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The CBI searched on Saturday the Chennai home of Jayanthi Natarajan, the previous UPA government’s environment minister, over allegations of unlawfully diverting 55.59 hectares of forests in Jharkhand for “non-forest” use.
The agency registered a first information report (FIR) against the former minister for her 2012 decision that cleared a private company’s previously rejected proposal for projects in a forest reserved for elephants.
The 63-year-old lawyer-politician from Tamil Nadu has been accused of “criminal conspiracy” and abuse of her official position in collusion with the mining company — Electrosteel Casting Limited (ECL).
The former Congress leader, who resigned from the party in 2015, allegedly went out of the way to approve a proposal that was rejected by her predecessor, Jairam Ramesh, as well as the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC).
The FIR also names ECL and its managing director, Umang Kejriwal.
Besides Chennai, searches were conducted in New Delhi, Kolkata, Ranchi and the company’s office in Rajgangpur, an industrial town in Odisha’s Sundargarh district.
The corruption allegations first surfaced during Natarajan’s one-and-a-half year tenure from July 2011 until she quit in December 2013 to work for the party before the general elections next year.
Natarajan had denied the charges before. She couldn’t be contacted for comments on the FIR.
The CBI said Natarajan approved the ECL proposal without adhering to the advice of director general forests and directions of the Supreme Court.
According to the FIR, the Jharkhand government forwarded in 2005 a proposal from ECL to the environment ministry for leasing 192.50 hectares for mining in the Saranda forests of Singhbhum district. The company was also setting up a steel plant.
The proposal was then sent as a rule to the forest advisory committee.
In 2008, the Jharkhand government submitted another proposal that 55.79 hectares of the total 192.50 hectares should be diverted for non-forest use.
The committee rejected the plan and observed that “the proposed mining area was part of the core zone of the Singhbhum elephant reserve and critical to wildlife conservation”.
A year later, the ECL resubmitted the proposal to the Jharkhand government, which sent it the Union environment ministry under Jairam Ramesh.
The CBI’s preliminary probe revealed that the proposal was listed during an advisory committee meeting on August 20, 2009, but it was not taken up.
Ramesh rejected any reconsideration if the proposed land was within the core area of Singhbhum elephant reserve. He also noted that all previous approvals for mining in the core zone should be cancelled.
The company wrote to the Prime minister in 2010 for reconsideration. And the proposal was again put before the advisory committee, which rejected it.
On July 13, 2011, Natarajan succeeded Ramesh in the ministry. A fortnight later, the Jharkhand chief minister wrote for a “pragmatic” environmental clearance to projects since the steel plant was coming up in a most underdeveloped region.
In August, the file was marked to the new minister and company managing director Kejriwal met her next month, the FIR report said.
Thereafter, the minister in her noting asked whether any recommendation or report has been received from the Jharkhand government about other mines located in the elephant reserve.
A reminder was also sent to the state government in October 2011, seeking details of four other mines located in the core zone of the reserve.
The state government replied and the matter was resubmitted to the minister.
That is when the director general of forest and the special secretary advised that the case should be referred to the advisory committee again.
Before that was done, the minister approved diverting 55.79 hectares of forest land on February 4, 2012.