HOOCH HORROR

Subhas Chandra Pattanayak

IS EXCISE MINISTER TRYING TO FRIGHTEN OPPOSITION INTO SILENCE?

After Rabinarayan Nanda failed to purchase silence of the Opposition, is Kalandi Behera trying to frighten the Opposition into silence? It is a question that has started shaking every conscious mind in Orissa.

The crux of the issue raised by the Opposition in its attempt to make the Excise minister accountable to the House is the question as to why he refused to transfer the excise officers who were being looked at askance by the Collector of the district of Ganjam on the basis of their hobnobbing with the liquor mafia.

The Collector had filed a secret report to the concerned authority naming the officers involved. The Excise Commissioner had taken steps for their transfer. But his steps were allegedly stymied by the departmental Minister, Mr. Kalandi Behera. This being known, the Collector had moved the Chief Minister to intervene and ensure that the nexus between the excise officers and the liquor mafia in Ganjam is terminated as soon as possible by way of transferring the officers, as otherwise, termination of many a lives under the flow of hooch may not be ruled out. The Chief Minister had reportedly asked the Excise minister to see that the Collector’s report from the field is not left in the lurch. But, according to information with the Opposition, executive’s attempts to transfer the said officers were stalled by the Minister.

The result is the hooch tragedy that has killed 31 persons and pushed as many as 50 persons to permanent blindness.

But this is not new. Since Naveen Patnaik has usurped power, hooch tragedies have happened many a times. Like this time, judicial enquiries have also been used as ways to escape on earlier occasions. Enquiries do not grant relief to the victim; they grant time to the perpetrators to engineer how people’s resentment would fissile away. And, thus, the work of the mafia goes on unhindered.

Let us look at the Judicial Commission appointed by Naveen Patnaik to enquire into the hooch tragedy that had visited Puri in the second year of his incumbency as Chief Minister. The Commission has reportedly held an Excise Inspector, Pramod Mohanty, guilty of collaboration with the perpetrator of the crime. This Pramod Mohanty is a factor of the crisis that is hunting Orissa Assembly at the moment.

The Opposition found that the Government was sleeping over the Commission’s Report. On inklings that the Report may be suppressed, the Opposition took an unprecedented step of Assembly activism to obtain a copy of the Report and placed the same in the House, thereby causing its entry into records, following which the Government was so much exposed that it was difficult on its part to overcome its own confusion. A Minister of State, Mr. Rabinarayan Nanda, was named by the enquiry judge and, therefore, the Opposition demanded that he should not be allowed to further harm our State with his tainted presence in the Council of Ministers. He allegedly tried to purchase silence of the Opposition. Congress member Lalatendu Bidyadhar Mohapatra recorded the Minister’s adventures over phone wherein he had ventured to offer money if the Opposition does not press for his resignation. Exposed, he had to submit his resignation.

But Pramod Mohanty, the Excise Inspector, suspended from service after the Puri tragedy, notwithstanding being held by the Commission of Enquiry as heavily responsible for the said tragedy, continued to be in the close circle of the Excise Minister.

In the Enquiry Report, Opposition says, the Minister apart, Mahanty is pointed out as a patron of the hooch syndicate. This is, in a sense, a confirmation of what he was in the eyes of administration. He was spotted by administrative machinery as the official muscle of the hooch operator. He was therefore suspended.

While continuing under suspension, Mohanty has emerged as the inner most confidant of the Excise Minister. The Opposition is harping on this point. How is it that this suspended officer is being seen as the de facto Excise minister in the corridors of his department? The Opposition wants to know.

Minister Kalandi Behera is quite in a fix over this. If he fails to extricate himself from the shrouding suspicion, he has no ethical right to continue as a minister, as, according to the Opposition, his continuance in office would continue to put administration in jeopardy.
The House has been halted for the sixth consecutive day over the tricky but tersely relevant question: can administration co-op with any investigation into the Ganjam hooch tragedy with Behera as the Excise Minister? Can the enquiry be impartial?

Neither the Minister nor the Chief Minister is in a position, it seems, to convince the Opposition or the people that investigation into the hooch tragedy will not be affected by continuance of Kalandi Behera in the post of Excise Minister. It puts the Opposition in advantage.

To eliminate this advantage, Rabinarayan Nanda’s reported method of purchasing silence having failed, has the disadvantaged Minister engineered the method of silencing Opposition through physical assault?

This question rings and rings, even as the Assembly remains halted for six consecutive days and the State remains far away from punishing its guilty functionaries under whose umbrage liquor mafia has played the game of death on our people.

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