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Snoopgate: What links the Soni family and Gujarat govt

November 21, 2013 12:01 IST

Firm owned by family members of the targeted woman bagged smartgrid project in state in 2010, reports N Sundaresha Subramanian.

Pranlal Soni is now famous as the man whose press note the Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters circulated soon after the alleged Amit Shah snooping scandal broke out. In the letter, Soni said he had verbally requested Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi -- with whom he claimed to have familial ties -- to take care of his daughter, the target of the alleged snooping by Shah, then the state's home minister.

Soni's Facebook page shows he is one of the 6.2 million fans of Modi's official page and that he also closely follows an entity called Ecolibrium Energy, which offers solutions that apply computer intelligence to optimise electricity transmission and distribution systems.

Soni has regularly "liked" the small steps the company has updated on its Facebook page.

One might wonder what could be the connection between Bhuj-based Soni and the Bangalore-registered smartgrid player. The annual return filed by Ecolibrium with the corporate affairs ministry offers some clues. The latest return, filed in September 2012, shows 96 per cent of the company is owned by two individuals, Chintan P Soni and Harit P Soni - their father's name is Pranlal Soni.

Another member of the Soni family -- Pranlal's 36-year-old Bangalore-based daughter -- has also been named in the annual return; she is one of the firm's directors since its inception in November 2008.

The daughter and her younger brother, Harit, ran the company as directors for the first two years, while her elder brother, Ahmedabad-based Chintan, joined the board in 2010, the filing shows.

Ecolibrium's first big break came when it bagged the contract to implement a smartgrid project in Gujarat Sachivalaya in 2010.

According to the Gujarat government portal, Sachivalaya (the state secretariat) falls under the general administration department, which is under Modi's direct control.

"We struggled for eight months to get purchase orders till one finally came from the Gujarat government and Torrent Power in 2010. Once we cleared the hurdle of getting the first purchase order, we showed it to CIIE (IIM-A's Centre of Incubation, Innovation and Entrepreneurship). The order got us incubated there," Chintan Soni had told Business Standard in late June.

The project with the Gujarat government required Ecolibrium to commission a smart microgrid in Sachivalaya, the state government headquarters at Gandhinagar. "The building had solar panels that supplied power. We monitored power generation from the solar panels and also certain key locations in the structure that could be turned on and off based on certain grid conditions," Harit had told BS, adding the profits earned from the project helped sustain their business for the next five months. Harit also acknowledged the role played by their sister. "It was the financial help from family and friends, especially our sister, that gave the business a stronger footing and made it self-sustaining."

Spokespersons for Gujarat Energy Minister Saurabh Patel and Finance Minister Nitin Patel did not answer calls made to their mobile phones.

In a June 2012 Facebook post, which the father liked, the company said: "Ecolibrium expands its distribution network in India. Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Delhi-NCR, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and UP lead the way. Smartsense coming soon to a factory near you... The future of energy management is here…".

Three years since the breakthrough, the company is now on a much stronger footing - its clientele includes various leading corporate groups. In 2012-13, it clocked revenue of Rs 1.36 crore. Though profit before tax stood at a meagre Rs 80 lakh, the potential looks immense.

A working group by the Planning Commission has estimated an expenditure of around Rs 9,500 crore by industry for smartgrid development. Experts also say there is a huge potential for the smartgrid technology among power distribution companies.

Gujarat Urja Vikas Nigam Ltd, the state-owned distributor that has signed power-purchase agreement to buy solar power from some 80 developers (capacity of over 850 Mw), is a potential customer. It is a different matter that the utility is engaged in a dispute with developers over tariff.

Ideally placed to reap the benefits of Gujarat's solar revolution, Ecolibrium has already attracted investment from blue-blooded funds. In May, it announced its first round of funding, of $1.5 million, from Infuse Capital and World Bank arm International Finance Corporation. Of this, $500,000 was from Infuse Capital, a collaboration among IIM-A, BP Ventures, the new and renewable energy ministry and the Technology Development Board.

When Business Standard this week tried to reach the Soni brothers, seeking their comments, they did not reply to calls or answer text messages. Harit, who returned one of the calls, said: "I don't know what this is about. I'll call you back."

Last week's events seem to have shaken the family, which has gone into a huddle and is trying to pull down photographs and other personal things floating around on the internet. Even Pranlal Soni's page has signs of recent editing of photographs.

One post that survived the editing was posted on November 14, a day before the scandal broke out. "Life is like camera, just focus on what is important, capture the good times and if things don't work out, just take another shot and say smile please."

Such an advice might prove handy for Soni's children and their fledgling enterprise -all in the eye of a raging political storm.

With inputs from Vinay Umarji in Ahmedabad

Image: Former Gujarat Minister Amit Shah

N Sundaresha Subramanian in New Delhi
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