They haven’t lit the plastic palm tree laden with fruits in a while. But amid the chaos of Barmer Railway Station, and sandwiched between the stone artifices, the palm tree looks like a transplant. An idea, an aspiration, an enterprise.
In the Thar, palm trees don’t break the monotony of the shifting sands, unlike Dubai, that oasis of oil opulence where palm trees are made to grow in the heart of the desert. But who cares, so long as the oil boom sustains the imagination.
They discovered black gold in Barmer too. In 2004.
Five years later, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh opened a spigot in Barmer, and crude oil started gushing out of an oilfield of the UK-based explorer Cairn Energy. “We dedicate this oil to the nation,” said Rahul Dhir, then chief of Cairn’s Indian unit.
Since then, the oilfields of Barmer, which Cairn India shares with ONGC in a 70:30 ratio, have been taken over by Vedanta Resources, Anil Agarwal’s UK-based conglomerate that bought Cairn India last year.
That is the least visible part of it, however. Barmer is still a dusty border town in a remote corner of Rajasthan. It is still a desert outpost few can pinpoint on a map. It is still four hours away from the nearest airport in Jodhpur, but look closer. Flavoured hookahs, the choicest liquor, and pancakes with maple syrup served at hotels that have only just come up, it is all there. Outside, the roads are still bumpy, but those who have made their money can bet they will be fixed. They have made their farmhouses—swanky lounges, and swimming pools, and polished wooden floors, even a bell for the domestic help who must carry it around in case the master calls.
It is a transit town. Hotels serve as camps for men who have come from all over to join the oil boom, the workers, the contractors, the facilitators. Dozens of companies have set up shop in town, all part of a support network for the oil industry. Finding room at a ‘luxury’ hotel is a difficult proposition. Hotel Kailash International, the top hotel, is always full, its Madira bar a bustling evening hangout.
There are signs of haphazard development everywhere. Signs of frenzy. Signs of money.
The mood has had its ups and downs. When Shell drilled a well back in 1998, it turned out dry. But once Cairn got into the act and oilfield Mangalam began gurgling its dark gruel, the local economy burst to life. It is India’s second largest after Bombay High, spewing out a claimed 175,000 barrels per day. Bhagyam, another oilfield closeby, delivers 25,000 barrels. At $100 per barrel, that amounts to crude oil worth nearly Rs 40,000 crore every year. Once oilfield Aishwarya and a few others start pumping, output could go up to 300,000 barrels. This would be about a tenth of India’s daily consumption. Volumes are large enough to justify a refinery in Barmer. There is one planned.
This is just the beginning. And the boom has hit the town hard already.
Orange, magenta and blue overalls. Oilmen. Oil-boom-men. Men who queue up at ATMs, and then disappear into leafy upscale neighbourhoods on the periphery of town. They have little interaction with the town.
Among them is Amit Kubal. As a project manager with Halliburton, the world’s top supplier of services and products to the energy industry and a company featured by Michael Moore in his critical 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, he earns upwards of Rs 2.5 lakh per month. Originally from Mumbai, he has been camping in Barmer for a few years. Insulated from the town, he lives in a six-room bungalow in Arihant Nagar that overlooks the hills, a part of the Aravali range. It’s the sort of house you would expect in a posh locality of Delhi, with frosted glass doors and fancy furniture. Venture into the kitchen, and you have chefs who wear shower caps and aprons.
When Kubal isn’t logging 70-plus hours of work at the oilfields, he parties at home. The idea is to recreate life in Mumbai. At least to the extent possible. There is plenty of booze. No women, though. They are not part of Barmer’s party circuit yet. It would be too scandalous in these parts.
At one of the luxury resorts, the kind with manicured lawns and jharokas, a man of foreign origin sneaked in a couple of women from another town. A waiter leaked news of this to locals, and they staged a march to the resort in protest.
Where there is money, locals whisper, there is vice. And money, there is lots of. If it’s not crude oil money, it’s land sale money. So much money that a farmer who sold his land for a few crore suffered a heart attack when he saw the pile of rupee notes. So says Lalit Kiri, an entrepreneur who has himself made crores as a supplier of food, bunks and sundry services to the local oil industry.
Land prices have soared to dizzying heights. It has left locals bewildered. The stubborn soil that yielded so little with so much effort—guar is the region’s principle crop—has suddenly become hot property. Some landowners were lucky to have owned hundreds of acres.
Most people, however, owned little if anything. Barmer district has a population of just above 2.6 million, according to the latest provisional figures released by the Directorate of Census Operations. By all social indicators, Barmer remains one of the most backward regions of the country. Female literacy is one of the lowest in India, and the area lags the rest on male literacy as well. The district’s average literacy is 57.5 per cent.
