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Overnight prosperity clue to industry cash flow to Maoists

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  • Published 12.03.12
The Essar factory in Kirandul, Bastar

Dantewada, March 11: A bidi-smoking petty contractor who suddenly bought two Boleros and a former newspaper hawker who zipped about Chhattisgarh’s jungles in a Toyota may hold the key to a question bugging the custodians of national security.

What the police want to know is: are business houses paying off the Maoists to be able to operate deep inside central India’s mineral-rich guerrilla zones?

Chhattisgarh police say that when contractor B.K. Lala’s bank account suddenly began bulging, they started monitoring it.

Till December 2010, Lala was a little-known, austere man who moved about Kirandul town in Maoist-hit Bastar in slippers. By August 2011, the 51-year-old had bought swank new cars and a tile-making factory in Jagdalpur and thrown a lavish wedding reception for his son.

Even his friends were surprised. “Everyone wondered about the money,” an associate said.

So, officers say, when Lala withdrew Rs 15 lakh from his account on September 9, stuffed the cash into a briefcase and headed to a market in Palnar village, 18km from Kirandul, the police tailed him. He and his alleged Maoist conduit, a 27-year-old tribal named Lingaram Kodopi, were arrested in the market and have been in custody since.

Within a fortnight, the police had also picked up D.V.C.S. Varma, general manager of Essar Steel’s local plant, apparently based on Lala’s interrogation.

Varma secured a bail in January this year. The contractor, Lala, got bail last month.

Last week, nearly six months after Lala and the others were arrested, the special investigation team (SIT) of Chhattisgarh police handling the probe filed a chargesheet against six persons, including Lala, Varma, Kodopi and absconding Maoist commanders Raghu and Vinod.

The SIT, headed by inspector-general (CID) P.N. Tiwari, has charged them with sedition, criminal conspiracy and offences under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Chhattisgarh Special Public Safety Act.

The chargesheet lists the witnesses and Varma’s call details to claim that he was providing Essar’s money to the Maoists through Lala. It says the transactions took place with Varma’s approval, and at the behest of Essar.

The police allege that Essar had given the money to Lala to bribe the Maoists so they wouldn’t again attack the company’s 267km iron-ore slurry pipeline from Kirandul to Visakhapatnam.

Ironically, sources said, the Maoists’ previous and deadliest attack on the pipeline was provoked by the Rs 3 crore Essar pays annually to the Dantewada district administration as part of its corporate social responsibility (CSR). The state government allegedly spent part of the money to build Salwa Judum camps — so, Essar was now eager to placate the rebels.

Now the company may be routing its “CSR” money to the guerrillas, the police allege. Here is where Pawan Dubey and his Toyota come in.

Pawan, who once hawked one of Raipur’s oldest Hindi newspapers, Deshbandhu, and his brother Narendra registered a voluntary organisation in Bastar, the Jai Johar Seva Sangthan, on January 10 last year. The police say the NGO opened its bank account on January 21 and the very next day, Essar deposited Rs 1 crore in the account.

Investigators claim the company paid Jai Johar Rs 9.6 crore in just six months — over and above the Rs 3 crore in CSR funds it handed the Dantewada collector this year. They add that the Dubey brothers were close to Lala.

In a written reply to The Telegraph, Essar has confirmed it “paid Rs 9.6 crore in aggregate on account to Jai Johar for carrying out the agreed corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities”.

Manish Kedia, Essar Group senior vice-president (corporate affairs), wrote that the company had suggested to the collector that all its CSR activities be carried out through the NGO but the request was rejected. “Accordingly, we have continued to carry out CSR activities through the district collector as well as through the NGO.”

The SIT has neither arrested Dubey brothers nor named them in the chargesheet, but it says supplementary chargesheets would be filed and the number of accused might go up.

The investigations into the case are still on, Tiwari, the inspector-general, said.

The police claim Pawan is missing but the man himself, on October 20, told a news conference in Jagdalpur that he was innocent and that his NGO was working for tribal welfare.

He claimed that Rs 4 crore was still lying unspent in the NGO’s account and that Jai Johar had planted five million saplings, worth Rs 5 crore, bought from Suraj Nursery. But the police say the nursery doesn’t exist and there’s no record of where the saplings were planted.

Instead, officers claim, Pawan has bought a Toyota Fortuner and pays handsome salaries to Jai Johar’s 30-odd employees. Pawan is the president and Narendra the secretary of Jai Johar. Their younger brother Balram, mother Nathia Devi, and driver Vijay Lehre are its directors, the police say.

The force suspects that Pawan and Lala established contact with the Maoists through Jairam Korro, a tribal sarpanch in Chitrakonda in Orissa’s Malkangiri district. Chitrakonda was where the rebels had blown up the Essar pipeline’s Pump House II in retaliation to the alleged Salwa Judum funding — an event that transformed Lala’s life too.

Officers say Lala’s fortunes rose when he bagged the Essar contract in December 2010 to repair the pipeline, 18 months after the attack.

Essar was losing Rs 2.5 crore to Rs 3 crore a day only on transporting iron-ore fines at that time, arrested company official Varma has apparently told the police. But no contractor was willing to enter the jungles to try and repair the pipeline for fear of the Maoists.

Lala not only entered the Maoist territory — Malkangiri and Dantewada fall in the same guerrilla zone — but also repaired and reopened the pipeline, which was functioning smoothly till the guerrillas reportedly damaged it again late in October.

The investigators suspect he paid the rebels off, using part of the “exorbitant” money that Essar paid him.

The company denies it. “Essar paid him the agreed amount only through cheques and bank transfers,” Kedia said. “The payments made to him were not exorbitant, as claimed by the police, because people are reluctant to work in the area.”

Even the government is known to pay a premium on work done in Maoist zones by its contractors.

Varma has told the police that Lala’s clout grew within the company after his success, sources said.

His bills would be settled at once and he would deal directly with the company headquarters in Mumbai. In the past one year, nearly 80 per cent of Essar’s contracts went to him, the investigators say.

Kodopi’s aunt Soni Sori, a 33-year-old tribal teacher, was arrested in Delhi and, following torture allegations, was brought to Calcutta under Supreme Court orders last October for an independent medical examination.

Its report is yet to be made public.

Officers say Sori, the sixth person named in the chargesheet, was with Kodopi at the Palnar market but had slipped out. The duo, as well as Lala and Varma, have told court that the police have framed them.