In the pantheon of civil servants dominated by the IAS and IPS, Indian Forest Service (IFS) officers generally maintain a low profile. Rarely does their path cross politicians in the same way as it does with some other sections of the civil bureaucracy. But when it does, as R Gokul demonstrated, the results are encouraging.
Gokul is no ordinary officer. It now turns out that in all of Karnataka, he was the only one capable of taking on the all powerful mining mafia.
Gokul’s exceptional abilities came to light on March 20, 2010 when he dared to seize 3.5 million metric tonnes of iron ore illegally mined and transported to the Belekeri Port near Karwar. Despite a high court stay on the export, the seized iron ore vanished overnight!
But for the first time, someone had at least tried to take on a mining mafia whose ability to line up pockets in the corridors of power in Bangalore is legendary. The whole episode later came to be known as the Belekeri Scam.
This 1997 batch Karnataka cadre IFS officer has seen about 10 postings in as many years. Coorg in 2000 followed by Kollegal, Chennagiri, Shimoga, Kolar, CEO Mysore Paper Mills and then in the Kaveri Handicraft Development Corporation. Gokul, now at the Bannerghatta National Park talks to Governance Watch in an exclusive interview.
How could you sense the irregularities in Belekeri?
I didn’t know that iron ore export was a serious issue in the area when I was posted to Karvar on September 14, 2009. All too suddenly in the first week of December, a large number of trucks emerged. The then Lokayukta Justice N. Santosh Hegde came to Karwar. Locals submitted a memorandum to him explaining how they are suffering from the huge numbers of trucks transporting iron ore. It was then that we understood that illegally mined iron ore was being transported from Belekeri.
What were your initial plans?
Initially we planned an operation to carry out raids in 12 spots from Yellapur to Karvar. Within five minutes 24 trucks transporting illegally mined ore, were seized! Also seizing hundreds of trucks and keeping them on the road would lead to law and order problems. It was then that we decided to tap the ports because they are the hub of illegal activities. Iron ore can be exported only through ships. They come under port and customs authorities as both fall under the same jurisdiction. Customs are governed by Custom Law which is enacted by Parliament, whereas Forest Law is enacted by the state legislature. If there is a question of legal supremacy, a parliamentary act gets precedence. So, for a state government official to go into central government area and seize the ore was a huge challenge for me. But, we got permission from the magistrate and seized all the ore.
How did you conduct the operation?
The storage at Belekeri looked like a mountain! Only 20 lakhs tonnes were permitted for export and about 70 lakhs tonnes were stored – all of which had come from Bellary alone. We made the seizure and handed it over it to the port authorities. Port operations were stopped for four or five days. In the meantime, many private persons and exporters filed a writ petition against me in the high court. Lokayukta Justice Santhosh Hegde stood by me. We convinced the high court not to allow it to be exported until a probe and the court supported us. Still, a huge amount of ore disppeared from the port.
Are you satisfied?
Yes. We could serve the country by preserving our iron ore. The Shah Committee has also recommended that iron ore export be banned. I feel happy that what we started at in Belekeri has set off similar trends in the country. The Belekeri port seizure was the first of its sort in India and a trigger for similar action elsewhere.
Have you faced any threats?
In Karvar on July 15, 2011, miscreants attacked me but I somehow managed to escape.
How we can improve governance?
We have to create a system where nobody is afraid of doing his or her duty. You need to be responsible and fearless. If you are doing the right thing, you don’t have to be scared.
What about your future plans?
I am a government servant and will go where ever I am posted. At the moment in Bannerghatta, we are trying bring down elephant menace in the national park area. We are also worried threat from the ‘land mafia’.
You have not been awarded so far.
I have not applied for any award. Even though there was a call from the PMO to apply for an award, I did not send my profile. Last week Anil Kumble called and requested that I send my profile to Jumbo Award. So I sent in two paragraphs. I did it out of the former cricket captain’s commitment to wildlife.