One evening, my wife and I sat down together. “I think the end has come,” I said

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FIRST PERSON ACCOUNT

 

Karnataka Lokayukta  Santosh Hegde In office till 31 August 2010

Karnataka Lokayukta
Santosh Hegde
In office till 31 August 2010
Photo: SB Satish

Over the past few months, certain things were happening in the office of the Lokayukta, which made me sad. Normally, I don’t take things seriously to heart. But, I was being pushed. We would catch errant officials and seek their suspension. The Karnataka Government would revoke their suspension without consulting us, and post them at the same place so it would be a slap on the face of my institution.

Slowly, we found an ‘I don’t care’ attitude towards the Lokayukta. This was happening for the first time in my tenure. I recalled what my father [KS Hegde, former Supreme Court judge] told me years ago, when I was Advocate-General of Karnataka. “Look Santosh, you have not been appointed because you are the best. There are many people better than you. Various factors go into it. Now, discharge your duties to everybody’s satisfaction and never get attached to the chair. When you get the feeling you are not wanted, quit.”

THE NEGATIVE attitude of the government was getting more brazen. The week before I resigned, on 23 June, my nephew was getting married. There, over a meal, I told my family I was finding it embarrassing to continue at work. They said they had never seen me so down and out. They said I should quit, and that I had done enough. Against this background, I decided to quit at an appropriate time. My idea was not to embarrass the government or make an issue of it. Just go quietly.

While this was developing on the personal front, parallel developments took place at work for three months. A senior officer in the Forests Department is advising me on Bellary. In February, he said large-scale iron ore transportation was going on. I had also read about it, and heard of it in gossip. Yet, the Chief Minister [BS Yeddyurappa] was going on saying there is nothing wrong in Bellary, everything is hunky dory, and people are indulging in idle talk. He was justifying what was going on by denying it.

I sent a team on a recce to Bellary one night. They found thousands of lorries on the move. They had to find out if it was genuine iron ore, but they did not have enough staff to stop the lorries. A few weeks later, I gave them 10-12 people. We couldn’t take local officers in Bellary into confidence because they would leak the news.

The team stopped 99 lorries one night in March. They found huge quantities of iron ore, every lorry was overloaded. Not a single genuine document was found in the 99 lorries. Then, I told Chief Conservator of Forests UV Singh that he has to follow-up on the case. He said the ore had reached the port in Karwar but he was not sure if it was already shipped. I asked him to find a trustworthy officer because he couldn’t enter the port himself without being spotted.

 

ALL FOR ONE Chief Minister Yeddyurappa and Tourism Minister and mining don Janardhana Reddy are doing everything to stall the Lokayukta
ALL FOR ONE Chief Minister Yeddyurappa and Tourism Minister and mining don Janardhana Reddy are doing everything to stall the Lokayukta
Photo: SB Satish

He identified a man he had faith in, Deputy Conservator of Forests R Gokul. He was in Karwar district and we asked him to see if the ore was still at the port, and if the port officer had valid documents for the stuff. He found they didn’t have valid documents. We asked Gokul to file an FIR in the nearest court at Ankola, and seize the ore. He made a prayer to court, and the court granted him permission to seize the ore.

Soon after, persons claiming to be true transporters of the ore filed writ petitions in the high court. Eleven petitions were filed but, fortunately, no order was passed immediately. I wrote to the Advocate-General, explaining what was happening and voicing apprehension that the cases were not being defended properly. It was evident that instructions had come from the government not to take the illegal iron ore case seriously. I wrote that the Advocate-General had to take responsibility as a law officer of the State and as a constitutional authority. He appointed a Senior Pleader and told him not to take instructions from anyone.

They tried changing benches, and the case was transferred to a division bench. Here, they said they had the documents. But they couldn’t present them when asked to. The government pleader said they could implead the Lokayukta because he seized the documents. Their main argument was that the monsoon was approaching and they couldn’t transport the ore then. They said they would have to pay demurrage for the ships and damages for violating their contract terms. The court, which was also in a hurry to dispose of the case, suggested that the Lokayukta be impleaded so he can produce the documents.

At this point, they changed their stance. They didn’t want me impleaded because everything would be exposed. They took two weeks adjournment, in spite of their hurry. Thereafter, we received information that they were removing and shifting the ore without a court order. We approached the court and got the property seized again. Gokul inspected the iron ore. He found that 5 lakh tonnes of 8.5 lakh tonnes had already been transferred.

