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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Republic of Bellary A recent Lokayukta report reveals that in Bellary different rules for different people prevail. Varuna Verma reports from the ground zero of illegal mining in Karnataka

Republic of Bellary

Two worlds co-exist in Bellary. One is the typical under-developed, one-horse south Indian town. The roads are narrow, potholed and dusty, and clogged with truck traffic. There are no malls, multi-storied buildings or flyovers. The only tourist attraction in town — a fort that Tipu Sultan built on top of a rocky hill — attracts no visitors.

But in the midst of this middle-class Karnataka town, you find pockets of big money. Turn down a narrow street, and a fancy, fortified villa — complete with security guards and closed-circuit cameras — can surprise you. When Karnataka forest official U.V. Singh first visited Bellary in 2009, he was surprised by the dichotomy that existed in the town. "It's a middle-class town where a handful of people have very big money," he says. Singh was visiting Bellary to conduct an investigation for the Karnataka Lokayukta on the irregularities in iron ore mining around the town.

Bellary's billionaires are all mining magnates. They made their money when a sudden demand for iron ore from China in early 2000 pushed up prices for the product — from Rs 200 to Rs 3,000 a tonne. "It also led to a spurt in illegal mining," says Singh. For now, a Supreme Court order has halted all mining in the region.

Bellary's most famous residents are the Reddy brothers — Janaradhan, Karunakar and Somashekhar — who co-own the Obulapuram Mining Corporation (OMC) and hold ministerial posts in the state BJP government. The Reddys' multi-storied residence on Sirguppa Road — stylishly painted in red and orange — has two levels of security. The fleet of cars parked in front could be the envy of any car connoisseur — there are BMWs, a Mitsubishi Pajero, Ford Endeavour, Land Cruiser and a Honda CRV.

But the Reddy riches and political clout are now under the Karnataka Lokayukta scanner. Last week, the Lokayukta released a report on illegal mining across the state. Bellary finds special mention here. Lokayukta Santosh Hegde writes in the report that a brazen flouting of laws and the use of the administrative machinery to serve the interests of a few turned the town into a "Republic of Bellary".

Bellary is the ground zero of illegal iron ore mining in Karnataka, says Hegde. And it thrived while the local administration looked the other way, he adds. "When a state minister makes his millions from illegal mining, it's obvious that he used the entire government machinery to protect his interests. The town became a classic case of complete administrative failure," says Hegde.

The Lokayukta report has a whole chapter — titled "The collapse of administration and governance in Bellary" — on how laws were twisted by the town's mining magnates. "About 500 mining companies mushroomed in Bellary in the last two years. Their owners became rich, broke rules and bullied the rest of the town's residents," says Singh, who wrote the chapter.

Singh substantiates his case with numbers. "Of the 787 government officials indicted in the report for being hand-in-glove with illegal mining, 700 are from Bellary and adjoining districts," he says.

When Singh visited Bellary in September 2009 to investigate the mining scam, he experienced first hand the strong arm rule of the Reddy brothers. "Somashekhar Reddy asked me if I had taken permission from the minister in charge of the town to enter the district," he remembers. Singh didn't lose his nerve. "I told him that as a citizen of India I don't require anyone's permission to go anywhere," he says. The incident is mentioned in the report.

Like Singh, there are others who claim to have been at the receiving end of the Reddy writ in the town. Turn off the dusty, single-lane Bellary-Hospet Highway and you spot a swanky glass and chrome building. It's the office of mining firm Bellary Iron Ore Private Limited. A black, bullet-proof BMW stands in the building's portico. The company's proprietor, S.K. Modi, says he's so paranoid of being attacked that he sent his vehicle to Germany to get it bullet-proofed. "It's even AK-47 resistant," he claims. A bodyguard in plain clothes and a Karnataka police constable stand outside Modi's office. "My wife and daughter also have a bodyguard each," he says.

Modi says he's paying the price for standing up to the Reddys. The Lokayukta mining report mentions that the OMC enforced a profit sharing system on fellow miners in Bellary. "The mining firms in the town were required to share their produce with the OMC in return for a promise that they would be provided all necessary permits and assured free and uninterrupted transportation of material to a destination of their choice," says the report.

Modi says he refused the golden handshake. "I refused to cow down. Ever since, I feel threatened," he says.

Another local miner, Tapal Ganesh, who owns Tumti Iron Ore Mines, filed a case of trespass and threatening against the OMC in the Karnataka High Court in 2006. "The OMC shifted boundaries on paper and seized my land," he claims. Five years on, the case is still trudging along.

Miners aside, even the common people of Bellary feel they have no law to turn to. Tabassum has been living in a modest two-room house on Bellary's Belagal Road for the last 25 years. In March, last year, she was told that she would be paid to move out — she didn't have a choice in the matter. "All my neighbours were given similar marching orders. We knew there was no point fighting it. We are looking for alternate accommodation," says Tabassum.

Tabassum doesn't know who engineered the evacuation. But two years down the line, the 300 acres of prime land along Belagal Road has been converted into a posh gated community. "The plots of land are now up for sale," claims Allah Baksh, Congress block president for Bellary.

Infrastructure, power and water woes also became a part of life in Bellary. Lokayukta mining report author Singh remembers spending hours on the road while commuting in the town. "When mining was at its peak, about 7,500 iron ore laden lorries plied on the Bellary, Hospet and Tumkur roads every day. It ruined the roadways," he says.

In Bellary, Janardhan Reddy is known to live in style. "His fleet of sleek cars, lavish functions and elaborate mass marriage ceremonies are the talk of the town. Everything, from the food to the flower arrangements, is tastefully co-ordinated at the Reddy parties," says Allah Baksh. A few years ago, a rumour did the rounds that Janardhan Reddy planned to construct a lake outside Bellary — and name it after his mother, recalls Baksh.

The water body never materialised. But over the years Bellary's water problems grew. "Three years ago, the town received water supply once in two days. Now, it's down to once in eight days," says Baksh. Even then, few people complain to the city councillors, he adds.

Unlike the lake, the Reddys' project of building an old age home in the town saw success. The G. Rukmanamma Chengareddy Memorial Home for Senior Citizens — named after the Reddy's mother — situated on the outskirts of Bellary could pass off as a holiday resort, with its landscaped gardens, walking track and canary yellow cottages. "It's clean, green and peaceful," says Leelavati, a 77-year-old resident.

These were the descriptions used for Bellary town before it turned into a minefield of maladministration. Maybe the Lokayukta report will help the town reclaim its old self.

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