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‘Have helped Rout in cash & kind’

Hot seat - BAPI SARKHEL, businessman and trade unionist

There are allegations that no industry can function in Paradip without your support. People have accused of being a criminal, don and tender-fixer.

If I am a criminal, why wasn’t there a police complaint against me all these years? Suddenly I am a don, a tender fixer and what not! It is politicians who have tried to project me as a mafia member. And it is not true that industries need my support to operate.

Legislators, cutting across party lines, had demanded your arrest, calling you a criminal. Even ruling party MLAs from Jagatsinghpur have questioned your antecedents.

There are four stages in a person’s life – struggle, stability, success and significance. Fortunately, I have attained the third stage and now am working to establish my significance in society. I have formed the Paradip-Erasama Industrial Development Council. Politicians and businessmen in the area are only using the local people for their gains. Since I have taken up people’s issues, I have become an eyesore. All of them have united against me.

If you are doing a lot of work for the development of Paradip region. Why is local MLA Damodar Rout opposing you?

After I became popular among the people, Rout began perceiving me as a threat to his political career. Interestingly, he had himself inaugurated my office in Paradip in 2005. I had even arranged several rallies for him, helping him both in cash and kind. However, the situation has changed and Rout sees me as his No.1 enemy now.

Even Rout’s political rivals – Debasish Samantaray and Bishnu Das – have brought forth allegations against you and had demanded your arrest.

They might be rivals but when it comes to me, they have united, for the simple reason that they feel threatened by my popularity. After Rout was removed from the ministry, Samantaray has been dreaming of becoming an MLA from Paradip. But he knows how popular I am among the local people and wants me out of the scene. It all boils down to who controls Paradip.

Do you mean to say that you are a political victim?

Yes. We are a pro-industry outfit. These politicians were aggrieved as they were not encouraged by bureaucrats or by Posco. Naveen Patnaik wants Posco to come up, we also want the same thing. I don’t understand why these small-time politicians of the ruling party are shouting so much.

You were arrested for allegedly rioting at the proposed Posco site in Jagatsinghpur on December 14 last year, which left one dead.

I had nothing to do with it. The incident occurred 1.5km from the Posco site. That day, anti-Posco people had organised a rally in the area. Suddenly, some protesters attacked the labourers of Paradip Parivahan, a company operating at the site for over two decades. The person who was killed in the attack belonged to us. In order to divert the attention of public from the Kujanga fire tragedy, all of them ganged up against me.

Then why did you flee to Raipur after the incident?

Because I was taken aback when a section of media and politicians pointed fingers at me. I didn’t know what to do when the police were on the lookout for me. I needed some time to decide what to do next.

You are known to enjoy a good rapport with Priyabrat Patnaik, who was recently removed as the chief managing director of Odisha Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation and managed to bag the contract for construction of the coastal road project.

It is limited to the fact that he and I both are pro-Posco. It is not like he goes out of his way to support me. I am also not the owner of Paradip Parivahan (it’s an independent entity). All these are rumours have been spread by politicians.

It is alleged that you move around with a posse of Thai bodyguards provided to you by a Mumbai-based security agency.

There is definitely a threat to my life because I have been raising my voice against gangsters and goons in Paradip. There is also a political conspiracy against me. I have hired three security guards from a Mumbai agency. But they are not Thais.

It is said that you bought a team (JSP Sparks) in the first Odisha Premier League to convert your black money into white.

It is not possible to convert black money into white by investing in cricket. I am interested in the game and my objective is to provide a platform to budding cricketers of Jagatsinghpur.

Do you have any political ambitions?

Yes. A top bureaucrat of the state has advised me that I need a political cover to work for people or else politicians will paint me as a mafia member. I have not yet decided which party to join. However, I have respect both for chief minister Naveen Patnaik and the BJD’s Rajya Sabha member Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, although I have never met them.

King of controversy

• A businessman and trade unionist, 38-year-old Bapi Sarkhel was catapulted into the forefront of political turmoil last December following violence at the Posco project area in Jagatsinghpur.
• Hailing from Birmitrapur in Sundergarh district, Sarkhel, a fine arts student, spent his early youth in Rourkela.
• He was employed by various refineries and oil companies in Odisha and Bengal.
• Later, he joined hands with a well-known local trade union leader, who was spearheading the East Coast Oil Refinery Workers Union.
• Soon, the duo turned the outfit into a force to reckon with.
• He also associated himself with truck unions, controlled loading and unloading at Paradip port and started bagging big contracts in the port area.
• Sarkhel then formed the Paradip-Erasama Industrial Development Council.
• The chubby six-footer stirred the controversy cauldron as police got onto his trail in the wake of a violent incident at the Posco project area in which one person was killed. He was arrested on December 23 last year from Raipur, Chhattisgarh and granted bail by Orissa High Court last week.
• The Sarkhel episode cost former bureaucrat Priyabrat Patnaik his plum post as chairman-cum-managing director of the Odisha Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation.
• Sarkhel owns the Jagatsinghpur team — worth Rs 39 lakh — in the Odisha Premier League.

What would you have been had you not been a businessman and trade unionist?

I would have been a painter or an architect. I was studying fine arts at B.K. College of Art and Crafts, Bhubaneswar, but dropped out after two years. The reason was that I had organised a couple of art exhibitions, which received very poor response. In the 1990s, hardly anyone in a city like Bhubaneswar appreciated art. I felt discouraged. In 1993, I entered the construction industry and my first assignment was to build 100 houses for flood-affected people on behalf of Tata Relief Committee. I also worked for petroleum companies and refineries. Later, I formed the Paradip-Erasama Industrial Development Council to work for industrialisation.