One metric tonne of iron ore fetches $120 in the Chinese market. For ease of calculation, we went by $100 a tonne and Rs 50 a dollar. This meant a tonne was worth Rs 5,000 and 5 lakh tonnes would command Rs 250 crore. This is the size of a scam unearthed by a forest officer in Karwar alone. Gokul filed a criminal case against the companies and the port authorities that contrary to the court’s directions, the ore was stolen from his custody. When he inquired further, he discovered that at least 35 lakh tonnes had been transported without permits in the recent past. This meant that the size of the scam was at least Rs 1,750 crore.

We can definitely show how 5 lakh tonnes were moved without documents, even without the documents of the customs authorities. So, under our instructions, Gokul wrote to the Chief Vigilance Commissioner against the customs officer, the forest department officer and the port authorities. This inquiry was going on. We were hoping to get up to 50 lakh tonnes with evidence that it was illegally transported without a single document. This would have been a scam worth Rs 2,500 crore. It is the biggest case of illegal mining being fought in the country

An officer I deputed does a perfect job. He identifies the guilty in a huge iron ore export scam. He files an FIR. And what do they do? They want to suspend him. I couldn’t sleep after this

And the Chief Minister says everything is legal in Bellary. The iron ore could not have come from Karwar. There is no ore there. It has to come from Bellary. There are seven checkposts between Bellary and Bellikere, manned by the departments of forests, mines, police, and water resources. None of the checkposts had the courage to stop these lorries.

What do you infer? It cannot be stray transportation by one lorry owner. It is pre-planned by powerful people whose lorries could not be stopped. These factors make it obvious who these people are. How will the Chief Minister explain this when he says there is no illegal mining in Bellary? He might say he didn’t know, but then he should know enough before giving people a character certificate. So, on one side is my personal story that I decided to resign. On the other side was this inquiry into the illegal iron ore.

IN THIS backdrop, Gokul came to my office one evening a few days ago. He wept, saying the Ports Minister [Krishna Palemar] had written a letter suspending him from office. He showed me a letter addressed to the Chief Secretary [SV Ranganath], saying a similar letter had gone to the Chief Minister.

The letter says the minister had gone to investigate the illegal transportation of nearly 6 lakh tonnes of iron ore. Therefore, certain facts have been admitted. The minister says 6 lakh, we say 5 lakh. Six lakh tonnes is more the merrier for us to take the complaint to a higher level. He went there to investigate a theft that had taken place admittedly.

When I am inquiring into 5 lakh tonnes of illegal iron ore, where is the need for a minister to go and inquire? He went because powerful people were involved, people from the party in power [BJP]

What does he do then? He calls a meeting in Karwar without a single officer from the district, not even the DC or the Deputy Director, Mines, who are just as concerned about the investigation. The only people the minister invited for the closed-door meeting were the 11 companies accused in the FIR, three of the officers accused in the FIR, and the Investigating Officer (IO).

Gokul says he didn’t go to the meeting because he had learned they were planning to force him to withdraw the complaint. He didn’t go. The minister’s letter says he (the minister) went there for investigation and called a meeting. The minister wrote that though he requested the IO to attend, he did not. The minister added he tried to call the IO but his phone was switched off. Therefore, the minister said, he suspects that the IO is responsible for the crime of stealing the illegal iron ore.

THE PERSON who unearthed a scam of Rs 250 crore is now being accused of committing the crime. Therefore, the minister says, he should be kept under suspension. At that point, when Gokul was crying in front of me, I could not intervene. Office hours were over and even if I had written to the Chief Secretary, it would have reached him only the next day. Whatever was to happen would happen.

I was deeply upset. Here is a man who is not even from my department. I depute him to do something and he does a perfect job. He unearths a scam. He identifies the persons who are guilty. He files an FIR and says 5 lakh tonnes have been illegally exported from under his custody, granted by a court. If he were guilty, why would he do that?

I have no objections if they want to proceed with an inquiry. I have faith in Gokul. He has been keeping me informed right through. But, I couldn’t sleep after this. What have I done to this officer? I drag him from his regular work and this is what happens. I thought if I have to resign, why not resign now? Make this an issue. Tell the people of Karnataka why I resigned.

If this officer were to be suspended even for a day, they would have immediately changed the IO, posted somebody else, and hushed up the case. This is the only part where my emotions were involved in deciding that I would resign at once. I decided to resign. I have been emotionally affected by the various stresses that have arisen in the past many days.

