by Niranjan Patnaik*
I visited Talcher to meet Sri Brajakishore Pradhan, Hon’ble MLA Talcher and a close associate. Besides speaking to the MLA and the district officials, I also talked to many members of the public.
The situation in the Talcher area is really grave.
The Meramunduli-Talcher-Angul cluster has now become one of the three most polluted places in India and among the most polluted places in the whole world. The State pollution Control Board is aware of the problems, but cannot act because of the powerful people who protect industries in this cluster.
The ambient air is very high on poisonous gases and suspended particulate matter (SPM). Both surface and ground water have been polluted. The soil has become polluted and infertile. Mahanadi Coalfields Limited (MCL) has not been able to provide jobs to many displaced families, who continue to languish in waiting lists and move from pillar-to-post with the hope of regular employment. As an ad hoc measure, some have been provided low-paid contractual jobs.
The temperature level in summer has gone up by a whopping 5-6 degree Celsius. Talcher has consistently been the hottest place in the state for years now with temperatures reaching 48-49 degree Celsius in the summer. Winter is gone.
The development of the area has excluded the local population, who are angry and frustrated. They have approached various authorities from time to time, but have failed to get their grievance redressed. The MLA has been elected by the people and has the responsibility to represent these grievances. But it is travesty of democracy that he was arrested at the behest of company officials for doing precisely that.
During the visit, I was told that companies have officials of the state government in their pocket. The affairs of Bhushan steel is not an exception. Over the years, many have lost their lives in Bhushan. The factory has become a virtual death-trap. But, how was the company running without clearance from the Pollution Control Board? How was the Company violating standard procedures? Was it without the knowledge of the state Governments and the local officials?
The situation in respect of other companies like MCL is no different. Police Officials from the level of constables to the highest levels in the state are benefitting from these companies. Many of them are in coal transport businessl some have got their children employed in these companies, and some have given their houses on rent to these companies.
One senior police officer is running a shadow company that is engaged in transport business. Another senior police officer has given his house in Bhubaneswar on rent to a Joint-Venture Company of MCL.
Aren’t these clear cases of conflict of interest? How can senior officers indulge in such dubious dealings? The allegations are far too many. The least that the Government can do is to investigate all these allegations. In fact, no one in Talcher is surprised by the rough and ready method adopted by the police to arrest the MLA.
Talcher Police has no jurisdiction to arrest anyone outside their jurisdiction. They could have issued a notice under Section 160 of the Criminal Procedure Code. If the MLA had not cooperated, they could have applied for a non-bailable warrant.
An arrest would have been justified if the police had felt that the MLA was absconding or that they need to subject him to custodial interrogation. The MLA was attending the current session of the Assembly and was in full public and media view.
The police also had no intention of carrying out any custodial interrogation because he was sent in judicial custody almost immediately. The purpose was clearly to use state power to suppress a popular movement around extremely genuine public issues and intimidate the people.
The State Government needs to realize that they cannot suppress a popular and democratic movement by using the police. On their part, the police were more than happy to be used because from top-to-bottom they have their own vested interests.
Basically what you see in Talcher is a mafia-type activity and a clear nexus involving company officials, the police from the top-to-bottom, other district and state government officials and various political power centres in the state.
I have advised the MLA to help authorities normalize coal production and transport because such disruption can affect the power situation in the country. But, at the same time the state government should not neglect the local people as they have done in the past and expect normalcy. Genuine grievances of the people must be addressed expeditiously. The Chief Minister should persoally visit Talcher, which he only does during elections.
The MLA has demanded a CBI investigation into all these dealings and I support this demand and hope that the investigation will extend to Bhusan and in fact the entire Talcher-Angul-Meramunduli cluster.
All these Government officers and Politicians must be exposed and prosecuted.
The mafia rule there must end.
I hope all these issues will be discussed threadbare on the floor of the Assembly and the Chief Minister will explain the action that his Government proposes to initiate to break the nexus and stop Talcher from being ruled by the Mafia.
* Niranjan Patnaik is a senior Congress leader, former minister and PCC President