Nitte Santosh Hegde caused a stir when he quit as the Lokayukta, or Ombudsman, of Karnataka in late June, over the state government’s inability to tackle the corrupt and powerful mining mafia. The uproar snowballed into a major national political issue when barely two weeks later, on July 3, he withdrew his resignation. In a long, candid interview with Nandini Krishnan, the former justice of the Supreme Court explains why he did what he did.
Here’s part I:
You’re well-known for the anti-corruption investigations you’ve carried out. Within months of your appointment, you recommended that then-Chief Minister Kumaraswamy sack two ministers. Is it frustrating when your reports are not acted on?
I think it’s natural, isn’t it, when a person tries to do something honestly, but his efforts to not go to the legitimate end or reach the goal. Somebody is bound to be frustrated. I was frustrated, time and again, until ultimately after four years, a cumulating series of such frustrations made me decide to quit. But the flash point was not that decision; it was something that happened with an officer in Bilikere. I would have resigned sometime in September (2010), but it got advanced because I thought if I don’t resign now, there is no point in continuing.
A lot has been written about this case, involving Deputy Conservator of Forests, R Gokul and the minister, Krishna Palemar. What was it that left you so jaded you decided to resign?
It’s a chain of events. In February, we received a complaint from a lawyer from Kerala, saying a huge convoy of vehicles was landing near Bilikere port, possibly illegally transporting iron ore. I sent a team to do a recce. Following investigation, we found that a huge quantity of iron ore had already been taken away and that it may be in Bilikere and Karwar ports.
The Deputy Conservator of Forests for Karwar, Mr. R Gokul, was sent to inspect that. He found there were 8.5 lakh metric tonnes, which we seized. When it was subjudice, the ports minister Krishna Palemar went to the military port, which should not happen. He called Gokul to have a chat with him, and then wrote to the Chief Secretary, sending a copy of the letter to the Chief Minister, that he suspected Gokul of involvement in the illegal transportation.
That was on June 21. I told you I had already decided to quit in September. This was the last straw on my back at least, if not the camel’s, and it triggered my decision to quit immediately. If I had not quit, and if Gokul was kept in suspension for one day or even one hour, they could have appointed another person to look into it, and then God knows what could have happened with the investigation.
Where do you think all this material is disappearing? Who is importing it, with no records being maintained?
Your guess is as good as my guess, and the other way round. It’s not disappearing; it’s going in ships, from the Indian ports to China mostly, and partly to Korea and Japan probably, where the market is very big. And it’s not that they don’t have iron ore stock. It’s just that they have statesmen in spite of their political system, and they want to preserve it for posterity. And we don’t think we have such statesmen.
When B S Yeddyurappa told Assembly 3.64 metric tonnes had been exported illegally, he also promised to examine all records going back ten years.
Yes, he has promised to hold an exhaustive inquiry. He has said “my police force is capable of doing it; the Lokayukta of Karnataka is capable of doing it; we will get it done”. He will get it done, he doesn’t want the CBI involved. Fair enough. If they want us to do it, we have some experience in the field. I’m confident that if it is given to us, we’ll do it, provided they give us the necessary staff and certain other infrastructural support.
But given that no records have been maintained of even this transaction, which you prepared a report on, do you think it’s possible to find out exactly how much has been lost?
No, I don’t think that difficulty arises because we have taken possession of a large number of documents from the Mines and Minerals department. We are in the process of obtaining documents about exports from at least one or two ports. Now, it is easy to find out what is the permissible quantity that has gone. And it is also easy to find out how much in reality has gone out. The difference gives you how much has gone out without permission. The cost may vary. But the documents were seized in March, when the topic wasn’t hot, so we have no reason to believe they were tampered with.
You submitted an elaborate report on illegal mining in Bellary to the Karnataka government on December 18, 2008. Did that report mention the Reddy brothers?
