The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Saturday carried out searches on the premises of former environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan in Chennai after registering an FIR against her in connection with alleged irregularities in environment clearance in Jharkhand during the previous UPA regime.
Searches were also carried out in Delhi, Sundergarh (Odisha), Kolkata and Ranchi. The case is related to clearance given in 2012 for diversion of forest land in Saranda in Jharkhand’s Singhbhum district, to mining company Electrosteel Casting Limited (ECL), allegedly violating the Forest (Conservation Act).
Natarajan was Minister of State for Environment with Independent Charge between 2011 and 2013. The Sunday Express reported her decision first in its edition of June 2, 2013, which was followed by a series of reports on the clearances given to projects despite objections.
Natarajan will be called soon for questioning, CBI sources said. The FIR has also named Umang Kejriwal, then managing director of ECL, the company, and unnamed officials of the Jharkhand government. Natrajan has been accused under of criminal conspiracy Section 120B IPC, and the abuse of official position under the Prevention of Corruption Act.
According to CBI, Natarajan, who left the Congress in 2015 after accusing Rahul Gandhi of forcing her hand in decisions related to environmental clearances, allowed the project, which her predecessor, Jairam Ramesh, had stopped.
“Jayanthi Natarajan, the then Minister of State for Environment and Forests, accorded the approval for diversion of 55.79 hectares of forest land for non-forestry use to ECL, though the same had been rejected by the earlier Minister of State… without any change in the circumstances after rejection,” says the CBI FIR.
This approval, the CBI has said, had been accorded against the advice of the Director General, Forests, and the directions of the Supreme Court.
According to the FIR, the Jharkhand government forwarded, in 2005, a proposal from ECL to the Environment Ministry for lease of 192.50 hectares of land for mining in the Saranda forests. The company also intended to set up a steel plant. The proposal was sent to the Forest Advisory Committee.
In 2008, the Jharkhand government submitted another proposal asking that 55.79 hectares of the total 192.50 hectares should be diverted for non-forest use. The committee rejected the proposal 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, ECL re-submitted the proposal to the Jharkhand government, which sent it the union Environment Ministry under Jairam Ramesh. As per the CBI’s preliminary probe, the proposal was listed during an advisory committee meeting on August 20, 2009, but was not taken up.
Ramesh subsequently ruled out any reconsideration if the land lay within the core area of the Singhbhum elephant reserve, and noted that all previous approvals for mining in the core zone, too, should be cancelled. The firm then wrote to the Prime Minister in 2010 for reconsideration. The proposal was again put before the advisory committee, which rejected it again.
On July 13, 2011, Natarajan succeeded Ramesh at the ministry. A fortnight later, the chief minister of Jharkhand wrote to the minister, seeking “pragmatic” environmental clearance for projects since the steel plant was coming up in a very underdeveloped region.
In August, the file was marked to Natarajan, and the company’s then managing director Kejriwal met her the following month, according to the FIR. Thereafter, the minister, in her noting, asked whether any recommendation or report had been received from the Jharkhand government about other mines located in the elephant reserve.
In October 2011, a reminder was sent to the state government, seeking details of four other mines located in the core zone of the reserve. The state government replied, and the matter was re-submitted to the minister. That was when the Director General, Forests, and the special secretary advised that the case should be referred to the advisory committee again.
Before that was done, however, the minister approved diverting 55.79 hectares of forest land on February 4, 2012.
Natarajan, who is now 63, was unceremoniously removed in December 2013 over allegations of irregularities in the grant of clearances. Veerappa Moily, who replaced her at Paryavaran Bhawan, found that nearly 350 files had been held back by Natarajan and her office.
During his 2014 Lok Sabha campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the expression “Jayanthi Tax” to allege rent-seeking and corruption by the UPA government. Down in the dumps within the party, Natarajan resigned in November 2015. In a letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, she alleged political interference from the party leadership in environmental clearances.
“I received specific requests [which used to be directives for us] from Shri Rahul Gandhi and his office forwarding environmental concerns in some important areas and I took care to honour those “requests”,” Natarajan said in her resignation letter to Sonia. Specifically, she alleged that she had “rejected environmental clearance to Vedanta” at the behest of Rahul’s office.
“The same happened in the case of the Adani projects, where I faced tremendous criticism from within the cabinet and outside, for stalling investment at a time when the country was going through a difficult time in terms of the economy. The complaints of the local fisherfolk and NGOs of environmental violations in the Adani case were forwarded to me by Shri Rahul Gandhi’s office, and I was told to liaise with Shri Dipak Babaria in the matter,” she alleged.