Debabrata Mohanty : Sat Nov 17 2012,
Semi Column

From being a soporific department under which miners had a free run in the state’s ore-rich hinterland, the Orissa Steel and Mines Department has suddenly changed tack and is showing a fresh burst of energy. The biggest example of this was the Rs 76,000-odd crore penalty levied recently on companies for extracting ore in excess of set limits and violating environmental laws over the past 10 years. Last month, the department also ordered that those waiting for their mining lease to be renewed should restrict production to their captive requirement, and that areas which had not been leased out would be given to state-run Orissa Mining Corporation (OMC). To give an idea of the staggering penalty, consider that it would wipe off Orissa’s Rs 40,000 crore debt, allow the state to have a tax-free budget for the next few years and still leave enough to run several populist schemes. What the Naveen Patnaik government also hopes is that the figure would blind everyone to how the mining mess came to this in the first place. It may not just be a coincidence that the penalty was imposed just days before the M B Shah Commission landed in Orissa for the mining probe. Activists seeking a CBI inquiry say the government has deliberately left loopholes in the penalty order to let the violators go scotfree. For example, they point out, it hasn’t cancelled the lease of miners who violated their lease conditions, which it could have done, and instead levied fines, which it may not have the authority to do under environment laws. Besides, the government is silent on the role played by officials of the Orissa Pollution Control Board, the deputy directors of mines, Indian Bureau of Mines and Forest and Environment Department in the excess mining. The decision to let Orissa Mining Corporation become the default miner may not be a good idea either as the corporation is barely able to run three of its 35 mines, and is itself accused of illegal mining worth over Rs 2,000 crore. Over the past three years, mining has become a major source of revenue for the state, earning it Rs 4,517 crore last year alone. It’s time Orissa treated this asset as an asset.   Debabrata is a special correspondent based in Bhubaneswar debabrata.mohanty@expressindia.com