Shekhar Gupta interviews Justice Hegde

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  1. nrj

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    Nov 16, 2009
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    ‘They don’t want the lokayukta to proceed because these mining permits were given during the tenures of JD-S, Congress and BJP’

    Shekhar Gupta:
    My guest this week is an unlikely whistleblower and a very good one at that, Justice Santosh Hegde. Nobody has done this as a lokayukta.
    Justice N Santosh Hegde: Thanks, I am just doing what I am expected to do.

    Shekhar Gupta: So far, everybody thought the office of the lokayukta is a sinecure, a joke.

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: It is so because most of the states have not even given (lokayuktas) the powers I have. I have substantial powers and I am still complaining. I am not being greedy but as you go on, you find you require more powers. As you go deep into the jungle, I think you want more security and more protection. And that’s the reason I keep asking for more powers.

    Shekhar Gupta: ‘Going deeper into the jungle’. It’s an interesting metaphor.

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: It’s very easy to find fault with an ordinary government servant. It’s extremely difficult to find fault with senior officers and senior politicians—and prove it. Nobody comes forward to give complaints. Therefore, you have to go on your own. As you go in, you get into a maze-like situation when you don’t know how far you can go or when you can come back. These are issues which confront you as you keep going deep into the thing.

    Shekhar Gupta: Tell us a bit about your experiences. Your ‘walk through the jungle’ so far.

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: For the last four years, I have walked through this particular jungle. When I first came here, I really did not know what is the ambit of the lokayukta’s jurisdiction. As I studied the Act, I realised there is much more to the lokayukta’s job than merely catching some small-time officers, bribe-takers. The Act says the object of the job it is to oversee good governance, including prevention of corruption, nepotism, arbitrariness. Therefore, it is a very wild area. But the powers that have been given are hardly anything. You can’t wait for a complaint to be given by a citizen against a chief minister or powerful ministers or even higher bureaucrats. Nobody comes forward to give it. Having noticed all this, I thought I required more powers to go on my own in this jungle. So, I asked for suo motu power, a power to inquire...
    Shekhar Gupta: On your own...
    Justice N Santosh Hegde: On my own, against the chief minister, ministers and other senior officers. They didn’t give me that power. It was there originally in the Act but within six months of the Act coming into force, they took it away from the lokayukta. That’s the power I am asking for. I can give you many examples where our efforts did not go to the logical end because of want of this power.

    Shekhar Gupta: Is the mining issue an example of this?

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: No. mining is not an example of it because it was based on a specific complaint that I received. On mining, I have a problem because almost all departments are involved in this. Therefore to get the cooperation of these departments is next to impossible.

    Shekhar Gupta: Because there are vested interests.

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: Vested interests are controlling the whole industry. Imagine, in one night, nearly a thousand vehicles go without proper permit to a port and export the iron ore without proper permit. All this is supervised by the forest department, by the mining department, by the police, by the road transport department... There is a checkpost everywhere, but nobody stops them. At the port, you have to show the port security valid documents, here too they don’t do anything at all. Then there are forest officers inside the port, who are supposed to check whether these minerals are from the forest area, whether they have taken permission from the forest department or not. Rule 162 of the Karnataka Forest Rules says the port authority has to satisfy himself before he allows (the consignment) to go outside the port area. Then there is the customs department which has to collect the customs duty. Nobody does anything.

    Shekhar Gupta: So do you think you have bitten off more than you could chew?

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: Sometimes yes, I do feel that way because having taken it this far, if it is to be taken from me and given to somebody else, it should not be done for collateral reasons.

    Shekhar Gupta: You mean if it is taken away from the lokayukta and given to the CBI, as the Opposition is demanding, you think that could be for collateral reasons?

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: It could be for collateral reasons, especially with the past experience people have about the CBI where they have closed many cases which ought to have ended in conviction. My perception of the ruling party’s objection for giving the case to the CBI is that the institution may fix the state government. That’s also possible.

    Shekhar Gupta: So while the state government today may fear that the CBI will victimise them, the Opposition, which was in power when a lot of these permits were given, may have the apprehension that your inquiry will fix them.

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: Could be. Certainly, they don’t want the lokayukta to proceed because many of
    these permits were given during the tenure of other political parties.

