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Noose tightens around Orissa mine looters

By DN Singh | Last Updated: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 - 13:26
DN Singh
Orissa Diary

It’s all thanks to the Bharatiya Janata Party in Orissa, else the mining scam would have remained ‘under-mined’ for another five years. But what they have uncovered so far is just the ‘tip of an iceberg’, and that makes just half the story. However, it was enough of a shocker for many and an unwanted dampener for the party in power after a thunderous victory in the recent polls. The scam would surely prove to be the toughest test for Naveen Patnaik’s much talked about ‘transparency’ mantra.

The news about the Centre’s ‘partial’ willingness to seek approval of the Orissa High Court for instituting a CBI inquiry into the multi-crore mining scam in the state, if it comes, can make the whole thing murkier for the rulers’ community in Orissa. The miners so far seem to be working overtime to avoid a CBI inquiry into the issue. Let alone the party in power, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), even the main opposition, the Congress, which should have taken up the issue like a walk-over opportunity to nail down Naveen Sarkar, has so far maintained a silence that is indeed astonishing. Had it happened in any other state of the Indian polity, the scam could have become the waterloo for the party in power. The reason behind Congress’ soft-pedalling the issue, is not difficult to understand.

There is a frenzied tussle between a section of the media in Orissa and the political as well as the executive class. While one is showing the mirror, the other is turning its face the other way, rather brazenly. One after the other disclosures of the case studies of the mineral thefts, considered to be the biggest ever loot of public property in the country, were viewed by the government as a piece of mere bad news, like any other trivial irregularity. The issue neither found the place of priority that it deserved nor Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who vouches for transparency, showed any serious concern for the loot of mineral wealth of such staggering magnitude from an unfortunate state like Orissa that still wears the tag of being the ‘poorest’.

Nothing could be more glaring than an admission of the embezzlement in the state. In its follow-up action, the government suspended mining activity in 128 mines and cancelled 482 trading licences for acts of irregularities following vigilance raids. Some foot soldiers in the looters’ brigade were either interrogated or arrested under bailable sections. A few are in jail and many more are absconding, while the majority are patiently watching. The state government recently sent an Enforcement Squad to Keonjhar only to be hounded out by the mafia, reportedly of Jharkhand origin. Thanks to the clout enjoyed by outside perpetrators of the mega pilferage under the present dispensation, Jharkhand based miners are stated to be big players in Orissa mining.

The state recently constituted a three-member inquiry team to find out how much mining was going on as per law. Ironically, the team included a Divisional Forest Officer, who is already in the vigilance net for his alleged role in illegal mining! The officer in question, PR Karat, was in fact heading the Forest Division in Keonjhar, the largest mining hub which has now become the largest grazing ground for the looters. Interestingly, Karat’s predecessor, Bikram Singh too was fighting criminal cases filed against him by the vigilance department on similar charges. That shows sincerity.

However, as it appears, and going by what the sleuths in the vigilance department confided, they were only the minions in the school of whales. The legal complications apart, the vigilance department may not have the freedom to swoop on the big thugs. Also, the present government seems to have a penchant for shielding the guilty and dispatching them from that post to somewhere else with a promotion, which is already in the waiting. But this time, the pitch seems to be having so many bounces for the offenders to escape body blows.

<b>Hush-up bids</b>

The mineral loot involving an annual illegal transportation of the precious ores worth Rs 7,000 crore (as alleged by a petitioner in his PIL filed in the Supreme Court) has been going on for many years, in which many politicians, including the ruling party, are suspected to be involved. It has not only become the cause for colossal revenue loss but also an indiscriminate depletion of forest cover at Keonjhar and other areas. So, it should not be surprising to know that there is a maniacal pursuit by political leaders from different parties to seal the door for a CBI probe. Confiding to this author an official from the vigilance department rued that the loot ‘is of enormous magnitude and in the last 15 years the state must have suffered a loss of mineral wealth worth few lakh crores of rupees’.

A PIL filed by a journalist, Rabi Das, from Bhubaneswar, has been admitted by the apex court and the Orissa High Court is already hearing another PIL seeking a probe into the issue by the CBI. The apex court, on hearing the petition of Das, has already sent its Central Empowered Committee (CEC) to look into the illegal mining. The next date of hearing is December 17, which has given a breather to the state government for at least a few weeks.

The winter session of the Orissa Assembly has started and the pressure on Naveen Patnaik government is visible. The Centre, which had so far maintained a surprising silence on the issue, seems to have woken up to the exigency and expressed its willingness to engage the CBI if the Orissa High Court so desires. But, an unfazed Naveen dispensation underscored the impartiality of a probe by the state vigilance and said ‘no’ to a CBI inquiry.

Going by the CEC’s observation, the scenario in the mines is just like a ‘can of worms’ and it was at the behest of the CEC that the order for the closure of 125 mines was issued. The situation, in fact, is very piquant and all the players in this ‘game of collective loot’ have gone on the defensive. The brazenness with which the politicians from the ruling party tend to underplay the seriousness of the issue, only smacks of a suicidal ferocity that one takes resort to during undefendable eventualities. As it appears, it is now a battle between politicians (not one party) and the seekers of justice. And the noose seems to be tightening around the neck of the politicians. Only three percent of the lease holders or mine owners in Orissa’s 600 mines are from the state.

Visibly panicked by the legal repercussions the state government has sought the cooperation of the Jharkhand government to curb illegal mining of ores. It has yet again constituted its own Enforcement Squad to duck any further legal salvoes. The imperious heat of denials has reduced and the latest chatter on the political gravepine is that there is a series of whisper conclaves in and around to somehow protect the ‘moral territory’ from being invaded by exposures.

First Published: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 - 13:26

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