Indian truckers say Hindenburg report a godsend in Adani dispute
By Manoj Kumar, Aditya Kalra and Anushree Fadnavis
DARLAGHAT, India (Reuters) - For truckers transporting cement from Adani's factories in a hilly north Indian state, a U.S. short-seller's critical research report on the giant conglomerate was a godsend they say helped them save their livelihoods.
For weeks, around 7,000 truck owners and drivers in India's Himachal Pradesh resorted to protest rallies against Adani's Dec. 15 decision to shut two cement plants over a dispute on freight rates. Adani argued the plants were "unviable" at the trucking rates it wanted to slash by around half.
On Monday, the Gautam Adani-led group said it had "amicably resolved" the issue with a 10-12% reduction in rates. Truckers rejoiced, with a union leader in a street address labelling it as a victory after late-night talks with Adani.
The settlement comes four weeks after U.S.-based Hindenburg Research accused Adani of stock manipulation and improper use of tax havens, allegations the group called baseless.
The Jan. 24 report triggered a $140 billion rout in group's stocks, sparked regulatory investigations and saw the billionaire Adani slip to 26 on the Forbes global rich list, from third.
While the truckers' settlement will have only a small impact on the overall Adani empire, it was a big win for the drivers and owners in a state were most people live on around $7 a day.
The report "played a crucial role in our battle against the India's biggest business group, helped mobilize truckers and gain political support," said Ram Krishan Sharma, one of the lead negotiators for protesting truckers.
Adani negotiators had refused to budge for weeks. So Hindenburg's report, some truckers believe, was godsent.
Just a day before it was published, many truckers visited a small, revered Hindu temple in Darlaghat which overlooks one of Adani's cement plants, and offered a traditional semolina sweet offering to a deity as they sought to resolve the dispute.
Bantu Shukla, a protest leader, showed Reuters a photo and video of truckers that day offering prayers inside the temple. Some stood with folded hands, while a person rang a temple bell in a typical Hindu worship ritual.
Adani Group did not answer Reuters questions on whether the Hindenburg report's fallout contributed to its decision in Himachal.
Adani Cements in a statement said it was "grateful" to all stakeholders including the unions, the local state chief minister and other departments, adding the "amicable resolution" was in interest of everyone including the state.
A source familiar with Adani's negotiation said the group had been under pressure following what it thinks was a "negative campaign" by Adani's opponents after the Hindenburg report, and the settlement to reopen plants is a relief.
Himachal is ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's staunch rival, the Congress party. After the Hindenburg report, Congress has renewed its claims that Modi for years has unduly favoured Adani. Both Adani and India's government deny that.
The source added the move will also help Adani signal it can resolve commercial matters in states ruled by Modi's rivals.
Without citing Hindenburg, the Himachal chief minister's office on Monday said "we have been successful in resolving the issues" to end the 67-day dispute.
WHATSAPP CHATS, PRAYERS AT TEMPLE
Adani became India's second largest cement manufacturer when it acquired ACC and Ambuja Cements in a $10.5 billion deal with Swiss giant Holcim last year.
In December, it shut plants in the villages of Gagal and Darlaghat in Himachal, saying truckers were charging too much.
The Adani group wanted freight rates to be lowered to around 6 rupees ($0.0725) per tonne per km, from around 11 rupees. Many truckers told Reuters they struggled to make their loan repayments as their incomes shrank after the shutdowns.
As a stalemate worsened, truckers formed WhatsApp groups to coordinate efforts, vent frustration and later share Hindenburg's impact on Adani companies and stock prices to further drum up support.
One such WhatsApp group chat of around 1,000 truckers, reviewed by Reuters, showed sharing of a local reporter's video discussing the sharp fall in Adani's shares and his alleged close ties to Modi.
Although they accepted a small cut in freight rates when Adani agreed to pay 9.3-10.58 rupees per km per tonne, truckers felt they saved their jobs, and prayers at the Hindu temple were organised again this week.
"We felt our deity had accepted our prayers when we saw the fall in the share prices of Adani companies," protest leader Shukla said. "The Hindenburg report was a gift that saved our businesses."
(This story has been refiled to remove extraneous word in paragraph 20)
(Reporting by Manoj Kumar, Aditya Kalra and Anushree Fadnavis; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)