No. I haven’t mentioned their names anywhere. I wrote in general about illegal mining in the districts of Bellary, Chitradurga and Tumkur. I have identified that there are ninety-nine legitimate mines in Bellary, and about seventy mines in Chitradurga and Tumkur, out of which about twenty to twenty-five percent have become defunct. Earlier, I’d written about irregularities and how they take place, right from when the mining lease is granted, when mining takes place, how the forest areas that have been trespassed, as well as revenue areas and patta land, about the modus operandi of export, details of the damage to the state exchequer, the environment, the health of the people, the various socio-economic activities that have come to a standstill and many other things, with certain suggestions, which may sound drastic in commercial language.
What were these drastic suggestions?
I have said stop export. Don’t export anything. Anyway, you don’t economically gain anything. The gain goes to the exporter. At that point of time, the Government of Karnataka got 27 for the best quality of ore, and 17 for the not-so-good quality, when the same was sold for 6000 to 7000 rupees in the foreign market. And the consumers in India were far and few. So I suggested that you should allow what is called captive mining concept. Give it to the person who converts it only to value-added products and not for clearing. He gives out only as much as he can consume. He will not take more than that. And that is the concept of preserving it for posterity.
Did you receive an ATR? A newspaper report quoted you saying a committee had sent you an “action-to-be-taken report” not an Action Taken Report.
Yes, I did say so. On Saturday morning, I read that the government claimed they’ve sent a report to the Lokayukta, and he has not replied. But I found there was nothing to reply to, because they have not taken any steps at all. They’ve written saying that in some 59 cases, they’ve filed FIRs against the person concerned. But mining activity is still going on, under the orders of the court. That is not an achievement I’m very proud of. Nothing has been stopped. The figures which I gave you are all figures I gave you with respect to illegal mining, so that tells you how much is going on.
You were so tired of fighting against the system that you quit in disgust. What made you come back?
I have already made a statement, and it has become rather controversial, I think? (laughs)
Well, you did say you decided to withdraw your resignation because “the former future Prime Minister” had requested you to and then you apologised because the JD(S) took offence.
You think he’ll become a Prime Minister in future? (laughs). Well, anyway, right before speaking to you, I was watching a local channel, which says he conveyed his gratitude to me for accepting his advice. He’s still hopeful that the state government would accede to all my requests. So my judgment as a person seems to be okay as far as I’m concerned! (laughs)
But there was quite a backlash over that statement of yours.
Yes. And I wouldn’t say it is unjustified. A large number of people from Karnataka stood by me. The media stood by me. And the same went in Delhi – I don’t know for what reason, but Delhi took it up as a cause to fight. So suddenly, I went All India in terms of focus. But the immediate impact was…like the last straw there was Gokul, here it was Mr. Advani. I can’t forget what was going on earlier. Others had supported me, so I guess my decision to withdraw my resignation had been made earlier, but what he said pushed me to it.
When you resigned, a Kannada TV channel reported that you had resigned because of a contempt notice against you. You threatened to sue them for defamation. Are you planning to?
I tried to sued them, but they are so (laughs)…well, there were some youngsters there who came to me, and I don’t want to use the word ‘beg’, but they told me “sir, our job is at stake, sir” and so I went to the channel, for a phone-in interview with the public. But everyone knows that was a totally false allegation. This has become one of the mannerisms of media, really. “As first reported in so and so”, “As first printed in so and so newspaper”, “As first told by so and so”…why this thing? This is so disgusting! (laughs) See, I wrote in three papers, regarding three former judges who are not with us anymore. One was regarding good governance, second was on what is left of democracy in India and a third was on ‘Judiciary then, and Judiciary now’. I came down very heavily on the judiciary. I call it the ‘greed over need’ concept. Even the media has come in for a lot of criticism over the news-for-sale ideology.
