Illegal transportation of black diamond

Too lucrative to resist

By Albert Thyrniang

The BJP seems to have found new zest in uncovering corruption in the state. First, it exposed the multi crore scams in the three ADCs causing a major embarrassment to the NPP, the leader in the MDA government. The saffron party has now pounded on the latest revelation of the alleged involvement of James Sangma, brother of Chief Minister, Conrad Sangma and Power minister, in the racket of illegal transportation of coal. Allegations levelled at the former Home Minister were ‘confirmed’ by Assam police when truckloads of coal were detained in the neighbouring state and arrests made, thereby forcing names to crop up in the process.

Claiming to have “Zero” tolerance against corruption the party that is yet to take roots in the state has demanded the immediate arrest of the elder Sangma, if he is involved in  illegal activities. Attempting to sell its heroic and proactive role the BJP informed that it had raised the flag of corruption in the coalition’s forum. Dissatisfied with the Government’s repeated denial, the BJP protested against its own government and accused Home Minister, Lakmen Rymbui of shielding the tainted, while threatening that the faith in the NPP-led MDA Government is fast evaporating. The matter could reach the PMO. The chasm between the party with two MLAs and the largest partner in the coalition appears to be widening.

The BJP’s target of its close ally is to be read deeper. It is unlikely that the Meghalaya unit of the party acted on its own accord. It must have received the green signal from the higher ups in Delhi. The ‘High Command’ might be in possession of credible feedback that corruption is rampant first in the ADCs and then in the blatant violation of the Supreme Court’s ban on coal mining in the state. To preserve its ‘clean image’ (though it has to be taken with a pitch of salt as many graft accused politicians from other parties have joined the BJP perceivably to be let off the hook), the BJP top leadership has given the green signal to highlight corruption in the NPP. So far the right noises have been made. It needs to be seen whether the BJP will relentlessly pursue the agenda and take it to its logical conclusion. We need to wait and watch whether the party which is viewed as anti-Christians for its right wing policies is accepted as the alternative to the decrepit Congress and the disenchanted NPP.

The NPP- led MDA coalition began its tenure with much promise. It’s catchy slogan of change, its pledge for good governance, its assertion for better roads, better health, better education have now fallen flat and far short of expectations. A report card has little to cheer about. Even if there are achievements to be claimed, corruption allegations will overshadow everything else. Coronavirus might have derailed some plans but without the disease too illegal shipping and the racketeering by alleged ‘beneficiaries’ would have come to light anyway. Illegality cannot go unnoticed interminably.

The Chief Minister must be at a loss. He has gone the extra mile in befriending the BJP, ignoring accusations of his cosiness with the ‘communal’ party thus sacrificing his party’s secular credentials. Now the BJP is a thorn in his side. He cannot take any action against his ‘tiny’ ally. He cannot throw the BJP minister out of the alliance. The BJP may boast of only two legislators in this North Eastern corner but it is the most powerful in the centre. If Conrad challenges the BJP unit here harder obstacles will be thrown in quite mercilessly. Conrad Sangma is caught between the devil and the deep sea. Hence if the BJP is sincere in its efforts it has unlimited power to derail the NPP on corruption charges.

The government’s apathetic attitude towards corruption is clear from the fact that it challenged in the High Court the Lokayukta’s order for a CBI inquiry into the allegations of interstate smuggling of coal to beyond the country’s borders, to Bangladesh. Even now the Chief Minister is in denial mode; he defends his older sibling who was earlier removed from the Home Ministry precisely on the same issue and dismisses the demand for a CBI probe. Sore but helpless the Lokayukta can only accuse the state government of indulging in dilatory tactics to escape the law. If the government is clean why oppose the investigation directed by anti-corruption ombudsman? The least it could have done was to cooperate with the watchdog.

The ban on coal mining in April 2014, during the Congress rule was a huge issue in the February 2018 Assembly elections. Wooing coal miners BJP and NPP promised to lift the ban if power was handed to them. The BJP even included the assurance in its manifesto called ‘Vision Document’. ‘The party will promote mining of mineral resources with a sense of responsibility towards the protection of the environment and regeneration of forests’, states the manifesto among other gargantuan promises. Knowing fully well that lifting of the ban depended entirely on the Apex Court and not political decisions, the BJP too is guilty of giving false promises to woo voters. With legal mining nowhere in sight, illegal activities are the alternative. Are makers of flashy manifestos not responsible then?

Likewise the NPP chief, Conrad Sangma too enthusiastically pledged to resume coal mining if his party was voted to power. On campaign trails he repeatedly accused his predecessor of snatching away the livelihoods of people. When eventually the dream of forming a government was fulfilled, the MDA could do nothing to persuade the NGT to withdraw the ban without a stringent mining policy that can ensure high safety standards and minimum environmental effects. Having failed to convince the NGT to reverse its judgment the only alternative is to clandestinely permit illegal mining and transportation of coal to its destinations in Assam and Bangladesh. The black diamond trade is too lucrative to resist for ministers, politicians, bureaucrats and the numerous racketeers, to care about the illegality.

That illegal transportation of coal had to be busted by the Assam police in their territory is a slap in the face of the Home Minster of Meghalaya and our cops. The plying of hundreds of coal trucks has carried on unabated despite the blanket embargo imposed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2014. The following year a Sub Inspector was suspiciously killed by coal mafia after the police officer detained coal laden trucks in Patharkhmah, Ri-Bhoi District. Two activists were almost fatally attacked by the mining mafia in November 2018 in East Jaintia Hills while on a visit to gather evidence of illegal mining in the coal rich district. The same year the tribunal had to levy a fine of Rs 100 crores on Meghalaya for violation of its order.

Hence it is not as if illegal mining and transportation of coal is unknown. The police must be either benefitting from the clandestine, profitable business or they are told to close their eyes by the political bosses. Otherwise how do these trucks pass through the national highways and outposts? The operation ‘via Whatsapp’ must be true.

That the clamour for ending illegal coal racketeering in the state is getting louder is misleading. In reality, except for Civil Society Women’s Organisation (CSWO) which has been spearheading the movement against illegal coal mining and transportation of coal, no other NGO has demanded a CBI inquiry into the matter or expressed concern on this illegal activity. Ideally there should have been competition in demanding stern actions against the culprits but this has not happened. The otherwise noisy pressure groups have kept their mouths completely shut. Their expected silence is however noted. These groups too gain from the coal mining and transportation. Truckers pay to them at certain locations. Trucks stop at fixed sites where waiting volunteers signal the drivers and handymen. They get a share of the pie. They don’t care about the environment. Perhaps, uranium mining in South West Khasi Hills is being opposed because no pressure group profits from the yellow cake’s exploration.

In opposing uranium mining, NGOs turn experts and propagate an alarming narrative. The unscientific and dehumanising rat-hole mining of coal might cause more harm to the environment, water bodies, human beings and other living organisms than scientific and safe extract of uranium. Does this opposition come down to financial considerations?

It is anticipated that the media focus on this nefarious activity will remain for a while. The government is unwilling to take decisive action. The Opposition too has not come down heavily on the government. NGOs are indifferent. Will the unlawful lucrative commerce continue to thrive at the cost of the state and its people? Will the minister, who has his own brother as CM go ‘unscrutinized’?

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