Ten years ago the amazing P C Sorcar, Junior pulled off one of the greatest tricks of his career when he made the Taj Mahal disappear. That illusion lasted for two nerve-wracking minutes; some reports suggested that towards the end some in the crowd had to be physically restrained from attacking the master magician.
Some people in Karnataka sneer at such feats as worthy only of an amateur.
In the course of the Bilikere Port Scam some three-and-a-half million tons of iron ore disappeared. That disappearance is no optical illusion, the ore seems to be gone for good. And neither the vanished iron nor the disgusted resignation of Karnataka's Lok Ayukta, Justice N Santosh Hegde, has stirred a fraction of the wrath caused by the 'vanishing' of the Taj Mahal.
Beat that, P C Sorcar, Junior!
Three-and-a-half million tons is not a small amount. To put that into perspective, the Empire State Building in New York weighs 'only' 365,000 tons. In other words the ore that disappeared was the equivalent of close to ten Empire State Buildings vanishing into thin air.
How is it that nobody noticed such a thing? The answer is that somebody did notice -- and he, in turn, was made to disappear, which in turn led to the Lok Ayukta going off the stage.
The scam came to light when R Gokul, then deputy conservator of forests, found some 800,000 tons of iron ore lying illegally in the port of Bilikere. The officer filed a case against several firms. For his pains R Gokul was suspended by J Krishna Palemar, who holds both the environment and the ports portfolios in the B S Yeddyurappa ministry.
Appalled at this flagrant injustice, the Lok Ayukta tried to intervene. Nobody in the government of Karnataka seemed interested in listening, and the frustrated Lok Ayukta quit in disgust. Justice Hegde's position was that there was no point in clinging on to an office if he could not use it to rescue an honest and diligent officer.
It is a minor miracle that we still have men like the Lok Ayukta and the (former) deputy conservator of forests in the corridors of government. But let us admit that their ilk is far outnumbered by the ranks of those who either prefer a quiet life or are out for personal profit.
The iron ore was mined in places far from the sea. Justice Hegde has pointed out that there were at least seven checkposts through which the trucks carrying the ore must have passed. Yet there is nothing on record about even a single such truck. Apparently, it is not just the iron ore but even the trucks that vanish when some Karnataka politicians snap their fingers.
Quite obviously officials up and down the line were in cahoots with the iron ore smugglers. Equally obviously this has been going on for quite a while since three-and-a- half million tons cannot be transported in a single day.
Something else that has been going on is the frustration building up in the Lok Ayukta's office. The suspension of R Gokul appears to have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Justice Hegde says that Chief Minister Yeddyurappa would not -- or could not -- provide support in the form of additional funds and personnel despite repeated requests. Worse, more than once the government of Karnataka reportedly revoked the suspension of officers trapped by the Lok Ayukta.
It took the Lok Ayukta's resignation before the chief minister would respond in public. B S Yeddyurappa has now admitted on the floor of the assembly that iron ore smuggling has been a part of life for some time now. The chief minister even claimed that 4.8 million tons had been smuggled out in 2007-2008. Yeddyurappa added that his government would examine all records going back ten years.
Doesn't that last promise appear to be an exercise in futility? The whole point of the current scam is that no records were maintained. Remember those seven checkposts through which the trucks passed without a trace? Why would there be any records left from ten years ago if there are none from ten months -- possibly ten weeks -- ago?
It is an open secret that the mining lobby wields immense clout both in Karnataka and in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. It is no surprise that millions of tons vanished without a trace. (As did thousands of crores of rupees in lost revenue.) But it should be a cause for worry when the power of the mining lobby seemingly leads to the disappearance of honest officials too.
Tailpiece: Speaking of disappearances, the latest is that the logbook of the plane that ferried Warren Anderson from Bhopal to Delhi on December 7, 1984 is nowhere to be found. The plane was sold to an American firm, and all its records too are now in the United States. I wonder if someone on the quest of an all-expenses paid holiday will now suggest filing for extradition of the log book?