Illegal mining memories come flooding back

The Congress has to be reminded of the mining scam as it came to power in 2013 in Karnataka after a padayatra to Bellary, promising action against mining excesses.

Published: 05th October 2022 01:18 AM  |   Last Updated: 05th October 2022 06:16 PM   |  A+A-

(Express Illustrations | SOUMYADIP SINHA)

(Express Illustrations | SOUMYADIP SINHA)

There has been such a flood of happenings in India in the last decade, politically and otherwise, that we seem to have nearly erased from our crowded memories some substantive issues that evoked our passion and commitment. One such issue is the mining illegalities that saw major action in two states -- Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. More so in Karnataka’s Bellary district because the dramatis personae involved were flamboyant ministers in the first-ever BJP government formed in southern India. Interestingly, they were the principal players on the Andhra side of the story too.

Four things have suddenly provoked the recovery of this memory: First, Janardhana Reddy, seen as the visage of the mining scam, has sought the Supreme Court’s permission to reside in Bellary for a month. He wants to spend time with his daughter, who has become a mother. The apex court has for long restrained him from entering a few districts in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, including Bellary district. In the early years of the mining scam’s discovery, Bellary was described as ‘Reddy Republic’, where law never applied but only his diktats. His request is expected to be examined by the court on October 10.

Two, the Andhra Pradesh government, in August, filed a ‘no objection’ in the Supreme Court on Janardhana Reddy’s plea to resume mining activities around the Bellary reserve forest area. The interstate border runs through this forest area. There are seven mining leases on the Karnataka side and six on the Andhra side, and Reddy has significant stakes on both sides. The Supreme Court suspended mining in this area because the boundary line had vanished.

The scam took shape when Y S Rajasekhara Reddy was the chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh, and now, his son heads the truncated state. The business-as-usual approach of the Andhra government in filing a ‘no objection’ has not gone down well in official and activist quarters but has only confirmed certain suspicions.

The third reason is a reaction to the second: The organisation that valiantly fought the mining case in the Supreme Court since 2009, Samaj Parivartana Samudaya (SPS) of Dharwad, led by S R Hiremath, has filed an impleading application in the apex court. They want to be a party to the case that will decide the resumption of mining by Janardhana Reddy. Prashant Bhushan was their lawyer earlier and now too.

Four, the Congress party’s Bharat Jodo Yatra will pass through Obulapuram village in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh and enter Karnataka at Bellary. This is in the second leg of the Yatra’s Karnataka stretch. The name of Janardhana Reddy’s mining company is eponymous with the village.

The Congress party has to be reminded of the mining scam because they came to power in 2013 in Karnataka after a padayatra to Bellary, promising action against mining excesses. However, they not only buried their promise but disabled the Lokayukta that gave the most far-reaching report on the Bellary mining scam under Justice Santosh Hegde. Only a few weeks ago, the Karnataka High Court restored the powers of the Lokayukta. Here again, SPS’ Hiremath played a role. Since the Congress party thinks that it is poised to return to power in 2023, its memory needs to be jogged.

Reasons two and three are central from the point of view of policy and protection of the environment, while reason one is rather personal and four is about conscience-keeping. If one looks at the impleading application filed by SPS a few weeks ago, it recalls the scam’s legal history and also points out what has remained unattended. Citing its writ petition No. 562 of 2009, it tells the court that Janardhana Reddy’s Obulapuram Mining Company “encroached into Karnataka by destroying the pillars demarcating the interstate border” between Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and 10 hectares of reserved forest at the border has been consumed by illegal mining.

The application says the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) had done a site visit then to find out if mining had indeed taken place in the forest area and had concluded that in the absence of the boundary demarcation, it was difficult to make an assessment. Therefore, the MOEF had directed Andhra Pradesh to stop mining in the area until the Survey of India did a survey. However, “under pressure”, the ministry kept the letter in abeyance. In their 2009 petition, SPS picked up this thread and urged that the interstate boundary at Bellary and Anantapur districts be surveyed. They had drawn attention to an ancient temple and a trigonometric survey station having been decimated at the border by the miners.

The Supreme Court in 2010 responded positively to the writ petition and set up a Central Empowered Committee (CEC) to file a report on illegal mining in Andhra Pradesh. That report was filed in early 2011, and the CEC recommended the cancellation of Janardhana Reddy’s mining leases. Later in 2011, the apex court extended an ongoing CBI enquiry to probe illegal mining “links” of the Reddy company across the two states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

Despite all this, nothing concrete happened concerning mining in and around forest areas because the two states “dragged their feet” for over a decade to accept the interstate boundary survey. They finally closed the matter in July 2022, which has prompted Janardhana Reddy to seek a resumption of mining. SPS has also followed up on the boundary settlement and is urging that the illegalities committed by the cluster of mining leases abutting the boundary now be given a hard look.

Coming back to reason four, when the Siddaramaiah government came to power in 2013, it had set up a cabinet sub-committee under the chairmanship of senior minister H K Patil. The panel did a fine job. It expanded on the already available Lokayukta report. Their compounded loss estimation to Karnataka from illegal mining was pegged at ₹1.43 lakh crore, significantly higher than the ₹12,228 crore estimation the Lokayukta had made.

But the Congress government totally ignored its cabinet sub-committee report. They also cold-shouldered the second Lokayukta report despite a truckload of supporting documents sent to them. Now, it may make sense to recall their own forgotten rhetoric when they walk through Obulapuram and Bellary as a part of the Bharat Jodo Yatra.

Sugata Srinivasaraju

Senior journalist and author


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