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Friday, February 18, 2011

In India mafias flourish and eliminate the honest

The other day something very unusual happened in the state of Maharashtra. Almost all its officers, numbering around 150,000 went on a day’s strike. They were protesting against killing of Additional District Magistrate of Nashik, Yeshwant Sonwane. Sonwane, an uncommonly upright and courageous district officer, was burnt to death by members of the oil mafia when he caught them on camera pilfering kerosene from a tanker. The protest was organised under the aegis of the Maharshtra Gazetted Officers’ Mahasangh. Its President said that the Mahasangh’s members were not really on a strike but were “shunning work” to protest against the gruesome act which had shaken the employees.

This was neither here nor there as, given the current ethical standards of government employees, many of them are corrupt and may even be in league with or are in the payrolls of several mafias for whom the state has been a happy hunting ground. This is further corroborated by the fact that Sonwane was building a case against one Popat Shinde, who has since died of third-degree burns and was the main accused in Sonwane’s killing. Sticking his neck out, Sonwane had conducted raids on Shinde’s dhaba (roadside eatery) – not an eatery, in fact, but a site for pilfering oil from tankers – earlier in 2010 and had seized 4000 litres of kerosene and 3000 litres of petrol. He had filed a report in this regard and had asked the Police to seal the seized oil and take action against Shinde under Essential Services Maintenance Act. Nothing was, however, done and Shinde was merrily roaming around free, indulging in his illegal business until he got severely singed while attempting to burn Sonwane alive. Obviously, he had friends in the government in the departments concerned, including the Police and, maybe, even in the political establishment. Reportedly, as many as six First Information Reports lodged with the Police and an “externment” order issued against him were never acted upon The indignation of most of the officers “shunning work” was, therefore, either out of sheer shock or totally spurious.

Further proof in this regard came soon after Sonwane’s death in the shape of a crack-down on the oil, land, milk and sand-mining Mafiosi by the government. All these mafias seem to have been having a free run of the state and, apparently, the state government had knowledge of them. More than 200 locations were raided in several districts of the state and as many as 170 were held. Until now, it seems, the government was a mute witness and the Mafias operated with considerable freedom to make money, cheat the government and the people. The new chief minister, chastened after the brutal killing of Sonwane, has assured the staff and their unions that security will be provided to those who do risky jobs. What, however, is needed immediately is to improve governance and ruthlessly eliminate the mafias who have become bold enough to even kill those who interfere with their nefarious activities. Simultaneously, severe action is necessary against those in the government, including politicians, who assist the mafias or are in league with them.

Sonwane’s sacrifice was extolled by the Indian Petroleum Minister as “heroic”, which, in fact, meant nothing. Sonwane was the second honest and courageous man who was audaciously killed by those who live by adulterating petroleum products. In November 2005 Shanmugam Manjunath, a much younger man, a management graduate to boot, was severely beaten up and riddled with bullets by a petrol-pump owner. A product of Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Lucknow, Manjunath was a popular student and was known for his sincerity and integrity. He had joined Indian Oil Corporation as a manager at Lucknow soon after he graduated out of the Institute in 2003. A no-nonsense and honest-to-the-core young manager – a rarity in these days of corrupted values – he had ordered closure of two IOC petrol pumps in Lakhimpur in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh (UP) for selling adulterated fuel. When he ordered closure of the third he was mercilessly beaten up and then shot. His body was found forced into the backseat of his small car. The culprits were nabbed but would not have been brought to justice had it not been for his friends in the IIM. Their efforts, in view of the government’s utter inaction, ensured a quick trial which was completed in nine months – uncommon in the annals of Indian judicial proceedings. All the accused were sentenced to life imprisonment. Strangely, while his friends and colleagues treated Manjunath as a martyr the Government of India remained a detached spectator. Afraid of the violent mafia of that region, Manjunath’s own company failed to take any action to provide security to its honest employees. The UP government made some noises but their action soon petered out.

Apart from sporadic attempts to check adulteration of petroleum products nothing much has been done over the years by the government or its agencies. That adulteration has been promoted by the skewed prices of petrol, diesel and their adulterants spawning mafias all across the country has been common knowledge for long. Despite knowledgeable circles’ repeated indictment of the pricing and taxation policies of petro-products and subsidies attached to the sale of adulterants, the governments at the centre never reacted positively. Outlook India published in April 2005, six months before Manjunath was brutally gunned down, an interview with KLN Sastri, Executive Director of the Oil Coordination Committee (OCC), the country’s top oil policy body, in which he mentioned that in the 1980s the “range and availability” of adulterants was around 10% but in the late ‘90s the same had climbed up to 40 to 45%. Around the same time Tata Consultancy Services came out with an astounding disclosure that 40 to 45% of subsidised kerosene channellised through Public Distribution System was being diverted for adulteration causing a loss of 5000 crores (Rs.500 billion) of subsidy. At current prices, it should be a mindboggling sum, not counting the increase in percentage of PDS kerosene being diverted due to further fall in ethical standards as also of governance. The fact remains, despite the exposures the governments at the Centre and in the states did nothing and an honest young life was lost.

According to Sastri, all major oil PSUs, including Gas Authority of India and Oil and Natural Gas Commission, “played no mean part, more often knowingly, in abetting adulteration”. It seems, under political pressure they were colluding in adulteration of even petrol by naphtha. Besides, when on OCC’s report about a major private player, presumably Reliance Industries limited, releasing super Light Diesel Oil and other products for adulteration, the then conscientious Secretary Petroleum set up an industry group for a thorough investigation, he was promptly moved out. The then minister petroleum from a southern ally of the National Democratic Alliance government, found him inconvenient.

The massive operations of adulteration in which the oil mafias have been involved across the country could not have been possible without the blessings of politicians at different levels. The highly regarded “The Hindu” recently reported that Rs. 25,000 crores (Rs.2500 billion) were paid in bribes in January 2011 by the oil mafia for issue of a government resolution excluding furnace oil tankers from the monitoring system. The report even named two men who paid the bribe to some ministers, including one from the Centre. The furnace oil business in Maharashtra is reported to be of the order of Rs. 100,000 crores (Rs.10000 billion).

The Prime Minister has been talking off and on about the need to eradicate corruption. Recently, he asserted “Corruption strikes at the roots of good governance... It dents our international image and it demeans us before our own people. This is a challenge which has to be faced frontally, boldly and quickly.” This happened to be one of his many statements on this menace during the last few years. Yet, so far, he has not displayed any gumption to meet the menace “frontally” or “boldly”. Strangely, under the rule of an economist of his stature and credentials of integrity mafias flourish and eliminate the honest.
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