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Economy Apr 15, 2013

Is BJP giving the Goa illegal mining scam a slow death?

By Mayabhushan Nagvenkar

Panaji: A master of anecdotes, Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar often threw this saucy adage at political opponents who hid behind numbers to wriggle out of an argument.

"Statistics are like a woman wearing a bikini. What they reveal is vital. What they hide is even more vital."

Funny, but an unlikely analogy for a leading star of a right wing party, whose stalwarts often quote Sanskrit shlokas to get a point across. But Parrikar was an opposition leader then. And one of the best in business. Now, however, a myriad numbers related to the mining sector, dished out by Parrikar over the last one year only indicates that it his turn to hide behind the proverbial bikini.

Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar. PTI

Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar. PTI

What began as a Rs 25,000 crore illegal mining scam for the BJP leaders, including its president Nitin Gadkari, is, according to Parrikar, is only worth around Rs 4,000 crore to Rs 5,000 crore now. And it isn't the biggest mining companies operating in Goa, which are responsible for the mining excesses. Instead, untraceable fly-by-night ore traders have now become the villains of the game.

The journey between the two polarized 'scam' estimates by the chief minister is interesting. In November 2011, four months before elections to the state legislative assembly, then party chief Nitin Gadkari met president Pratibha Patil and handed her a letter which said that the Goa mining scam was worth Rs 25,000 crore.

Then Congress Chief Minister Digambar Kamat, Goa Pradesh Congress Committee chief Subhash Shirodkar, ministers Joaquim Alemao, Vishwajeet Rane, Home Minister Ravi Naik's son Roy, among others were all involved in the scam, Gadkari told the president.

"We requested the President to call upon the Union government and direct them to hand over the investigation of this scam to a special investigation team or the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation)," Gadkari said. A probe by a special investigation team was alright too, he said at the time.

The figure of Rs 25,000 crore as well as the names were a product of a "probe" launched by the party's local unit and its biz whiz-kid Kirit Somaiya, a chartered accountant and a Rajya Sabha member, who has in the past dug out several financial scams in the past.

"This is the biggest illegal mining scam in India at Rs 25,000 crore in just two years. Like the 2G scam, the scam money is being routed through companies set up in tax havens like Mauritius and Cayman islands," Somaiya alleged in 2011.

When the Justice M B Shah commission tabled its report in Parliament in September and alleged a Rs 35,000 crore scam, one would think the BJP would pat its own back and commend the retired Supreme Court judge for even surpassing its own estimate of the scam. They did not. In fact, the BJP in unison has alleged that the Shah Commission had drastically erred in its assessment of the scam.

Surely a lot has changed since. In March, the BJP had romped to power and suddenly the dynamics of illegal mining scam changed drastically.

Parrikar and the Goa BJP now peg the scam at somewhere under Rs 5,000 crore, a whopping Rs 20,000 crore lesser than the party's earlier claim. And like a good technocrat, the chief minister has a reason why.

Parrikar blames the scam not on the long standing mining companies, which have been indicted by Justice Shah, but on the over 400 iron ore traders, who mushroomed in Goa over the last few years, when illegal mining peaked following a mammoth increase in demand for ore from an infrastructure heavy China.

The traders operated like packs of wolves, hustling ore from others, stealing from mining heaps, buying ore from politicians involved in illegal mining, in many cases helping mining companies export illegally mined and unaccounted ore.

"Trading should be totally restricted. Genuine people can be there, but we can't have people from Kolkata or somewhere else trading in ore here," Parrikar says.

And crackdown on them he did. After cancelling a few mining leases near wildlife sanctuaries, Parrikar made it mandatory for all the traders to compulsorily re-register with all the requisite paperwork, something not diligently followed earlier. Out of the 468 traders registered with the Goa mining department as of last year, only 48 exist now. That means 420 iron ore traders who had set shop in less than a decade have shut shop and many have simply disappeared with the heat on them.

With the state government focusing its energies on iron ore traders, the Goa Mineral Ore Exporters Association (GMOEA), arguably one of Goa's most powerful association, where all the leading mining companies hold membership, is happy that the traders have vanished.

"It is well known that number of iron ore traders registered in Goa grew exponentially after 2005. That cases of theft of ore, complaints by some of our member lease holders that their leases have been illegally trespassed by unknown miscreants increased in such period," a GMOEA official told Firstpost.

Politically, the bevy of shady iron ore traders make for convenient villains.

A probe by the mining department has revealed that most of the traders operated on a benami basis, with fake names and fake contact addresses, making them ghosts, who cannot be chased. Blaming them for the mining scam is extremely convenient, because there's really no one around to lynch.

And with the GMOEA and the chief minister on the same page as far as non-involvement of the 'reputed' mining houses in the mining scam, one would wonder whether someone at all will be punished for burrowing and scooping out Rs 35,000 crore of illegal ore from Goa?

"GMOEA does not support illegal mining done by anyone. To the best of our knowledge, none of our members have indulged in illegal Mining. The existing laws applicable being enormous and number of permissions to be taken and returns to filed to different authorities being high and complex there is always a possibility of finding an irregularity in the filing of returns and such mistake, if found, can always be corrected with penalty according to law of the land," the GMOEA claims.

The opposition is consistently gunning for Parrikar for his rapid climbdown.

"Rs 25,000 crore... that's the figure Parrikar was quoting when he was in the opposition. He must have got something and therefore he's saying that its Rs 4,000 crore. If he gets more he's say there's no scam in Goa. What has he got from them he has to explain," Congress spokesperson Reginaldo Lourenco claims.

Environmental activist Zarina da Cunha too says that the BJP has reneged on its commitment to fight indiscriminate mining. "When he was in the opposition he kept waving a big file containing incriminating evidence in the mining sector. Where is it now?" da Cunha asks.

Arti Mehra, BJP national secretary in charge of Goa affairs comes to the rescue of her party's chief minister, claiming the Rs 25,000 crore scam figure which the party's leaders came up with was an "approximate estimate".

"It was not possible for the BJP to get exact details that the time... But now we have a chief minister, who has gotten into all the details before coming up with this number.... And for a small state like Goa, even a Rs 5,000 crore scam is big," she said.

Parrikar has repeatedly promised to hand over all illegal mining related cases to the Lokayukta because he doesn't want to be seen as someone indulging in political vendetta. With former Supreme Court judge B Sudarshan Reddy taking charge as Goa's anti-corruption ombudsman this month, will we see a Santosh Hegde redux?

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