left were mangroves remaining but they were of a kind I had never seen. They were black mangroves. When I touched the leaf of one, my fingers were blackened. Coal dust and more illegal reclamation had blighted the landscape and polluted the sea, greatly reducing the fish catch to below subsistence.
This was Adani at work. This was the company we were welcoming into Australia, the company the federal government wanted to fund and the Queensland premier wanted to lunch with. I wondered if there was fish on the menu.
The campaign against the Adani mine is unique in my experience of major environmental battles. Most are “place-based” campaigns in one way or another: “don’t dam this river”; “don’t pollute this groundwater reserve”; “build this gas hub somewhere other than in a wilderness area”. The Adani proposal is different and touches on all the major environmental issues of our time, from climate change to global warming, from shifting from fossil fuels to renewables to the direct and indirect impacts on the Barrier Reef.
It has become a symbol of what is wrong with so much of the government policy in this country and elsewhere and that is why the campaign has attracted such widespread and passionate support. The central question that has focused the minds of all involved has become: if we can’t stop this mine at a time in history when urgent action is needed on all these issues, what can ever be achieved by the environment movement?
What lasting impact did our peculiar “delegation” have other than stirring a good deal of press coverage? The day after I returned to Australia, I flew to Canberra for the launch of the Stop Adani Alliance – the biggest coming together of environmental groups ever in this country. Our trip didn’t create that alliance but when Bob Brown stood in the Parliament House courtyard and announced it, we all knew it had helped. More importantly, it had a lasting and increasing impact through investigative media exercises, such as the Four Corners program devoted to Adani. We were able to provide a range of contacts in India, such as former environment minister Ramesh, who would not otherwise have been available. The New York Times and Financial Times published long pieces on the issue, in part stimulated by this initiative and the contacts created.
In discussions with traditional owners in Australia, it has been powerful to be able to describe first-hand the mistreatment Adani has meted out to Indigenous groups in India. The same promises are being made here, of employment and funding, and Indigenous groups are increasingly disbelieving of them – even those who may have signed agreements with Adani before they knew the truth.
A farmer in a wide hat and a bright green shirt with a white map of Australia on the back; an experienced and brave Great Barrier Reef activist; a woman who left her tourism business to join us at the last minute; and an old bald man with hope in his heart and fear in his belly – this was the great Aussie delegation. The Indians loved us. “You’re just four citizens?” they asked. “You don’t represent any organisation or government?” “No, just four people,” we answered.
There are thousands now, all over our country. More than 130 Stop Adani groups and thousands more people join the cause every month, with only one aim: to protect the planet, our reef, our natural world and our way of life against the environmental rape and pillage being carried out by Gautam Adani and his band of brothers.
This is an edited extract from David Ritter’s The Coal Truth: The fight to stop Adani, defeat the big polluters and reclaim our democracy ($29.99, UWA publishing)