Drain of wealth

Print edition : September 25, 2009
in Keonjhar

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.-ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

IN Bayakumutia village, 22 kilometres from the district headquarters town of Keonjhar, the wails of a girl rent the air one morning in August. Her 12-year-old younger sister had died after suffering from high fever for some days. The nearest government hospital is 7 km away, and her father, Sukra Juang, could not take the child there for treatment.

This is not an isolated incident. The cries of Sukra Juangs daughter echo the sufferings of thousands of hapless families in Orissas Keonjhar district. They lead miserable lives despite the wealth of resources that surrounds them.

The district has immense forest as well as mineral wealth. About 30 per cent of its total area has dense forest cover. It sits over vast mines of iron ore, manganese, chrome and other minerals. But its population has benefited little from these. The district has remained at the bottom in terms of development indices. Illegal mining that cost the State huge revenue losses, environment pollution, malaria and some unknown diseases, man-elephant conflicts and so on have plagued it in recent years.

AN OPENCAST IRON ore mine near Rudukela in Keonjhar district.-LINGARAJ PANDA

The mining scam that figured prominently in the Budget session of the State Assembly in July brought this situation into sharp focus. It rocked the Naveen Patnaik government and dented the Chief Ministers image.

For years, the law has taken a back seat in Keonjhar with the mine mafia, private companies, contractors, transporters and criminal gangs looting the mineral resources at will across the district. Unregulated mining has wreaked havoc in the region in the past nine years.

What is most shocking is that those in power have been aware of the theft of minerals. Thousands of mineral-laden vehicles rumble along the districts roads from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Rules framed to check illegal mining and trading in minerals are flouted, often with the connivance of the administration.

A manganese nugget extracted by a mining company.-LINGARAJ PANDA

The mafias operate in a well-organised manner. To facilitate illegal mining, many posts in the Departments of Mines, Forests and Police are kept vacant. The fact that there have been only six Class IV employees in the Mines Department to handle as many as 20 weighbridges meant for mineral-laden vehicles makes this clear. Moreover, the number of weighbridges has been too small to cope with the volume of minerals being handled. The government has admitted this in the wake of the expose.

The State government had formulated rules in 2007 for the prevention of theft, smuggling and illegal mining of minerals. However, these were not implemented properly. The task forces constituted for the purpose were hardly put to use.

The mining scam is not limited to Keonjhar. The recent scrutiny of records of the eight mining circles by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) revealed that there were no government checkgates in six circles and no government weighbridges in four. Due to lack of checkposts/weighbridges, the minerals were transported without any check of the quality and quantity. In the absence of government weighbridges, weighments were done at private weighbridges, leaving scope for leakage of revenue, the CAG pointed out.

The latest CAG report dealt in detail with several facets of the illegal mining. But the State government chose to remain silent.

The Central government agencies in charge of keeping an eye on violations of mining and forest laws too have ignored the problem. No survey was carried out either in Keonjhar or elsewhere to ascertain how reserve forests and government land were being illegally mined. In many cases, those who had obtained mining leases for non-forest land carried out mining in forest areas without obtaining the necessary clearance. There are scores of cases where mine owners have kept their own mines untouched and extracted ore from areas outside their limits. Many big companies are allegedly involved in such practice.

ORES OF MANGANESE and iron being transported by trucks from mines near Rudukela.-LINGARAJ PANDA

There is not a single mine in Keonjhar where everything is going on in a fair way. A sincere scrutiny by any authority in the entire district would prove this, said Mohan Majhi, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, who was formerly Deputy Chief Whip of the ruling alliance in the State Assembly.

Majhi, who hails from Keonjhar, has been demanding the constitution of an Orissa State Mining Enforcement Authority to take stringent action against the mine mafia. The government is not making any serious effort to check the illegal mining and loss of revenue, he lamented.

Illegal mining of iron and manganese ores started in a big way in 2000 when the demand for steel grew in the international market. Coincidentally, the same year, Biju Janata Dal (BJD) president Naveen Patnaik took over as the Chief Minister of the State. Though Patnaik promised to run a transparent government, the looting of minerals in Keonjhar and other districts started increasing by the day. A stage reached when more than 25,000 trucks were engaged in the transportation of minerals from Keonjhar district alone.

The services of the Railways were also used to transport minerals. The mine mafia was thus able to take away extra quantities of ore since there was no facility available in the State to weigh the rakes carrying minerals. A few such cases had come to the notice of the government.

The loot by road was so organised that fake transit permits were printed and used to take away thousands of truckloads of minerals to different destinations within the country and to the ports at Paradip, Haldia and Visakhapatnam for export. The mafia always had the upper hand vis-a-vis the ground-level government staff, and the illegal trade continued, causing huge revenue loss to the state.

The Naveen Patnaik government said in the Assembly that owing to the non-availability of transit passbooks printed in the government press, such books were printed outside and were being authenticated by the authorities of the Mines Department. But the truth lay elsewhere. For obvious reasons, the authorities did not collect the books from the government press for four years despite giving requisitions for them.

In cases where action was taken against violators of mining laws, the proceedings often led nowhere. The violators used loopholes in the laws to escape punishment.

The fact that large volumes of minerals were being illegally mined and taken away from Keonjhar is evident from the number of vehicles seized by the Mines Department. More than 200 minerals-laden vehicles seized by the authorities are lying near the office of the Deputy Director of Mines at Joda town in Keonjhar. Many of them operated with fake registration numbers, and nobody came forward to claim them.

The issue of illegal mining in Keonjhar had been raised several times earlier at different forums, including the Assembly. But it never hit the headlines as it did during the Budget session of the Assembly this year. It is said that the BJD-BJP split before the Lok Sabha elections contributed to the unfolding of the scam.

WOMEN OF THE Juang tribe at Bayakumutia village in Keonjhar making plates out of sal leaves for a living. The people of the mineral-rich district live in extreme poverty.-LINGARAJ PANDA

The scam began to surface when BJP legislators alleged irregularities in the mining activities of Ram Bahadur Thakur Limited. The other companies that were mentioned were S.N. Dasmohapatra and Arjun Ladha. The Congress, as the major opposition party in the State, also joined the issue.

The proceedings of the Assembly were disrupted for days together, with the opposition criticising Patnaik and demanding a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the scam. The government, however, put on a brave face. Steel and Mines Minister Raghunath Mohanty claimed that no illegal mining was taking place in Keonjhar and that the government was taking adequate measures to check such activities, if any.

However, when the opposition parties continued to embarrass the government on the floor of the House, the Chief Minister directed the Vigilance Department to probe the allegations.

Soon vigilance sleuths visited the spot and submitted a report to the government. Thereafter, they registered a case against eight persons, including two mine operators, five employees of the Departments of Mines and Forests and a former Mines Department official. The accused were arrested. They have since secured bail from the High Court.

Both the BJP and the Congress reiterated their demand for a CBI probe. While the BJP said that it would approach the Central Empowered Committee constituted by the Supreme Court on forest and environment law violations, Pradesh Congress Committee president K.P. Singh Deo took up the matter with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi and sought a CBI probe.

Former Minister Bijoy Mohapatra alleged that the mining scam involved minerals worth at least Rs.10,000 crore. Experts say the amount involved could be bigger if all aspects of the scam are probed as per law.

There are indications that politicians from almost all major parties are linked to the scam, directly or indirectly. The Vigilance Department is not the right agency to investigate the scam. The Chief Minister should immediately hand over all illegal mining cases to the CBI if he wants to keep his image clean, said Rabi Das, political analyst and president of the Odisha Jana Sammilani.

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