By Sandeep Sahu
The surprise is not that the law finally caught up with him – in faraway Bangkok – but that it took so long! If law really had the ‘long arm’ that we all believe it does, Mahimananda Mishra (better known without the ‘nanda’ in the middle), ‘dynamic businessman & self-made entrepreneur’ (as per his profile on Bloomberg), stevedoring king and the don of Paradip who built up an empire estimated to be worth over Rs 10, 000 crores in the last four decades, the man supposed to be the ‘richest Odia’ would have been arrested long back. And one is not even talking of the murder of Seaways Shipping & Logistics Limited (SSLL) General Manager Mahendra Swain on October 26 this year.
It was not the first murder case in which Mishra has been implicated. The earliest one in police records dates back to May, 1998 when he was named in the murder of trade union leader Bichitrananda Mallick. His name also cropped up in the murder of one Arun Bhatt in Cuttack in 2013. In between, there was an attempt to murder case in Talcher colliery which, like the murder of Mahendra Swain, was a supari affair over a contract dispute. Then there were numerous less heinous cases, the earliest of them being a kidnapping case in 1995. If the law enforcement agencies had done their job honestly, he would have been arrested in each of these cases and would, in all probability, be serving a sentence in jail. Instead, the only time one can recall he was arrested was at the Bhubaneswar airport a few years ago for possession of what later turned out to be licensed weapon!
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No wonder DGP KB Singh was palpably defensive when asked why Mishra had not been arrested earlier. “I cannot tell about the past. There is no pressure on me or Odisha Police,” he said rather evasively at the press conference he addressed after the arrest of Mishra and his close associate Basanta Kumar Bal in Bangkok on Sunday, the second part of the answer unwittingly suggesting that there may have been ‘pressure’ in the past.
Judging by the whisper campaign launched by a section to invoke Odia pride by attributing his arrest to ‘a conspiracy by the non-Odia lobby’, it appears that he has powerful backers even now. [It is perhaps a symbol of our times that we have no one better than a habitual law-breaker to hang our ‘Odia pride’ on!] But it is unlikely that Odisha Police allowed him to roam free all these years despite the grave charges against him because of ‘Odia pride’. The more plausible reason is that the police under all governments, including the present one, were too much in awe of him because of his clout and powerful links to even think about laying their hands on him. His ‘reputation’ (if it can be called that) always preceded him. Stories about his ostentatious lifestyle and tendency to splurge on something that catches his fascination helped build the mystique about him and are now part of folklore. One particularly juicy one from the early 1980s goes something like this. On finding that the hotel on Link Road he had chosen did not have enough rooms to accommodate all his guests coming from outside the state on a chartered aircraft for his son’s thread ceremony, Mishra reportedly bought off the entire hotel for Rs 55 lakhs!
By now, it is obvious that the Don built his empire – with stevedoring at the core but with significant presence in diverse sectors like hospitality, education, mining, automobile dealership and chartered aviation - through a mixture of entrepreneurial skill, clever manipulation of the administration and police and plain muscle power. He lorded over all cargo loading and unloading operations at Paradip Port, among the busiest deep sea ports in the country since the 1980s till his monopoly was challenged by the Hyderabad based Seaways Shipping, allegedly with the backing of powerful Andhra politicians, including Union minister M Venkaiah Naidu, and Union Surface Transport minister Nitin Gadkari last year.
Things apparently came to head when Paradip Port Trust (PPT) authorities brushed aside objections from Odisha Stevedores Limited (OSL) and the Paradip Port Stevedores Association, a body of 37 stevedoring firms – both headed by Mahima Mishra – and allowed Seaways Shipping to operate in the port. According to DGP KB Singh, the plan to murder Mahendra Swain was first contemplated in September last year after Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL) cancelled it stevedoring contract with OSL and signed a fresh one with a consortium of three companies led by Seaways, but was abandoned after the PPT authorities backed off in the face of a 10-day strike engineered by Mishra through the association he headed - and generous support from Arindam ‘’Bapi’ Sarkhel, who has a virtual monopoly of the labour supply at the port - that saw cargo operations come to a grinding halt for 10 days. Realising that it was tough to take on Mishra in his den, Seaways took the lead in forming a rival association consisting of nine firms, including Orissa Motors Private Limited, called Utkal Stevedores Association.
The tipping point allegedly came when Seaways bagged a two-year contract from public sector giant Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) to handle 8 lakh tonnes of limestone imports at Paradip, offering a much lower price than OSL – Rs 103 per tonne as against Rs 143 quoted by OSL – this October. Apprehensive that his power to determine stevedoring rates at his own sweet will was now under serious threat, Mishra reportedly revived his plan to bump off Swain, who he saw as the man behind his troubles, from the cold storage and hired Rakesh Choubey, his long-time associate, for the supari job.
Mishra’s arrest at long last has certainly reaffirmed the faith of the people in the ‘long arm of the law’. But before patting itself on the back for getting him arrested, Odisha Police owes an explanation as to how he managed to slip out of the state and then the country in the first place? At a more fundamental level, it also needs to explain how he continued roaming free all these years despite serious charges against him (which the DGP now says will be investigated afresh)?