In the distance, a flame rises against the greyish blue evening sky. An old woman sits outside her house, watching the golden flare. There are also little lights twinkling on the horizon. That’s the Cairn India site. On evenings like this, she says, she sheds tears for the loss of her land where she would walk with her cattle and sing songs to herself. “Whether it is development, I don’t understand,” says the 92-year-old, “I will die before the evil spreads.”
She asks why the flame never goes off. Because she lives in an oil province, I tell her. Her great grandson is down with malaria. Mosquitoes invaded the dhani—hamlet—after the energy company started dumping its garbage just outside its premises, not far from where she lives.
Residents of this dhani in Nagana are visibly weary, victims of their aspirations and others’ promises. “When they came for a survey,” says Jagdish Chander, 22, “they said one member of each family will get a job.” A few jobs did come their way. Housekeeping jobs, mostly. But they wanted supervisory positions. They joined an agitation, but the police were called in to put it down. Now the state government is building a police station at Nagana on the company’s insistence.
“No, some other contractor,” says Hira, a young man with gumboots and soiled overalls. He is a garbage picker.
A narrow path leads up to another dhani in Bandara in Nagana. A man stumbles in, looking no less disgruntled. “We were paid Rs 25,000 for a bigha when they took our land. Now, they are paying Rs 3.5 lakh per bigha,” Mohammad Rahim says, “That’s unfair.” Much of this land was valued under Rs 5,000 per bigha by a district committee, but in 2011-12 alone, the rate rose from Rs 24,000 to Rs 3.3 lakh.
The hamlet has no electricity, and people use solar panels to charge mobile phones. At night, however, all they have is the orange flame and distant twinkle of Cairn’s lights. There’s a Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan school in the vicinity, but beyond that, nothing.
This isn’t a war zone. But it could have been. It’s the curse of carbon. And he has seen enough to know how diamonds and oil can fuel conflicts around the world. “There is only one beast in the world and that’s the human being,” Jerry Mensink says, as he sips beer at Madira bar, which has a photo of Marilyn Monroe, perhaps an attempt to help expats feel a little more at home. ‘Camel Trophy,’ says his T-shirt, one he picked up in Saudi Arabia. A Dutch national, he is here on a six-week contract with Cairn. It pays well and he is here for the money. “Expats don’t come cheap,” as he says.
Later on, he would talk about the other oil boom towns he has stayed in, where he braved smugglers and thugs, and the worst of nature. Nigeria, Congo and everywhere. And now, Barmer. It’s dull here, he says. To overcome boredom, Jerry and his buddies sometimes switch on TV and try answering questions on Kaun Banega Crorepati. But his thoughts somehow still manage to swirl around to food.
‘Advice needed: I want to eat a steak. The steak will cost about euro 130,- shall I go or not? ... btw the steak costs about 17 euro. Go or stay?’ So said Jerry on Facebook last month. His toss-up was simple: whether to fly to Mumbai for a steak, or not. “Barmer has my interest,” he says, “What I miss is a nice steak.”
Evening after evening, Jerry is found munching chicken sandwiches at the bar. It’s supposed to be a vegetarian hotel, but for those with the cash, chicken can discreetly find its way between slices of bread. It’s the life of an oilman whose days and nights are spent a little too far away for appetising cuisine, a life of deprivation. For a pizza, one can still send a driver off to Jodhpur to fetch one. But steak? That’s an entirely different story.
Jerry has a theory for boom towns like this. When oil and gas come, they also bring sorrow. Forget development. That would have come anyhow, even if it took more time. “Nature leaves out people,” he says, “The weak are eaten up by the big fish. This is the world as we know it.”
A refinery is coming. No one knows when, but everyone is betting on it. UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi has hinted that Barmer will have its own refinery. Hoteliers are especially excited. When the next boom comes, they don’t want to miss it. Others are keeping close watch too. Ancillary units will come up, and everything else that comes with it. Urbanisation on a grand scale.
Barmer will see its dot on the Indian map enlarge. It will also be a sin city, fear many. Already, locals worry that the sudden oil boom has begun to corrupt their values. Some of them are aghast that women, dressed demurely in traditional long skirts with their faces veiled, have daughters who wear jeans and freely use mobile phones.
Change is upon them. And they aren’t ready for it.
There are Hummers grunting down the roads. Even off them. Other kinds of 4WDs too. There’s even a Harley Davidson, owned by 30-year-old Azad Singh Rathore who turned some of his land into cash. A Rajput, he owned close to 600 bighas in Shivkar village, part of which was acquired for the Jindal Group’s Raj West lignite project.
They were once farmers, most of the people who have became overnight millionaires. They now own SUVs.
In Kawas, a village near the Cairn plant, most of these SUVs are being used to ferry passengers to and fro.
Elsewhere, in huts and tea stalls, there are conspiratorial whispers. Of contracts promised but never awarded. Of betrayals. Of how the rich and influential swung deals their way. Of politicians making merry off their ill-gotten gains, drinking themselves silly even as their newly acquired vehicles earn them rental cash. “Who is to blame if they waste money on cars and drinks?” asks a man.