We know what you think of the media now. What is your opinion of politicians in general? I realise it will be a sweeping statement…
No, I can tell you. In the present situation, I have no faith in them. Take what transpired before I took back my resignation. The All India President of the ruling party in the state, Nitin Gadkari, made a promise in front of the Home Minister, the Chief Minister, the Advocate General, saying “all your demands will be met.” What was my demand? I didn’t ask for a new car. I didn’t ask for another place. I didn’t say, “give me an extension, I’m retiring next year.” No, I want to run away! (laughs) It was entirely: give me the power my Upa Lokayukta has. They all go on about sarva adhikara, sarva adhikara. These are all dictatorial powers. Asking for a power which is available to the Upa Lokayukta, does it amount to demanding sarva adhikara?
And look at the way it’s being used and misused! I went for the recording of a programme to DD, and Nirmala Venkatraman or someone who is the new spokesperson for the BJP and BK Hariprasad, who is a Congress spokesperson, both of them agreed when they said ‘how can we give such powers to one person? Does the Constitution allow for this? He is asking for all sorts of powers which even the government doesn’t have.’
Who has ever asked for such powers except the persons who are screaming that I have asked? Let them show some statement or some letter which I have written which asks for this. What nonsense is this! These are all trying to divert the attention of the people. I have received some emails saying “how can you ask for such powers?” But what are the powers that I have asked for? I’ve never asked for the power to convict anybody; that power rests with the court.
The powers they were referring to is that both you and your predecessor, N Venkatachala, have been asking to initiate probes into corrupt officers on your own rather than wait for a complaint, isn’t it?
Yeah. And why do they object to this? As an ordinary citizen, are you protected against this power? In democracy, you are part of the people, and they are your servants, public servants. You can be investigated by the police, or within the police, the CID or CCB. You can be investigated by the CBI or IB. They don’t have to seek anybody’s permission to investigate you. If you feel harassed, and if you feel their power is being misused, what is your remedy? You go to court. If you have to, why can’t they? In what way are they superior to you, me and others?
The government has also been pushing for legislation that will allow you to investigate members of the bureaucracy, but not politicians.
That is now the ultimate thing. That is okay by me, because beggars are not choosers. I can’t say see, he promised me everything, but I got only this, I’m going to quit. I’m not going to make a tamasha of this resignation. As it is, it could be termed a resignation drama. I want somebody in the government to tell me “see Hegde, enough is enough, you please go.” Which they can’t do, they’ll have to impeach me, without two-thirds majority in both the houses, for proven misconduct.
Aside from investigating people whom you have reason to believe are corrupt, without waiting for a complaint, what other powers do you think the Lokayukta should have?
My first and major request is give me the power the Upa Lokayukta has. No one is claiming the Upa Lokayukta who has had these powers from 1986 has misused it. Why are you pointing fingers at some people?
Perhaps the reason for all those protests when you resigned, the outcry across the country, was that finally, we’re seeing someone who’s willing to fight the system.
I am, I am.
For Lokayukta Santosh Hegde’s take on politics, politicians and his dreams of a true democracy, wait for Part II of the interview!
Nitte Santosh Hegde was born on June 16th, 1940 according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitte_Santosh_Hegde
using the number/letter grid:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
A B C D E F G H I
J K L M N O P Q R
S T U V W X Y Z
A = 1 J = 1 S = 1
B = 2 K = 2 T = 2
C = 3 L = 3 U = 3
D = 4 M = 4 V = 4
E = 5 N = 5 W = 5
F = 6 O = 6 X = 6
G = 7 P = 7 Y = 7
H = 8 Q = 8 Z = 8
I = 9 R = 9
Nitte Santosh Hegde
his true character = NS = 51 = Truth. Honesty. Honor. Respect. Integrity. Character. Reputation. Credentials. Veracity. Virtue. Ethics. Morals. Honor. Dignity. Decency.
6 + 16 +2+0+1+0 = 25 = his personal year (from June 16th, 2010 to June 15th, 2011)
25 year + 6 (June) = 31 = his personal month (from June 16th, 2010 to July 15th, 2010) = Controversy. Scandal. Stirring things up. Provoking a reaction.