More Sinned Against Than Sinning?

My heart goes out to the ‘poor’ mine owners. Pointing a gun to their heads, they are being asked to pay fines worth thousands of crores and that too before the year is out. Even the 102 mines that remain closed for years are not being spared. As if that was not bad enough, the government is threatening to cancel their leases if they fail to pay up. How heartless can the system get?

True, each of these companies made thousands of crores in excess – not illegal, mind you – mining. But that was all in the distant past. Why doesn’t the government – and the Supreme Court, by extension – understand that they have been pauperized since mining operations came to an abrupt halt in 2010-11? Do they think the windfall profits they earned during the steel boom in the first decade of the millennium are all neatly stacked up in the now ‘demonetized’ currency notes of Rs. 500 and Rs 1000 denomination to be blown away on paying fines? They have all been invested in other businesses or stashed away in overseas accounts, tax havens abroad or round-tripped back to the country to start new businesses or expand existing ones. Can’t anyone see that it is not possible to retrieve the money anymore?

In any case, what crime have they done to deserve this harsh punishment? As the learned counsel Pinaki Mishra argued so eloquently on TV, they have paid royalty for each ounce of iron ore they extracted and were duly issued transit permits (TPs) by the concerned authorities to transport each consignment of the mineral. So, logic demands that if anyone needs to be punished/fined, it has to be the government which collected the royalty and the officials who issued the TPs. Once mining starts, is it possible to keep track of how much ore is mined or if the mining strays beyond the leased area? If they exceeded their extraction limits – sometime by as much as 10, 000 times – was it not the job of the concerned officials to keep track of it? What can be more ironical than the fact the government, the real culprit which should have been punished/fined for not doing its job and looking the other way instead, has imposed fines amounting to a whopping Rs 58, 000 crores instead?

And how unreasonable it was of the honourable Supreme Court – on which they had pinned their hopes after the learned Pinaki Mishra assured them that the state government would not get a ‘paisa’ and the case would be the ‘thrown out’ in the first hearing itself – to uphold the state government’s decision and order payment of 100% fines by December, 31? Thank god, at least the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the apex court was more reasonable and whittled down the amount to Rs 17, 576 crores which, though still high, was a welcome comedown. Even this did not go down well with the Opposition, the anti-development brigade and the jholawala types, who alleged ‘fine fixing’. When the fines were imposed in 2012, they were unperturbed because they had been assured by the ‘right quarters’ that it was just an eyewash to divert attention away from the state government’s own acts of omission and commission at a time when the Justice MB Shah Commission was breathing down its neck. Now the government is washing its hands off saying it did not know events would take such a course. How ungrateful! The top guns of the government rolled in money to facilitate the loot and are now masquerading as paragons of virtue. Is it not a complete breach of trust?

The least the mining companies deserve is an extension of the deadline to pay fines – indefinitely, if possible and by a year at the very least – that would enable them to file a fresh review petition expressing their inability to pay. If nothing else, their plea to pay the fines in instalments should be accepted or they would stare at bankruptcy. If none of this happens and the state government goes ahead with its threat of cancelling the leases, it would be nothing short of disaster and may well bring the companies to their knees and force them to beg on the streets! Those who are baying for the blood of these companies – the virtual Who’s Who of the Indian mining industry, including our very own state-owned Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) – do not realize that there would be no one left to bid when they are finally auctioned. And the damage that it would cause to our credibility as a business destination and our position in the ‘ease of doing business’ would be irreparable – not to speak of the impact on the mine workers.

What use are minerals if they remain buried under the earth? If anything, the mining companies should be complimented for bringing it overground, enriching not just themselves – but many others: the state government (in terms of royalty), politicians and officials (in bribes), transporters (by earning 10 times more than they would normally earn), labourers and several others. So why are the mining companies being singled out for punishment? Is it not a case of being ‘more sinned against than sinning’ all over again?

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