IT IS not the first time that Mahimananda Mishra, who runs a powerful stevedoring company among several ventures in Odisha, has been probed for murder. Two earlier murder cases against him, in 1998 and 2013, had been closed by the CID for want of evidence. Now his arrest from Bangkok in connection with the murder of a shipping company executive has thrown the spotlight back on a man who began as a sand supplier and went on to earn the reputation of being Odisha’s most successful businessman.
Mishra, 63, and an associate, Basant Bal, were arrested from a hotel in Bangkok by an Odisha police team and brought back to Bhubaneswar. The police had issued a lookout circular following the murder of Mahendra Swain, a senior executive of Seaways Shipping, a Hyderabad-based entity that was in competition with Mishra’s network. Swain had crude bombs thrown at him and was then shot dead on October 26 while on his way to office in the port town of Paradip. Mishra and Bal will be tried along with seven others.
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The Utkal Chamber of Commerce and Industry, of which Mishra is a member, described the arrest as “disturbing”. “If someone is guilty he or she should be punished by law. Ultimately the courts will decide on the guilt,” said Ramesh Mahapatra, a senior member.
It was in Paradip that Mishra had cut his teeth in politics and business. Born in a village of Cuttack to a writer father said to have had good contacts with politicians, he caught the notice of political leaders in 1971 when he was elected students’ union vice president at Cuttack’s Christ College. “Congress leader Nishamani Khuntia had formed a trade union in Paradip. Then Congress chief minister Nandini Satpathy had Mishra sent there to help form a rival union,” said former BJD leader Panchanan Kanungo.
Mishra began his business in the 1970s by supplying sand to construction companies in Paradip. In 1978, he formed his first company, Orissa Stevedores Limited. After Satpathy fell out of power, Mishra’s business continued to flourish during the next Congress regime, which was led by J B Patnaik. Congressmen recall that Mishra got a contractor’s licence for civil works in Jagatsinghpur, home district of former PWD minister Basanta Biswal. Mishra also secured a mining contractor’s licence and worked for state-owned Odisha Mining Corporation. From stevedoring, he ventured into hospitality, education, mining, automobile dealership, chartered aviation and construction.
All of which led to the local business community dubbing him “Odisha’s richest man” some time ago. Apart from a fleet of chartered planes and helicopters, he has farmhouses and properties across the country. In Paradip he has an orchard where he is known to grow exotic plants under controlled conditions. He is also building a 600-bed hospital in Gurgaon, sources said.
His main business, however, remains stevedoring with a workforce of 3,000. In Paradip, he formed the Paradip Port Stevedoring Association of companies, which soon snatched a near monopoly on the business, charging and getting much more than the prevailing rates.
Along the way came the cases against him. In May 1998, Mishra and Bal were accused in the murder of Bichitrananda Mallick, vice-president of Paradip Phosphates Mazdoor Union who was hacked to death. The CID closed the case for want of evidence.
In 2013, Mishra was accused in the murder of Arun Bhatt of Cuttack. Mishra had allegedly wanted to buy Bhatt’s land in Kalinga but the latter was reluctant to sell. Bhatt was attacked with bombs and then shot dead. The CID closed this case too.
Mishra has also been accused of an attempt to murder a rival for a coal contract in Talcher, Angul, in 2011. That case is being probed, police said.
The Company of Master Mariners of India, a trade organisation, recently described him as a “mafia don” who has had a monopoly over the bulk vessel handling and stevedoring in Paradip port for decades. “Earlier, whenever it seemed that someone was breaking his hold, he has resorted to underhand tactics like kidnapping, setting fire to equipments etc,” Capitain Harjit Singh, CEO of Company of Master Mariners of India, wrote to Union Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari last October.
The October 26 murder came in the wake of rivalry that began with a stevedoring contract with Jindal Steel and Power Ltd. Last year, JSPL ended its stevedoring agreement with Mishra’s firm and handed it instead to a consortium of three other companies, which include Seaways Shipping and Logistic Ltd. The three companies’ Utkal Stevedores Association presented a challenge to Mishra’s Paradip Port Stevedores’ Association, which had been controlling all cargo operations in the port.
This year, Seaways Shipping bagged a two-year contract from Steel Authority of India Ltd to handle eight lakh tonnes of limestone imports at Paradip port. “In September, Seaways Shipping quoted a price of Rs 103 per tonne while Mishra’s firm quoted Rs 143 for import of limestone,” said Odisha DGP KB Singh.
“Mishra and his associates tried to paralyse the port but due to arrangements by district and police authorities they could not succeed. He feared his authority would be eroded if contracts are bagged without his nod. He thus decided decided to eliminate Swain and show that he still called the shots,” the DGP added.
Police claimed they have evidence that Mishra paid Rs 12 lakh in cash to the alleged main killer, Rakesh Choubey, and that Mishra had promised another Rs 50 lakh after the murder.
Port officials too felt Mishra was anxious of losing his influence in Paradip port, which has become India’s second biggest port handling 76 million tonnes of cargo, second only to Kandla port in Gujarat at 1 billion tonnes. With a Rs 20,000 crore expansion plan, Paradip would be India’s biggest port.
On Tuesday, after Mishra and Bal were taken to a court in Kujang of Paradip, his lawyers from the Supreme Court and the high court tried to get him bail but failed. Mishra complained of chest pain and was admitted to the district headquarters hospital in Jagatsinghpur.