    Shekhar Gupta: Both Congress and Deve Gowda’s.

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: Yes, JD-S, Congress as well as the present government. There is documentary evidence to show that they have given permits to many people after taking a policy decision not give any more permits.

    Shekhar Gupta: So there are no saints here?

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: No. There may be few and far between in that group...

    Shekhar Gupta: Were you surprised by the reaction you got?

    Justice N Santosh Hegde:Honestly, I was very, very surprised with the media attention my resignation got. The reaction of the people of Karnataka and other parts also took me by surprise.

    Shekhar Gupta: Was the resignation impulsive or did you think it through?

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: No, it was not impulsive. As a matter of fact, I was discussing this issue with my family, saying that I think I am not really going as far as I should be. Therefore, if I can’t do the job that is entrusted to me under the Act and for which I am being paid substantially, I should not continue with the work. So I was planning that maybe sometime in September, I will quietly go out. It might suit the government also to have their own new lokayukta. But on June 21, an officer (Deputy Conservator of Forests R Gokul) who detected illegal mining of nearly 5 lakh metric tonnes was sought to be kept under suspension. Why did they want to suspend him? Because they wanted to change the officer who was investigating the case and then the entire case could be hushed up. I wanted to stop it. But there was no way I could stop it by writing a letter to the chief minister or to anybody—things were moving very fast.

    Shekhar Gupta: Did you try to speak with the chief minister?

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: No, I didn’t speak to him that day because I had to go somewhere. When I returned, I found out (Gokul) was not suspended yet but his papers were moving. At that point of time, I decided to advance my resignation, making this a flashpoint so that this officer would not be suspended.

    Shekhar Gupta: And you won.

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: I won and I am grateful to the Andhra Pradesh chief minister who went on the floor of the House and said he appreciated the work of this officer. He also admitted that it wasn’t just five lakh metric tonnes that were illegally transported from Karwar but it was 35 lakh metric tonnes.

    Shekhar Gupta: When it comes to ion ore, most of us do not understand what five lakh metric tonnes and what 35 lakh metric tonnes are. Explain to us the economics of it.

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: One metric tonne in the international market today is $100-120. So, 1 metric tonne is for Rs 5,000. Now, Rs 5,000 multiplied by 5 lakh metric tonnes comes to Rs 150 crore, of which the government has not even got Re 1. Now if it is 35 lakh metric tonnes, as the documents show between October 2009 and February 2010, it would touch about Rs 1,600 crore.

    Shekhar Gupta: Of this, even the royalty would have been substantial for Karnataka.

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: We should realise this is the property of the state; it doesn’t belong to any individual. Therefore, when you calculate the illegality, you have to take into consideration the actual value of it.

    Shekhar Gupta: Because if they had taken a licence for it, they would have to pay for this.

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: They would have to pay and the government might not have permitted them, depending upon the ecological requirement. These are all taken illegally from areas which may not have been suitable for mining at all. Like forest areas or certain hilly areas.

    Shekhar Gupta: So did you get evidence that a lot of this environmental damage was also taking place illegally?

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: Yes, in my report of 2008, I had said there were certain species of animals, like the sloth bear, that were confined to the Bellary region. Now, they are there no more. There are medicinal plants which don’t grow there anymore. The entire system of rain has changed in the district of Bellary. There are so many ecological changes that have taken place mainly because of illegal mining.

    Shekhar Gupta: How does the mechanism work?

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: Right from the time when a mining lease is applied for, there are certain guidelines under the Central and the state enactments. At that stage itself, they have to give a sketch of the area where they are going to mine. I found out that sometimes the areas have nothing to do with the sketch that are given with the applications. Nobody crosschecks these things. Therefore, this is the first stage where illegality takes place. Then they take permission, say, for 150 hectares. Those 150 hectares may be in a prohibited area, like a forest area. But they show it as a revenue area, go to the forest area and start mining there. Therefore, you degrade the forest. Then there are Indian Bureau of Mines rules and regulations which control the type of mining you can do—like, you cannot go more than six metres because it may be dangerous ecologically. But they don’t care. Therefore, where they are allowed to take 100 metric tones, they will take out 1,000 metric tonnes. The entire area surrounding the mining area is totally devoid of greenery and has no agricultural activity. People there have no other vocation. God knows what will happen to them when the mining is stopped or controlled. None of them goes to school or college. All of them have been provided with a motorcycle, a cellphone and a daily allowance. Their job is to just go around and see if any stranger has come to that area and to report it.

