Friday, December 25, 2009

State scan - Orissa: Year of triumph and tragedy

India Today, Dec 25, 2009
Farzand Ahmed

This was a year of triumph for Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik who made a hat-trick in the May elections to perpetuate his rule with transparency and tragedy for four crore people of Orissa who watched with dismay a series of suicides by desperate farmers as well as birth of "mother of all scams". The state was also shaken over the fact that its poverty continued to grow.

Farmer suicides
In the elections, Naveen had smashed all his political opponents and forced the BJP, his nine-year-old ally-turned-foe, to lick the dust. But soon gloom descended over the pear-shaped eastern state whose unparallel beauty, in the words of writer-chief minister, camouflages acute poverty.  But politics apart Orissa was hit by a strange but tragic phenomenon: it witnessed a series of suicide by farmers and by the last count in the first week of the last month of the year, 36 farmers committed suicide. Agriculture Minister D. Rout admitted in the assembly that about 3,510 farmers committed suicide in the past decade in Orissa.

Speaking about unabated suicide of farmers in the state he said crop failure was not the only reason behind the farmers' suicide. Soil erosion, declining ground water level, productivity and the collapse of the joint family system were also attributed to be the causes leading to the farmers' suicide.Official cover up surprised everyone.

Mining scam, mineral loot
But not only this, Orissa in 2009 emerged as a land of loot and scam that took the dimension of "mother of all scams". Not without reason. Precious minerals including iron ore, manganese and chromite worth over Rs 60,000 crores were looted and transported out with the connivance of Mines and Forest officials as well as a set of politicians.

The mines scam reminds the operation of syndicate comprising contractors-officials-politicians-mafia gangs that had plundered the exchequer in Bihar leading finally to the arrest Lalu Prasad, the then chief minister and half a dozen bureaucrats besides other in Rs 900 crore fodder scam. But Orissa's case is different. Here scamsters, including some reputed industrial houses, have taken the mineral rich state in their octopus-like grip. The more one struggles to get out of clutches of the mining syndicate, the more blood is sucked.
The modus operandi in Orissa was clear: all the big and small mining companies which legally or illegally mined the mines beyond allotted limits - some without permit - and cheated the exchequer by paying meagre royalty at the rate of Rs 29 per tonne and took away the minerals.

It all started with ruling BJD MLA Samir Ranjan Das on July 8 asking a question in the Assembly about the mining activities of RB Thakur Ltd and if he had the mining lease and then BJP leader Kanak Vardhan Singhdeo elaborating on the illegality by M/s RB Thakur Ltd. in mining the ore without proper lease. Singhdeo also highlighted that the Power of Attorney (PoA) holder Shakti Ranjan Das was carrying on mining activities in the forest areas without permission. Even the PoA was doubtful as the company had already gone into Liquidation.

Within a couple of days Naveen Patnaik announced an inquiry by the vigilance directorate at a time when opposition as well as Transparency International's Biswajit Mohanty and Orissa Jan Sammleni chief Rabi Das, journalist, had already opened the proverbial Pandora's box.

Orissa has overall 17 per cent of the country's mineral wealth. The opposition charge about the loot of this wealth coincided with Transparency International's Biswajit Mohanty's releasing the RTI documents showing illegal over-production by big companies that was roughly valued at Rs 14,000 crores in the past few  years while Orissa or Odisha Jan Sammleni Chief Rabi Das, journalist, in his PIL petition in the Supreme Court point out that 'the value of transaction relating to the plunder of national wealth in Orissa is estimated to be over Rs 7,000 crore a year and this plunder has been going on since 1999-2000'.

Govt's belated response
Thus even rough calculation would show that so far over Rs 60,000 crores have been pocketed by mine owners-big or small. In return they paid to the government Rs 29 per tonne as royalty. 'This clearly shows that either the entire system of governance has broken down or everyone from the State Secretariat to the Mine operators in the remote areas is involved in the loot', said Das.

As the Supreme Court PIL highlight 155 mines being robbed illegally the government quickly closed 128 of them and ordered an inquiry against those who operated it. Besides the Vigilance the India Bureau of Mines also belatedly stepped in to investigate the loot.

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