Tainted, but not untouchable

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Upbeat Roshan Baig (left) with DK Shivakumar after being sworn in as ministers in the Karnataka government on 1 January
Upbeat Roshan Baig (left) with DK Shivakumar after being sworn in as ministers in the Karnataka government on 1 January. Photo: KPN

The Siddaramaiah-led Congress government in Karnataka has drawn flak from social activists and the Opposition over the recent induction of two ‘tainted’ ministers — DK Shivakumar and R Roshan Baig. The duo had not been given Cabinet berths last year as their names figure in cases of illegal mining and land-grabbing, respectively. Siddaramaiah’s move indicates that the state government has chosen to ignore opposition from the civil society to serve its narrow political interests.

Shivakumar, now the energy minister, had played a key role in establishing the Congress’ base among the Vokkaligas — a powerful caste group in the state, second in number and influence only to the Lingayats. In the Assembly election last May, Shivakumar was instrumental in helping the Congress manage a string of victories in the Mandya and Bangalore (Rural) regions, once considered a bastion of the Janata Dal (Secular). And soon after, his brother DK Suresh trounced Anita Kumaraswamy, wife of former chief minister and JD(S) state president HD Kumaraswamy, in the bypolls for the Bangalore (Rural) Lok Sabha seat. However, he was not included in Siddaramaiah’s Cabinet last year as several activists opposing illegal mining and corruption in the state wrote to the CM, demanding that tainted leaders should not be made ministers.

Santosh Lad, a Siddaramaiah confidant, had to step down from his post as Minister for Information and Infrastructure Development last November over allegations of involvement in illegal mining. However, the decision to replace him with Shivajinagar MLA Roshan Baig has drawn the activists’ ire. He is accused of not disclosing his connection with Abdul Karim Telgi — convicted for the infamous fake stamp-paper scam in 2006 and currently imprisoned in Bangalore Central Jail — in his affidavit filed before the Election Commission. Telgi had allegedly funded the Bengaluru-based Reach Foundation set up by Baig.

Allegedly, Baig got the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike to allot 1,000 sq ft in a benami deal in 2005, for the construction of an Urdu Bhavan, but used that land, whose current market value exceeds Rs 20 crore, for building the office of Danish Publications, a company owned by him. Moreover, documents in TEHELKA’s possession show that in 2006 the state government allotted him a 1.3-acre plot in Electronic City — a major technological hub in Bengaluru — to set up an institution for providing vocational courses in electronics. The institution was expected to prepare 100 students every year for jobs abroad. But instead of setting up the institution, Baig rented out one half of the property to software company Infosys Technologies and the other to realtors Prestige Group.

While Baig is accused of land-grabbing, the list of alleged violations of mining rules and regulations by Shivakumar and his family members is quite long. Perhaps, the most glaring violations are related to illegal quarrying of granite blocks inside the forests of Bangalore (Rural) region. This was brought to light during investigations started in 2006 by the then Deputy Conservator of Forests UV Singh, who later became the chief investigating officer of the Lokayukta probe on illegal mining that led to the downfall of the infamous Bellary Reddy brothers. Of the total 143 instances of violation noted in Singh’s report, more than 20 directly involve members of Shivakumar’s family, including his brother and Bangalore (Rural) MP DK Suresh. The report accuses Suresh of encroaching upon 3.2 acres of forest land in Kotekuppa area of Kanakapura taluk in Bangalore (Rural) and carrying out quarrying without the requisite approvals.

Singh’s report was submitted in 2008, but it is still stuck in bureaucratic tangles. TEHELKA has access to documents indicating that officials are still reluctant to follow up on the probe. On 19 March last year, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) BK Singh wrote to N Shivasailam, principal secretary of the state forest ministry, requesting a CID probe as the “material has been exported to foreign countries and the offences may involve financial frauds, evasion of taxes and duties”.

On 15 October, Shivasailam turned down the request as no FIR had been filed at the local police station. But Ramanagara DCF Takhat Singh Ranawat, who was part of Singh’s probe team, wrote to Shivasailam on 22 October, pointing out that this scruple had been disregarded in other similar cases. He referred to the cases of illegal mining and transportation of iron ore from Belekeri port near Karwar city, where the CID had been approached directly without waiting for the filing of FIRs at the local police station. “Our initial estimates showed that the loss to the state exchequer could be close to Rs 100 crore. But only a thorough inquiry can give us the actual picture,” Ranawat told TEHELKA.

It’s been three months since Ranawat replied to the principal secretary, but there is little sign that the government intends to get the cases investigated by the CID.

This is not the first time that Shivakumar’s name has cropped up in a probe report. Companies owned by him also figured in the final report on illegal mining filed in 2011 by the then Karnataka Lokayukta N Santosh Hegde. According to the report, a consortium of eight companies — Victory Exports, Indian Rocks, Vallish, Suvi Granites, Skanda Enterprises, Sal Trading Company, Net Project Solutions and S Pradeep Exports — owned by Shivakumar and his brother had got most of the iron ore allotments from the state-owned Mysore Minerals Ltd (MML).

Around 9 lakh tonnes of “iron ore fines (high-quality fine ore powders) and mud” were allegedly allotted to these companies by the MML, at a paltry Rs 20 per tonne — much below the prices prescribed by the Metals and Minerals Trading Corporation. Further, the companies owned by Shivakumar and his brother entered into an agreement with another company, Satya Granites, to sub-lease the transportation of “iron ore fines” from the MML dump. Satya Granites was asked to pay half of the market value of the iron ore to the companies owned by Shivakumar. The report alleged that approximately 5.3 lakh tonnes of the ore was exported illegally from Belekeri port.

Notwithstanding the allegations against Shivakumar and Baig, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has ruled out dropping either of them from the Cabinet. Instead, he has gone on record saying that if the activists have a problem with the new ministers, they can knock on the doors of the courts. Siddaramaiah’s decision has left the activists puzzled. They wonder why the chief minister, who had asked Santosh Lad to step down last year following similar allegations, is reluctant to apply the same standards in the case of Shivakumar and Baig. Many believe that this has to do with the caste and religious background of the tainted ministers.

The Vokkaligas — the caste group that Shivakumar belongs to — account for around 15 percent of the state’s population, and the Congress does not want to risk antagonising the community as it could lead to a loss of votes. Similarly, Baig is the Muslim face of the party in Karnataka, and dropping him at this juncture could jeopardise the Congress’ chances to get a substantial section of the minorities’ votes in the upcoming Lok Sabha election.

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