    Shekhar Gupta: And all this ore is moved by thousands of trucks on these highways.

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: Yes, and the highways are damaged and repaired every year. But what the government gets by way of royalty is not enough to meet what is required to repair a road in a year. It’s one-tenth of what is required.

    Shekhar Gupta: And what complicates it is the fact that the key players in this have become powerful in the state’s politics.

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: Yes, that is the general perception. I will not agree or disagree with it because I don’t want to talk about anything without there being documentary evidence in front of me.

    Shekhar Gupta: But two of the biggest mining lease owners are in the Cabinet in the state.

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: They are in Andhra Pradesh, the leases are there.

    Shekhar Gupta: You agreed to stay back. What made you change your decision?

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: That is something which has led to some controversy. Many people had approached me—social organisations, students, farmers, ordinary people. They all requested me to withdraw my resignation, saying that if you go at this point of time, you will be giving them a handle to do more illegal activities, you must stay. But somewhere I had taken a decision that I should not make use of this situation as an instrument to blackmail. Then one day, Mr L K Advani telephoned me and asked me if I would reconsider my decision if he gave a statement to the press, stating that the government would look into my concerns and address them directly. Well, I have said that and I am saying it again, L K Advani is like a father figure to me because of my personal relationship with him. He was very close to my father.

    Shekhar Gupta: Your father was a towering figure in the BJP.

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: He was the vice-president of the BJP and also speaker of the Lok Sabha. More than that, I respect him for being a Supreme Court judge.

    Shekhar Gupta: You followed in those footsteps.

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: Yes, it not hereditary but I followed his footsteps. So then I told him (Advani) that I will consider it and tell him the next day. In fact, I consulted Justice J S Verma who had spoken to me after I resigned and who advises me now and then. He said, ‘Look Santosh, if a man of Advani’s stature calls you take an extract from him stating his party agrees to give you the powers that you have asked for and also to remove other problems that you faced...if he agrees to do that, then you go ahead’. That was conveyed to Mr Advani and he agreed.

    Shekhar Gupta: So, how convinced are you of the government’s assurances now?

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: I had an opportunity of going through the draft Bill. I was told in the beginning that they will address all my concerns. What I understood was that all what I had asked for—suo moto power to inquire not only against bureaucrats but also against politicians—would be given to me. But now they have diluted it, saying they would give me that power only to inquire against bureaucrats. One of the major problems seems to be the concern that the lokayukta might misuse that power. Now, in the next one year if I show it to them that I am not going to misuse this power, then maybe they will gain confidence in the institution of the lokayukta.

    Shekhar Gupta: Are you disillusioned with the BJP?

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: I am totally apolitical. I have made that clear many times. For example, I was appointed Advocate General by the Janata Party, I became the Additional Solicitor General of India under V P Singh’s party. I became the Solicitor General under the NDA. I was appointed chairman of the Telecom Disputes Settlement Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) by the UPA. And then I was appointed lokayukta by Mr Gowda when Yeddyurappa was deputy CM. Every educated Indian has some political affiliation which, of course, may change from issue to issue. I am in that category.

    Shekhar Gupta: By Mr Gowda.

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: And Yedurappa was deputy chief minister and therefore I am totally apolitical. But every Indian, every educated Indian, has some political affiliations which, of course, may change from issue to issue. I am in that category.

    Shekhar Gupta: The opportunity you have is to do for ‘Brand Lokayukta’ what T N Sheshan did for the Election Commission and Justice Verma for the Supreme Court.

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: My predecessor also did it because this institution has been in existence since 1986 but till 2001, nobody knew much about it.

    Shekhar Gupta: But a moment comes when an institution can either rise to its true potential and go beyond it or get completely demolished.

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: I have no intention of going beyond its legal potential but I have not yet reached that legal potential.

    Shekhar Gupta: But you have no intention to allow it to diminish?

    Justice N Santosh Hegde: No, under no circumstance will I do that. If I have taken it this far, I will take it further.

    So wishing you luck, you will need it, thank you very much.

    Indian Express
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