NEW DELHI (AP) — Asia’s richest man, Gautam Adani, amassed his vast fortune betting on coal as energy-hungry India grew rapidly after liberalizing its economy in the 1990s.
It has now set its sights on becoming the world’s biggest player in renewable energy by 2030, pledging to align its investments with government priorities.
As India grapples with climate change, Adani Group, whose operations also span ports, power, agriculture and defense manufacturing, announced in September plans to invest $70 billion in solar, wind and other green energy projects over the next decade.
Adani, 60, has been winning since Gujarati Narendra Modi, India’s most powerful prime minister in decades, took office in 2014.
The college dropout from a middle-class family meets the government’s need for “national champions” both to achieve domestic goals and to partner with the private sector in strategic projects outside India, said Mihir Sharma, an economist at the Observer Research Foundation, New A Delhi-based think tank.
“It’s not that government policies are being shaped by the Adani Group, because the Adani Group is a willing and able partner in what the government has decided are its priorities,” Sharma said.
Since Modi became prime minister, after sometimes campaigning using a private jet owned by the tycoon, Adani’s net worth has jumped nearly 2,000 percent to $125 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He overtook Amazon boss Jeff Bezos to briefly become the world’s second-richest person in September after a jump in the value of his seven listed companies.
Adani’s companies have won multibillion-dollar contracts to build ports, highways and power plants. The industrialist’s ambitions include developing drones and munitions, key to the government’s goal of boosting military-related exports to $5 billion while cutting the cost of expensive imports.
Adani has also invested in agriculture, a huge priority for Modi given the importance of the farm vote.
One of eight children in a middle-class family in Ahmedabad, in Modi’s home state of Gujarat in western India, Adani began his career trading diamonds in the financial center of Mumbai.
He returned home to join his brother in importing plastics before setting up Adani Enterprises in the 1980s, trading in everything from shoes to buckets. His career has had its ups and downs: he was kidnapped for ransom in 1988 and survived the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai by hiding in the basement of a hotel that militants held under siege.
Although its wealth was built from coal mining and other heavy industries, Adani recognized the promise of renewable energy early on, said Tim Buckley, director of Australia-based Climate Energy Finance, which has tracked renewable energy investments in Asia for decades.
Adani has benefited from Indian government incentives to promote self-reliance and achieve net zero by 2070, recently receiving almost $90 million in government subsidies to produce solar modules.
“I don’t think Gautam Adani really thinks about climate science, but what he does is he understands India’s geopolitical and economic interests and he’s positioned himself to solve this problem to his advantage and to India’s advantage,” Buckley said.
“He wants to be up there with Bill Gates, with Elon Musk. The only way he can do that is to be a bona fide global billionaire, not the biggest fish in the Indian market. Adani Green is what he will want his legacy to be,” he added.
Adani’s quest for green energy is not limited to India. He recently announced plans to build a 10 gigawatt clean energy project in Morocco that will help meet Europe’s energy needs.
However, it has not yet abandoned its fossil fuel roots.
In December 2021, the Adani Group began exporting coal from Australia’s Carmichael mine after years of disputes with environmental groups. The project, 300 kilometers (185 miles) west of the Queensland coast, involves a rail line to transport coal from the Galilee Basin to countries in Asia, including India.
Energy-hungry Bangladesh will soon start getting a share of its electricity from an under-construction Adani coal plant in eastern India.
Adani recently announced plans to invest more than $4 billion in a petrochemical complex that will include ethane cracking and a plant that will turn natural gas into plastics.
Critics say such projects run counter to Adani’s zeal for green energy. The company says such a combination is inevitable given the need to meet growing demand as India transitions to a cleaner future.
“While we are fully committed to clean energy, existential imperatives require us to stay the course with traditional fuel sources until reliable alternatives are available,” the company said in a statement. It says the use of fossil fuels will be phased out and “that is why our long-term vision is to remain focused on clean, reliable and affordable energy”.
In Adani, India has a rival to some of China’s major business empires.
Last year, Adani Ports and Special Economic Zones struck a deal with Sri Lanka to develop and operate a terminal at Colombo Port, the country’s busiest and largest port. It was a triumph for New Delhi’s push for influence in the island nation, where China has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure, including the takeover of Hambantota, a port in southern Sri Lanka that has struggled to generate profits.
Earlier this year, Adani Ports acquired a 70% stake in Israel’s Haifa Port, near Haifa Bay Port, which is operated by China’s Shanghai International Port Group. The group has pledged to invest in projects in Tanzania after a Chinese-led port deal, part of its ambitious Belt and Road initiative, ran into difficulties.
Seeking to expand internationally, the group had to address concerns about rising debt levels. Adani Enterprises, the group’s main listed company, has announced it will seek shareholder approval for a share offering to raise more than $2 billion.
Adani’s bid to take over NDTV, India’s leading broadcaster, has raised concerns that he may, given his close ties to Modi, move to stifle the network’s often critical stance on the government.
Adani declined interview requests. The company sent written comments to questions through a company spokesperson, who defended the Adani Group’s strong track record in winning government contracts and pursuing opportunities both in India and abroad.
“Strategic priorities, both internal and external to any country, can be instrumental in creating business opportunities,” it said. “If it is attractive enough, we are ready to invest in different geographies and sectors.”
RN Bhaskar, a journalist who wrote a biography of Adani, says it was only natural for the tycoon to tie his fortunes to those of Modi and his party when they rose to power, just as he had earlier been friendly with the rival Congress party which was ruling the state of Gujarat when many of its early projects began.
“A key element of Adani’s success is its ability to manage relationships. He is close to every politician who is in power,” Bhaskar said.
“In India, big business only works by aligning itself with the government – India is in the same phase as the robber barons and Rothschilds of the 19th century. If an opposition party takes over tomorrow, Adani will also be close to them.
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