From arclight to mining light: Chunky Pandey won offshore mining rights, but …

BHUBANESWAR: Chunky Pandey says there he was, standing on the beach during a 2007 holiday in Ratnagiri, the wide blue expanse of the Arabian Sea in front of him, when he looked down at the sand. It was curiously black. And that’s what led the Bollywood actor to the point where his company won six offshore mining leases. Or maybe not.

If you don’t remember the goofy and amiable actor from 1980s hits such as Tezaab and Aankhen, you may know him as the villain with the droll dialogue in more recent comedies such as Housefull, both 1 and 2. The man who also achieved unexpected stardom in the Bangladesh film industry spoke to ET over the phone several times.

Nothing ever written about the man, mostly laced with his own generous contributions of self-deprecating humour, will lead you to guess Pandey is an offshore mining businessman in the making. That’s because the 52-year-old would rather not speak about it. No one does. It’s like not too many know his first name is Suyash.

Eight years after the Offshore Areas Mineral (Development Regulation) Act, 2002, was introduced, the UPA government asked the Indian Bureau of Mines (IBM) to notify and grant leases. It was the government’s first attempt at allowing mineral exploration of the seabed.

“Commencement of offshore exploration will set a new benchmark in the achievement of Indian mining industry hitherto unheard of and India will join the elite club of select few nations in this pioneering feat,” according to an IBM report. Those successful stood to win rights to mine placer minerals such as ilmenite and rutile.

There were 377 applicants for exploration rights to 63 nine-by-nine km offshore plots — 26 in the Bay of Bengal and 37 in the Arabian Sea.

According to data provided by IBM on March 22, 2011, sixteen firms were selected, including Via Earth Resources, a company co-owned by Pandey and his wife Bhavna.

This was before the Karnataka Lokayukta’s incriminating report forced then chief minister BS Yeddyurappa to resign. Before a central commission blamed both the central and state governments for allowing illegal mining worth thousands of crores in Goa and Odisha. And certainly before the Supreme Court said natural resources must be allotted in a transparent manner, ideally through auctions. So when aggrieved parties, including Chennai-based Ti-Slag, took IBM to court, it didn’t quite cause the commotion that allocation of natural resources have since then.

Arni Natesan Padmaraj, chief technology officer and director of Ti-Slag, had for years nurtured dreams of mining an offshore deposit. Others such as Hyderabadbased Trimex Group said IBM had failed to publicise the notification inviting applications for rights to these blocks widely enough.

Even the Department of Atomic Energy’s Indian Rare Earths failed to make the cut for a block only 12 nautical miles from its existing beach sand mineral plant at Chavara in Kerala. The state-owned company didn’t contest the order. Curiously, a technical committee to frame field guidelines for exploration of offshore areas in line with United Nations Framework Classification (UNFC) norms had been constituted on August 27, 2010. UNFC norms are used to classify and evaluate energy and mineral resources.

In July 2011, ET reported that some of the successful firms had been registered only days before applications were invited. And a third of these blocks had been granted to four companies, including RVG Minerals and Metals, essentially controlled by the same family. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) began a preliminary inquiry into the allocations in September 2012. In December 2013, then mining minister Dinsha Patel told Parliament that CBI had “concluded that no misconduct was found on the part of any public servant of IBM”. Most court cases have been set aside, barring the one filed by Trimex. In its 2011 annual report, IBM said apart from 17 blocks that were the matter of a petition in its home town of Nagpur, it had initiated the execution of the remaining leases.

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