Mining scam: Will Odisha go the Goa way?

Every time I go to Bhubaneswar, I end up making queries about land rates, hoping I would be able to buy a plot for my post-retirement housing. But each time I return disappointed. Land prices and housing costs in the city have risen so much that the middle class — for whom Bhubaneswar once was a dream city — has been priced out.

So who is buying?

A part of the demand is attributed to NROs – non-resident odiyas, mostly techies, engineers and doctors abroad. Some are coming from Delhi and Kolkata-based real estate developers for whom Bhubaneswar has emerged as a favoured destination. But the real push has come from what they call “khani maal” or money from mining.

Initially I thought it was a bubble that would burst one day. But it has been close to a decade and the bubble hasn’t burst. For that matter, it may not be a bubble at all, because much of the price rally has come on the back of an unprecedented surge in black money.

Now we know it is perhaps the only money behind all kinds of demand surge that Odisha — a state with widespread poverty amid plenty of resources — has seen over the past decade.

When allegations of large scale irregularities in mining surfaced more than two years ago, Navin Patnaik government in the state rubbished the claim. Patnaik’s Mr Clean Image coupled with a non-enterprising opposition meant that the issue didn’t make headlines for much longer a time. But a lot has since changed.

Skeletons are tumbling out of the closets. More evidences surface with each passing day that scams of all sizes have been in the making under Mr Clean’s uninterrupted rule of 12 years. And mining, it would seem, is where all the action has been. Patnaik’s unquestioned leadership has come under increasing stress as his chief aide, Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, parted ways. The opposition, primarily the Congress party, is beginning to assert itself. Amidst all that, comes a crucial visit by the Shah Commission, investigating the allegations of irregularities in allotment of mining rights and their regulation.

Members of the Shah Commission are now camping in Odisha. Their visit, the third since the probe began, has already made Patnaik and his administration jittery. Patnaik fears his game is up. That is why he moved quickly last week to slap fines totalling Rs. 58,000 crore on more than three dozen companies that have allegedly mined more than they were authorised. The Odisha government sent out dozen of circulars to companies it thought were violating rules.

In doing so, however, Patnaik has admitted to the opposition charges that he had so easily dismissed two years ago. The Shah Commission is unlikely to overlook this. There are all kinds of speculation on what the commission would eventually do.

One set of strong speculations is that the sheer size of the fraud may force the commission to order what it did in Goa — suspend all mining licenses cleared by its former chief minister Digambar Kamat.

If that happens in Odisha, it could well mark the beginning of the end of Navin Patnaik’s history-making tenure in Odisha.

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