After Cyclone Phailin, it’s Typhoon Hindalco for Naveen


    By Sandeep Sahu

    It could not have come at a worse time for Naveen Patnaik. Just when he was revelling in kudos pouring in from all over the world over his handling of Cyclone Phailin came a typhoon in the shape of la’ affaire Hindalco. The Chief Minister may well have weathered the storm over the much bigger iron ore scam; but the coal scam certainly looks like it would tar his spotless, squeaky clean kurta.

    The CBI, by all indications, is perilously close to questioning him. Even if it stops just short of him, it would certainly reach his doorsteps – the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) – and the officers who manned them at the relevant time. That in itself would be enough to rip apart the halo that he has built around him, even assuming that he would not be hauled up in the end. And if the premier investigating agency in the country, contrary to expectation, does end up questioning him, his carefully cultivated image would lie in tatters – not exactly a welcome prospect in an election year and certainly not at a time when he is basking in the glory of conquering the demon called Phailin.

    With the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), no less, now demolishing his spurious claim that he had only requested the Centre to ‘consider’ Hindalco’s plea for the Talabira II and III coal blocks, Naveen does not have a place to hide. The note issued by the PMO on Saturday makes it abundantly clear that he did much more than just request the Prime Minister, who happened to be the Coal minister at the time, to ‘consider’ Hindalco. It also tears apart his defence that the power to allocate coal blocks rests ‘entirely’ with the Central government. “Under the MMDR Act, the mining lease for coal is granted by the State Government with the previous approval of the Central Government,” the PMO note pointed out to the great discomfiture of the Odisha Chief Minister.

    In his statement to the media on Friday hours after reports appeared about the CBI mulling over questioning him, Naveen sought to justify the recommendation in favour of the Aditya Birla group company by claiming that it was made in the ‘greater interest of the state’. But an ill-timed (for him) resurfacing of an old allegation about a Birla group trust paying an amount of Rs 7.53 crore to the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the party of which he is the ‘founder-owner’, in three instalments shortly before and after the 2009 elections played spoilsport. What it did was to provide the much needed quid pro quo for his unusual benevolence for Hindalco not just in 2005, but even now.

    Only last month, the Naveen government reversed its own decision not to allow capacity enhancement of iron ore mines, taken to save its rather thick skin from the heat generated by the mining scam, and gave permission to the Aditya Birla owned mining company to increase the capacity of its iron ore mines from a meagre 1.5 million tonnes (MT) to 4 MT.

    Nor was it the only time when Naveen Patnaik got a well considered decision to be overturned to favour the Aditya Birla group. The recommendation for the Talabira II coal block, as Naveen’s friend-turned- foe Pyari Mohan Mohapatra pointed out chillingly on Saturday, was made AFTER the standing committee, in which the Odisha Mines secretary was a key member, had rejected Hindalco’s case for the coveted coal block. That the UPA government colluded in his design does not take anything away from the fact that Naveen was batting for the Birla company with the kind of determination that he has never shown when it comes to fighting ‘in the greater interest of the state’.

    Unfortunately for Naveen, uncomfortable facts about things he thought were long buried are coming out of the woodwork with frightening frequency. State BJP chief Kanak Vardhan Singhdeo, for example, revealed on Friday that as the Union Minister for Steel & Mines in the late 1990s, Naveen had opposed Hindalco’s bid for the same block! Does that mean that he did not have ‘the greater interest of the state’ in mind when he was Union minister?

    For that matter, did he not have the ‘greater interest of the state’ in mind when he allowed a nondescript Delhi based Company called Sainik Mining, in contravention of all rules and norms, to have 74% stake in a joint venture with the state owned Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) for a coal block allocated to the latter?

    Contrary to what his cheerleaders in the political establishment and trumpeters in the media would have us believe, Naveen is in for real trouble in Coalgate. His success in warding off the threat in the form of the (iron ore) mining scam, no doubt with generous help from an ever obliging UPA, may have made him believe that he can weather Coalgate too. But he is soon going to be proved wrong.

    There are two reasons for this.

    First, there is simply no comparison between the two. All that he had to contend with in the mining scam was a mere judicial inquiry, which lacked both the investigating machinery to get to the bottom of the complex and intricate labyrinth built up over the years and the statutory powers to enforce its verdict. A Supreme Court monitored investigation, after all, is not just vastly different from an investigation conducted by a judicial commission, it is also entirely different from any other CBI inquiry where the ruling dispensations can get the law to ‘change its course’.

    Second, unlike in the mining scam, he does not have the hidden ‘hand’ of the Congress led government at the Centre ushering him out of the tunnel to safety. With the Prime Minister himself in the dock and the apex court breathing down the neck of the CBI, Naveen does not have anybody to bail him out of trouble this time.

    While mining scam could not get to him, coal scam certainly looks like it can.

    20 October 2013