Illegal land acquisition? Usha Martin taken to SC for Kathautia coal block

Kolkata-based wire rope manufacturer Usha Martin has been dragged to the Supreme Court for alleged irregularities in land acquisition in Jharkhand. The apex court has issued notices to the company and other respondents including the state government on a special leave petition challenging an order by the Jharkhand High Court.

The matter pertains to alleged illegal acquisition of forest land around the Kathautia coal block in Palamau district. The block was originally allotted in 2003 to Usha Martin, which had begun operating mines there before the hundreds of allocations across the country was cancelled by the Supreme Court in 2014 on an allegation of corruption. The mine has since been reallocated to Hindalco through e-auction.

After a late October hearing, the court posted it for the third week of November.

"We are contesting the case. Since the matter is subjudice, we would not like to comment further," a senior Usha Martin executive said. Company sources added the allegations do not carry any merit and the company has followed all applicable rules and regulations and has not flouted any rule. Usha Martin made headlines a few months ago when lenders led by State Bank of India sacked its chairman Prashant Jhawar. Adverse orders in the court could throw a spanner in the revival plans of the company, which has recently hired global consultancy Mckinsey for advice.

In November 2015, the Telegraph had reported that Palamau deputy commissioner suspended a revenue department employee for his alleged involvement "in the illegal transfer of at least 82 acres of forestland under Kathautia mining area."

Following this, a Public Interest litigation (PIL) was filed before the Jharkhand High Court by state AITUC secretary Rajeev Kumar Singh last year. The petition had alleged that there was mass displacement of local people including tribals in some 11 villages around the mining area. It sought directions against stopping polluted water from mines joining the Durgawati river and for "afforestation in illegally deforested" areas.

It also prayed for directions to "blacklist M/s Usha Martin from carrying out any mining operation in the state of Jharkhand after proper and speedy investigation." The petition claimed millions were embezzled in acquiring land which has been "bought directly from raiyats without paying the required value and also the land area in which mining is done into entering into the only agreement without paying the required value to the raiyats."

The high court dismissed Singh's petition in February saying "This writ petition has been mainly preferred for the reasons that the land has been acquired without paying proper market value and corrupt practice has been followed by respondents and for blacklisting M/S Usha Martin Private Limited. Looking to all these prayers it cannot be said that this is a Public interest Litigation, on the contrary, this is absolutely a Private Interest Petition."

The high court added that the persons whose land has been acquired have other remedies available. "So far as corrupt practice followed, if petitioner so desires, he can file a criminal proceeding in accordance with law." On black listing of Usha Martin, the high court said, "this cannot be done in the Public Interest Litigation in this court." It levied costs of Rs 50,000 on the petitioner.

Following this, Singh moved the apex court drawing attention to certain facts which, he argued, could not have been disposed of summarily. The apex court stayed the order on costs and issued notices in August.



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