Former Lokayukta Santosh Hedge’s probe into the multi-crore illegal mining scam in the iron ore-rich Bellary district of Karnataka had led to the downfall of the infamous Bellary brothers — Gali Janardhana Reddy, Karunakara Reddy and Somashekara Reddy — who were ministers in the then BJP-led state government. Hegde’s final report, filed in July 2011, extensively documented the nexus of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen who colluded to defraud the state exchequer of mining revenues.
However, among the beneficiaries of the illegal mining were several individuals who did not hold any public office, and whose role, therefore, was outside the ambit of the Lokayukta probe. Now, acting on directions from the Lokayukta court, the Congress government led by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) under the Lokayukta to probe those who had managed to evade the clutches of the law.
The SIT probe will target those who figured in an initial report on illegal mining prepared by UV Singh, who was an investigating officer in Lokayukta Hegde’s team. Shockingly, Singh’s report, which forms part of Hegde’s final report, also names some persons associated with media organisations among the beneficiaries of illegal mining.
Based on the documents seized by Income Tax officials during a raid in 2010 on the offices of Madhushree Enterprises, a firm owned by Madhukumar Varma, a close associate of Janardhana Reddy, Singh’s report shows that a hawala racket was being operated to channel money to some people associated with media organisations. While the seized documents do not clearly specify the purpose for which the money was being paid, the report states that since the money was being received from a firm involved in illegal mining, it’s quite possible that it was being used for nefarious activities.
The seized documents have been included in the Lokayukta report as part of chapter 28 of Book 14 under the heading “Collapse of Administrative and Governance System”. Among those who are alleged to have received money from Madhushree Enterprises is a firm owned by Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar called Jupiter Aviation. Incidentally, Chandrasekhar also owns the Asianet media network, which runs Suvarna, a Kannada television news channel, and Kannada Prabha, a daily newspaper. An entry made on 9 August 2010 under the heading “amount given” shows that 12 lakh was given to the company, but there is no indication as to the purpose.
Similarly, Singh’s report shows that Deccan Aviation, which was set up by Captain GR Gopinath, considered a pioneer in the low-cost airline sector in India, had received Rs 25 lakh from the Reddy brothers.
The list of alleged beneficiaries from the illegal mining also includes two Bengaluru-based newspapers — Deccan Chronicle and Bangalore Mirror. While Deccan Chronicle is alleged to have received Rs 25 lakh, the Times Group-owned Bangalore Mirror allegedly received Rs 5 lakh. According to Singh’s report, in neither case has the purpose for which the money was handed over been specified.
While Jupiter Aviation and Deccan Aviation have claimed the money was for hiring choppers, Deccan Chronicle and Bangalore Mirror said it was payment for ads.
Probably, the most shocking revelation in Singh’s report is the mention of two initials — V Bhat and RB — that could refer to two stalwarts of Kannada journalism, who work in the print and electronic media. According to the seized documents, Rs 75 lakh was given to V Bhat and Rs 10 lakh to RB. Singh’s report also mentions Rs 5 lakh paid to “press club (Harish)”.
Documents recovered from Madhukumar Varma’s laptop also mention journalists being given money for a “son’s marriage” and for buying cameras. Singh noted that most of the money transactions were carried out through hawala channels. Though the amounts mentioned are not big, Singh argues that this could only be the proverbial tip of an iceberg. As a hawala network was involved, it would take a thorough investigation to establish the total amount of money that changed hands.