Of the Land Acquisition Bill, currently hanging fire in New Delhi, they know little. Most farmers grabbed whatever cash they could. In such an arid area, tilling the land was no easy task. So they took what they got. Those who sold early lived to regret it. They saw land prices rise to Rs 25,000 per bigha, five times what they were offered. Others got even more, once the Jindal Group began lignite operations in the area. Was the sellout worth it? They lost their livelihood as farmers, and with it, the anchor of their lives.
Some farmers who have blown up their bounty say they should have been advised how to use the funds. Banks did set up camps in these villages, they say, as did life insurers, but they had no counsel to offer. Little money has been invested in assets that go up in value and also generate regular returns.
The State, meanwhile, is absent. Schools, dispensaries and roads remain the way they were, public facilities that people use at their own peril. Cairn runs a few social outreach programmes with the dairy and handicraft industries, also some theatre education in schools, but what the region needs is social spending. It needs education. Schools and colleges. What they have instead are a couple of expensive private schools that have recently opened.
“I ride the bike to get my imagination to work,” says Rathore, speaking of his Harley-Davidson, “What is next? That’s the question on your mind, that’s the trigger you need.”
There’s no other sound. It’s the first floor of a swanky farmhouse, a lounge with wooden flooring and tinted glass windows. You can trace the silhouette of the Aravali range in the distance.
Rathore mixes vodka with Sprite, squeezes half a lemon, or less, mixes yet another juice, and hands it over. “People in Barmer know how to make cocktails,” he insists, “One for sorrow, two for joy, three for the road. But I will be driving.”
Rathore drives a Mitsubishi Pajero. Next on the list is a Land Rover—and exotic vacations. It’s what he will do next, travel the world.
In tan leather shoes, a close-fit T-shirt and pair of jeans, Rathore is a flamboyant man. “I usually shop at the Emporio Mall in Delhi,” he says.
The farmhouse was his dream project, built on 23 bighas bought at Rs 20 lakh per bigha. It’s close to town, yet feels as if it belongs to some other time and space.
At one time, his family used to run medical stores, and he studied pathology to join that business. But he sensed that Barmer was about to change. “They found oil. Companies were coming in. Halliburton. They had no idea of Barmer, they had no manpower, they had no clue,” he says, “I said, ‘I will provide everything. Business is in my blood.’”
He started by leasing out houses to oil company executives. One bungalow, he put on rent for Rs 2.75 lakh a month (it houses six Halliburton executives today, Kubal among them).
Over the past few years, he hasn’t let an opportunity go. Today, he is the go-to guy for Barmer’s new settlers. If it’s a monkey lock they want, it’s a monkey lock they get. The first time someone, a foreigner, asked him for one, he had no clue what it was. “Why not?” he responded, and then set about figuring out what it was (a special piece of equipment).
It’s an attitude that has worked for him. In eight years since he started in 2004, he has amassed enough wealth to last well past his lifetime. “I know it means an end to the Barmer as it exists in my memory, but a man’s got to do what he must do,” he says, “Make money.”
Lalit Kiri is another man who has lately made a fortune in Barmer. A tall man of 33, he stands amid giant boxes that look like shipping containers with windows, puffing a cigarette. Then he leads the way into one of these.
“What do they look like?”
Once oil was struck, such portable offices and rooms—easily hauled from site to site by trucks—had begun to appear all over the desert, and Kiri figured he could make money off these. The easy part was getting a contract for the supply of bunks from a Malaysian firm. The tough part was executing it.
At first, Kiri thought he would get them from the Mumbai firm that was renting them out in Barmer, and sub-let them. This did not work out. So he decided to replicate the design. He went to Mumbai, found a contractor who said he would put up a workshop in Barmer if he could get local clearances. He got not just the permits but an entire team of workers down from Mumbai, and started turning containers into portable offices and homes. He is a multi-millionaire now. “Nothing is impossible,” he says.
The limits of possibility have been redefined for the poor too. The boom has pushed them underground. Literally. They move from hovel to hovel as rents soar out of reach. Many of them now live in cramped quarters in basements of dingy buildings, where sunlight sometimes streaks in but are like dungeons for the most part, dark and stuffy.
Dhanraj, a Dalit, was forced to move to a basement after his ground-floor rent went up to Rs 3,500 from Rs 700. He makes Rs 6,000 a month as a salesman of shoes and bags. His reed-thin wife is bent over a piece of cloth, pushing a needle in and out. She does this over and over. Three hours of it, and her eyes turn liquid. All for Rs 7 apiece. Sometimes, she tailors three or four pieces. If she’s lucky, she gets Rs 12 apiece. They have three children. And they pay Rs 1,200 for this gloomy hole from where they crawl out every morning into the bustle of a town that has turned too expensive to allow them their dignity.