 

IRON IRE Many mines in Bellary are under the control of the Reddys, who are the subject of India’s biggest mining investigation
IRON IRE Many mines in Bellary are under the control of the Reddys, who are the subject of India’s biggest mining investigation
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

I wrote a four-line letter to the Governor (Hans Raj Bhardwaj) saying I am resigning with effect from 31 August 2010. When I gave him the letter, the Governor said he would not accept it and that he would persuade the government to persuade me not to go. “You have done such wonderful work. Many people want you to remain here,” he said.

I told him: “Your Excellency, I have thought about it. A man of my stature, a former judge of the Supreme Court, should not play around with his resignation as a weapon of blackmail.” It is too late for me to seek the additional power I have been asking for. I have to prove my integrity. I cannot be party to closing a scam, which is worth hundreds of crores of rupees, probably thousands of crores. This decision has been consciously taken for one reason: to protect this officer (Gokul). It paid off.

Because, after being cornered, the Chief Minister dilly-dallied and finally said he would not suspend the officer. When I am inquiring into the matter of 5 lakh tonnes of illegal iron ore, where is the need for a minister to go and inquire? He went because powerful people were involved, powerful people who might belong to the party in power [Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)]. I am not in the habit of naming somebody unless I have proof in my hand. And we would have got the proof in a few weeks. We would have got to the mines from where the ore came.

So, I resigned. Fortunately, the Principal Secretary, Forests, whose signature is required, was away. So, this officer Gokul is safe for the moment. But the people behind this are so powerful that they will still make life miserable. All our fears have come true because they have now referred the case to the CID, a department fully under the government. Why? I have investigated far bigger cases. There is no allegation of deficiency in the investigation of cases done by me. My teams have unearthed the scam. Gokul conducted the surveys with my team. What have they found to change the investigating agency and put it under their control?

The reactions started to flow after I resigned. The Chief Minister said my resignation was planned ahead to spoil the celebrations of the BJP’s second anniversary in power. He wondered why I did not discuss my resignation with him first. I have never discussed anything with him first. I did not discuss my raids with him. I did not discuss my report on illegal mining with him. They did not find fault with any of these. Where is the need for me to go begging after them?

What was the urgency for these ministers, in the thick of their celebrations, to send a letter for suspension of this officer? Each time I had to give an adverse report against the government, I waited for months. I showed courtesy by waiting for elections to be over before I submitted my mining report. If I had not, they would have accused me of trying to influence voters by releasing damaging reports before an election.

You can judge from the reactions to my resignation that people have understood what we were trying to do. Agitations are going on. People are requesting me not to go. Now that some resistance has been built with my resignation, they are coming out with different stories. They say the Opposition has bought me. Now, I have long ago put my assets and liabilities on the Web the day I entered this office.

IDO NOT hanker after property and money. In the past, I agreed to be a judge of the Supreme Court though it meant ten times more work and ten times less money when compared to private practice. Then, they say the Centre has offered me a job. The government has not offered me a job. You have to be a fool to accept such a job after taking the stand I have.

The allegations they make show their character and their thought. I have no interest in politics or politicians. I am totally apolitical. Whichever office I have held, I have discharged my duties without any affiliation to the party that had appointed me at any point. I was appointed Advocate-General of Karnataka in 1982. I resigned in 1983 on a principle. Ramakrishna Hegde had appointed me. He resigned though his party continued in power. I don’t think there is another instance of a person resigning soon after a Prime Minister or a Chief Minister quit though the party continued to be in power and someone else took over.

When I was in Toronto in 2005, the then Chief Minister, HD Kumaraswamy, called me and said he would like to have me in Karnataka as the Lokayukta. I never met Kumaraswamy before that because he is a product that came into existence after I moved to Delhi. I didn’t even know what this job was.

If I have to sympathise with any party, it would have to be the BJP because my father was a vice-president of the BJP in his last days. I represented LK Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee when they were imprisoned here during Emergency. But honesty prevails today. I have no political sympathies or favourites. The BJP symbol, the lotus, grows in muck. I have to believe now that the people of BJP also come from muck. Apart from wanting to continue as Chief Minister, this person seeks the support of affluent people and I am not sure if he is uninterested in the mining transactions.

They will never allow the inquiry into the illegal ore to go on. I have little time left. I am in office two months as I have to complete two reports. They have crippled the institution of the Lokayukta. They have crippled the rights of the poor who could have got relief from this institution. This really is the nadir.

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