It is indeed significant that the Supreme Court's Central Empowered Committee (CEC) has called the ravaging of Bellary in Karnataka the worst-ever mining violation which it had been told to probe since the panel was created May 9, 2002.
This conclusion came after some 1,200 previous reports submitted by it to the apex court in its nine-year existence. M.K. Jiwrajka, member-secretary of the CEC since its inception, estimates that out of these references his office has handled -- all aimed to be the eyes and ears of the apex court on India's fast-diminishing habitat and wildlife -- some 200 could be categorized as "serious" violations.
Bellary has been found to be the mother of them all!
Jiwrajka, a top officer of the Indian Forest Service, who recently announced premature retirement from his parent organization to join the CEC directly, went a step further and said he won't be surprised if Bellary turned out to be one of the worst man-made devastations on the entire planet.
So, what's next? For that, let's look at some of the committee's observations.
The panel has said in its nine-year existence it has dealt with a number of cases of illegal mining in states like Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Chhattisgarh. In many, the extent of illegal mining has been found to be extensive. But all of these pale compared to illegal mining on the colossal scale that has taken place in Karnataka, particularly Bellary.
This amounts to an estimated 148 mines, involving 9,527 hectares of forestland and 1,341 hectares of non-forest land. That, too, with active connivance of officials of the departments concerned and also the public representatives.
It also said the forest cover in mining leases illegally granted in the Ramghad forest blocks and other blocks as seen from satellite imageries have been wiped out. In spite of a firm stand by the forest department, mining leases illegally granted were allowed to continue and iron ore worth thousands of crores of rupees were extracted.
The committee also said illegal mining on a massive scale took place particularly during 2009-2010, even after the Lokayukta's critical report. The connivance of the officials concerned was glaring and the satellite imageries vividly bring the extent of illegal mining, which perhaps runs into thousands of crores of rupees.
This apart, it said, it has given a sealed cover of politically-sensitive documents that include alleged receipt of huge amounts as donations by a trust managed by some close relatives of a senior political leader. This money has reportedly come from a business house and its associated companies and a builder.
The sealed cover, the panel added, also has documents that point to an alleged growing mining mafia in Bellary, improper acts of a senior politician, duty and tax evasions by a mining company owned by a senior politician and alleged illegal transfer of a mining company in favour of a senior political leader.
The panel has said the apex court may direct Karnataka to ascertain the total quantity of iron ore and other minerals extracted by the lease-holders and an amount equivalent to five times the normative market value be recovered as exemplary compensation. Given the estimate of the illegal transportation cited by the committee at Rs.15,235 crore ($3.4 billion), a compensation of five times exceeds Rs.76,000 crore ($17 billion).
Thus far the Supreme Court has never rejected the committee's recommendation. Therefore, the odds are stacked against key gangsters in the case. The Supreme Court, in its next hearing of the case April 21, is unlikely to ignore the five-volume deposition and the recommendations that all mining in the region be stopped forthwith.
The committee hopes this single action will break the cavalier mining mafia's back, many against whom direct complicity is hard to prove, after they have illicitly decamped with what Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa estimated on the floor of the assembly at Rs.15,235 crore worth of iron ore between 2003-04 and 2009-10.
Yet, questions are also being asked why the committee did not name the main faces the state's mining lobby - the three powerful Reddy brothers, G. Janardhan Reddy, K. Karunakar Reddy and G. Somashekhar Reddy. A question being asked is why it did not lay bare before the court Friday documents on trusts linked to the Karnataka chief minister, even though they were placed before it by advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the petitioner.
To its defence, the committee has argued that it included such information and the names that appeared prima facie bona fide, but it did not want to skate on thin ice regarding some facts it hadn't probed with a magnifying glass. So such details weren't made public but shared with the hon'ble court in a sealed cover.
There's also compelling evidence that rightful lease holders were not allowed to mine at all. Third parties could indulge in strong-arm tactics and an open loot with connivance of the state government. Therefore, only if mining is banned will the committee be able to redeem itself from the angst of civil society.