Mining for troubles

Time to act

After surviving the October 2009 coup to unseat him, by none other than his own cabinet colleagues from Bellary — the Reddy brothers of mining stealth and wealth defame — the chief minister pulled yet another stunt recently and survived the scathing indictment of his government by Lokayukta Justice N Santosh Hegde. The ombudsman openly censured the government for failure to stop illegal iron ore exports from the state’s ports and for abetting corruption as a whole.

The state government then came under intense fire from opposition Congress and other parties, demanding a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into the mining scam. The chief minister once again skirted round the demand and went on the defensive. He admitted that illegal mining flourished since the days of his Congress-JD(S) predecessors but denied backing the mining lobby.

Much before the public indictment, the Lokayukta had conducted a detailed study of the illegal mining business not only in Bellary but also other mineral-rich districts like Chitradurga and Tumkur, and submitted a 1,600-page confidential report to the state government in December 2008. The government neither acted on the report nor made the findings public. When the Central government sought an Action Taken Report almost a year and a half later, it sent a cursory reply, which too the Lokayukta has dubbed as an action ‘to be’ taken report.

Prior to seeking the ATR, the Centre offered the services of CBI to investigate the illegal mining scam. It cited the example of neighbouring Andhra Pradesh government, which had sought and facilitated a CBI investigation into illegal mining menace in its jurisdiction. The Centre suggested to the Karnataka government to take similar action. But the Yeddyurappa government rejected every help and opportunity that came its way to clear its name.

On the one hand, the BJP-led government claimed it has full faith in the Lokayukta and even forced him to withdraw his protest resignation, on the other, it is showing no inclination to act on his findings. Perhaps, the BJP was worried that the Lokayukta is privy to too much information and it would be risky to let go of him.

So, it hurriedly took a decision to confer certain extra powers to probe cases against top bureaucrats as well. But politicians, ministers and legislators continue to remain untouchable!

The state government, meanwhile, has ordered a parallel investigation into the Belekeri port iron ore heist by the uninitiated Criminal Investigation Department of the police while the Lokayukta police are already probing the matter.

Blanket ban

After virtually looking a gift horse in the mouth and shutting its eyes to illegal mining, the state government now wants a blanket ban on export of iron ore. Indeed, the state government has decided to allow mining of iron ore and other minerals only for value addition to curb the export of iron ore in the form of raw material.

Karnataka is the first state in the country to introduce the value added policy in December 2008 for granting mining leases. Accordingly, new mining leases will only be for value addition within Karnataka by processing the iron ore through a manufacturing facility. In pursuance of this policy, the government recently signed a dozen agreements with firms like ArcelorMittal, Posco, Essar and Tata Metaliks for setting up steel plants in the rich iron belt of Bellary district in north Karnataka.

It could be a step in the right direction and better late than never, but more needs to be done to prevent the rape of our mineral-rich land. The temporary ban on iron ore export from the state’s ports should help the government put its house in order. Beyond that, the mechanisms to allow scientific extraction and stop unscientific exploitation need to be activated.

After all, iron ore is not a replenishable commodity like vegetables or flowers. It has to be conserved. Besides, it is a state property and royalty is due to the exchequer for sale of every tonne. And for that to happen, its quantification is a must. In place of bulk permits, which were being misused by miners, specific permits should be issued for each load and trip. Such permits should die after each transaction. The onus of tracking ore in excess of domestic demand and destined for export should rest on the customs department.

These and other checks and balances such as bar coding and hologram based trip-sheets to improve tracking of consignments and avoid fake permits, composite checkposts at key locations across the state for better coordination of various departments such as mining, forest, commercial taxes, transport and PWD and the proposed introduction of e-permits to ensure transparency and accountability, should help the state government rein in illegal mining. Instead, the government is trying to shift its responsibility on the Centre. Given all his survival skills, the chief minister cannot get away forever. The ball is in his court. He has to act now and clear his and his government’s name.

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