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OUT OF THE WOODS NO MORE

NAIK TRIVIA
Surupsinh Naik also makes news when:

• Autorickshaw drivers meet him for extending a deadline for converting diesel tanks to LPG

• Ministers, including Naik, jostle for bigger cabins in the secretariat

• Gives a go-ahead to compulsory wearing of helmets.

It is said of Surupsinh Naik that he is so still that he can easily be mistaken for a wall. If the Supreme Court of India hadn’t hauled him up for contempt of court, Naik would, perhaps, have remained as inconspicuous as a wall. But an unprecedented jail term for the Congress transport minister in Maharashtra has brought him out of the shadows ' making him stand out like a mural on the wall.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court sentenced Naik and an IAS officer, Ashok Khot, to a month in prison for willful disobedience of directions issued by the court. But in Mumbai’s political circles, people who know of Naik are not content with the sentence. “The gravity of the damage that he has inflicted on mother nature does not match the punishment,” says one critic.

Naik is many things to many people ' but environmentalists will remember him as the man who denuded the forests of Maharashtra. For it was Naik who held the environment, tribal development and forest portfolios when the once-beautiful Satpuda mountain ranges flanking Maharashtra near the Gujarat border were stripped off their green cover.

This is not the first time that Naik has found himself in the eye of a storm. In the early Nineties, several truckloads of teak wood were confiscated by government authorities when they were being smuggled out of the state near Sagbara in the Maharashtra-Gujarat border, close to Navapur, from where Naik hails.

The smuggler was caught, and it was widely believed that he was close to Naik, even if this wasn’t true.

Naik, in fact, has strong backers in the party ' which would explain why a politician with only a small base in his own taluka has been a minister for 22 years. It is believed that he was close to Indira Gandhi. And Naik has old ties with Congressmen M.L. Fotedar and Yogendra Makwana.

Naik has always been a loyal Congressman. Even during the emergency, when all of Maharashtra’s Congressmen deserted Indira Gandhi, he, along with Vijay Naval Patil, continued to be with her. Not surprisingly, when Sonia Gandhi decided to hold her first rally in Maharashtra in 1998, she zeroed in on his region. Naik organised a massive rally, which was attended by some seven lakh tribals from all over the state.

Yet, despite ' or, perhaps, because of ' his connections with the party high command, Naik’s detractors have always been busy. They point out that on another occasion, his name cropped up in a Rs 65-crore scam when money earmarked for tribal development was siphoned off from the Dhule Zilla Parishad by a clerk in the minor irrigation department. The clerk, Bhaskar Wagh, is now in jail.

Those days, Navapur came under the Dhule district. Now it falls under Nandurbar, a border district of Maharashtra that’s close to both Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. The location is significant, for the place was once a dense forest.

Naik is a tribal, like 64 per cent of the people of Nandurbar. Once, money lenders ruled the region, wreaking havoc on the tribals. After Indira Gandhi abolished the privy purse, the local princely states lost power and the money-lenders their business. And since then, the tribal community has been beholden to the Gandhi clan ' one of the reasons the Congress has never lost from Nandurbar.

Surupsinh Naik came from Navagaon in Navapur taluka, a region close to Surat in Gujarat. He started out as a village sarpanch in the Sixties. Today, he owns hundreds of acres of fertile land and is known to be a resourceful farmer. Such is his clout that when the bird flu hit Navapur taluka, Naik’s chicken farms were initially left untouched.

Naik would have continued comfortably with his farm and his ministry had it not been for the Supreme Court. He and Khot were sentenced for giving a licence for the operation of six saw mills in 2004, despite a ban. When the licence was granted for operating the wood-based units, Naik was environment and forest minister and Khot, principal secretary in the ministry.

In 1997, the court directed the closure of all unlicenced saw mills in Maharashtra. In 2002, it reaffirmed the order stating that saw mills could not operate within a 10-kilometre radius of a forest. But in 2004, when the central government’s ministry of environment and forest conducted a surprise raid, they found six saw mills in operation near the picturesque Tansa sanctuary in Thane, Maharashtra.

Naik’s supporters, however, believe that he has unfairly been dragged into the controversy. Chandrakant Raghuvanshi, a member of the state legislative council from Nadurbar and one of his supporters, holds that bureaucrats’ doings have been the undoing of Naik. He says, “Our leader got caught in the current controversy because he does not know English. His English is limited to a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’.”

But in Navapur, there is not much disquiet. And that’s not surprising, for even on the issue of displacement of villagers affected by the Sardar Sarovar project, little has been heard from the region ' despite the fact that the 33 villages being submerged because of the dam fall in Nandurbar district. But the region is a backward, tribal area, and there is nobody to speak up for the people.

The tribals in his area are in trouble. The government recently reserved their ancestral land as forest area and in effect deemed them encroachers. But Surupsinh Naik has never seen himself as a tribal leader or a spokesperson for the people. Says Ijaz Sheikh, BJP’s vice-president from the area, “He has only earned for his family. He has not done anything for his electorate.”

Naik, however, did start a sugar co-operative in his area. But he is not a man who flaunts his wealth. One of his sons is in politics, but there is little else that the family is known for. And that’s how the Naiks would have remained ' had it not been for the Supreme Court. For once, the wall shows signs of cracking.

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