C O L U M N
By Dr Biswajit Mohanty*
It is said that netas have a thick skin since they have to tolerate insults, abuses and accusations as professional hazards ! A successful neta is one who has managed to attain nirvana- Buddha style- by refusing to respond to jibes and provocation!
However, Bijoyshree Routray is no ordinary politician- being the son of an ex-Chief Minister of the state and a proud Kshatriya, the macho caste of India ! It was that hidden and suppressed spark of identity and self respect which ultimately burst forth on that mild wintry evening of 18th November,2013 when some nosy hacks persistently demanded an explanation from him as to why the Bhusan Steel Plant in Meramundali was not closed down despite having a notorious and long track record of catastrophic and fatal accidents .
The exasperated Minister exclaimed that they should better ask the Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary about this worrying question. The Minister, under fire from a vociferous media, lost his cool! Clearly all his efforts to nail the Bhusans were being stymied by powerful people within the government. The hacks were delighted as they had finally nailed the government in confirming what was a popular rumour; Bhusan enjoyed direct patronage of the Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.
As TV screens flashed this all important revelation as breaking news, hell broke loose in the hoary corridors of power. The damage control had to be done and done fast. Mr. X, the well known , omnipotent babu of the Third Floor who often passed orders by claiming that this was what “the CM desires” was immediately directed to give a dressing down to the Minister and ask him to retract his words. Many speculated that Bijoyshree would be shown the door for this frank but foolish statement once the impending urban local body elections were over!
Soon a chastised Bijoyshree had to call the media and clarify that this statement was a spontaneous one which he made in the heat of the moment and he deeply regretted mentioning the Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary! He was doing his best to control the marauding Bhusans and Third Floor had no role to play. Ha Ha !
The media sniggered, realizing what had happened, but did carry the clarification, which probably saved the minister his job and ensured he got a ticket for the 2014 polls. Naveen was a smart cookie who knew when to strike ! He would lie low now since any immediate action would prove the critics right- that Naveen gave direct protection to the Bhusans!
BEYOND LAWS !
On 26th February,2014, B.P. Patjoshi the senior law officer of the Odisha State Pollution Control Board filed a police complaint with the Nayapalli P.S. alleging that he was threatened by an anonymous caller not to pursue legal proceedings against Bhusan Steel.
The Board had lodged criminal cases against the Company in the court of the SDJM, Dhenkanal alleging that the Company had operated a kiln without obtaining the necessary consent of the Board. The unwilling Board, very much aware of the power and influence of the Bhusans, was forced to file this case as a face saving measure due to growing public anger and opprobrium.
Demonstrators had protested that they had grossly failed to rein in the Company despite its several violations of environmental laws.
The Board could not be faulted since the Chief Minister himself had given an escape route in the case of another errant group ,i.e., Jindal Steel and Power Ltd whose management was supposed to be prosecuted under the Environment (Protection) Act,1986 for several violations at its Angul plant as was discovered by an enquiry team of the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
A lengthy file note given by the Environment Department officer had lamented the uselessness and usual delay of court proceedings and had concluded that it would solve no purpose as it would not lead to any productive results ! The Chief Minister Mr. Naveen Pattnaik had approved this note in the file. I wonder if the note came up as per the desires of the Chief Minster ! (The author has a copy of this file note )
It was another matter that the OSPCB is an independent and autonomous body and is supposed to prosecute violators on its own without awaiting or seeking government instructions. But the clever state government has realized this long ago and ensured that it exercised unseen control over its functioning by always posting a state cadre officer belonging to the kowtowing IAS biradri which invariably understands the “desires of the Chief Minister”.
A previous senior IAS officer who headed the Board was rewarded with a posting in the Odisha Electricity Regulatory Commission after his retirement from government service.
GORY TRACK RECORD !
In the last eight years, the State Directorate of Factories and Boilers has registered 69 cases against the Company management in the local SDJM court for violation of safety norms under Orissa Factories Rules, 1950, and the Factories Act, 1948.
Other cases that were filed against the company were related to non-compliance of the directions issued by Government authorities following spot visits, violation of environment laws and rules, unauthorised constructions and fatal accidents leading to death of workers.
But not a single case has resulted in the imprisonment of any Company official.
Though the company did not have a valid Consent To Operate (CTO) from the OSPCB it started the blast furnace which resulted in the death of three persons and serious injuries to 17 others in November,2013. A total of 96 persons were killed due to industrial mishaps in this plant alone. There were 65 fatal accidents in plant site which itself is a serious matter and exposes the utter failure of our regulatory agencies. As many as 29 accidents have occurred in BSL from the date of its commissioning.
Several directions were issued by the OSPCB for closure of two power plants for violation of pollution control norms. However, quite inexplicably the OSPCB never recommended to the MOEF for withdrawal of the Environment Clearance though the company was serial defaulter and habitual violator.
A token arrest of three Bhusan officials was carried out after an unprecedented public outcry, but not a single Company Director was touched.
It was obvious that the unseen hand of the Third Floor was at work again ! Some babu must be expressing the desires of the Chief Minister loud and clear to the sundry regulators and enforcers of law in the state.
The latest death occurred two weeks ago ( 2nd March,2014) as a labourer died after falling inside the coal washery plant.
Deaths continue and yet the plant continues to run as human lives obviously matter little for the Naveen Pattnaik government.
ORDERS DEFIED BY DISTRICT OFFICIALS !
On 11th December,2006, a terse letter from the Union Environment and Forest Ministry informed the Odisha government that the forest clearance for 61.48 ha. of forest land was kept in abeyance. The Govt. of India also sought details of the names of officers who allowed this diversion and circumstances under which the diversion was entertained and action taken to stop work, no report was sent by the state till date. Hence, for seven years, the state government just sat over the letter.
Obviously the powerful Third Floor was at work again! Naveen was the Forest Minister from 18.5.2004 to 11.5.2011 which covered 5 years of the 7 years period after issue of the notice. He is directly and morally responsible for the failure to enforce forest laws against the Bhusans.
On 1st February,2014,the state Forest department ordered district collectors of Angul and Dhenkanal to stop all activities over the 61.48 hectares of forest land on which the company has built its plant. This action came only after a warning from the MOEF-issued a month ago on 30th December,2013- to take action against both the Company management and the errant officials of Forest Deptt and Revenue Deptt who permitted this illegal diversion of forest land.
45 days have passed since this order !
Action should have been taken within 2-3 days. The plant should have been inspected and the facilities constructed on the forest land demolished and removed. The Company’s directors who ordered the illegal use of forest land should have been arrested under the Orissa Forest Act, 1972. The District Revenue officials who permitted this diversion should also have been booked under the Forest (Conservation) Act,1980 as well as IPC for causing wrongful loss of government property ! The District Collector of Dhenkanal is sitting quiet and twiddling her fingers!
On the other hand, in 2005, the Forest department opened its Secretariat office on a Sunday in its best performance ever! There was no emergency which had befallen the state ! The Secretary and his staff trooped down missing their holiday, to fax the withdrawal letter of Vedanta Alumina to Delhi .The Company wanted to give up its claim to forest land so that their lawyers could argue that they do not need forest clearance as they would not use forest land ! Action in two hours !
Omnipotent Third Floor hand is at work obviously!
* Dr Biswajit Mohanty is a chartered accountant, well known wildlife expert and RTI activist