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Above: Gomti Riverfront project in Lucknow (file pic)/Photo: UNI

Though there’s nothing to suggest that the former CM of UP Akhilesh Yadav is being personally targeted, the recent CBI raids on SP politicians and officials in multiple cases point towards pre-poll manoeuvres to pressure him

By Atul Chandra in Lucknow 

What does the Narendra Modi government do when it wants to rein in an inconvenient opposition politician or party? It lets loose the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). They have done it again, it would seem, if the crackdown on some Samajwadi Party (SP) politicians, bureaucrats and other officials in cases related to the illegal sand mining in the state and financial anomalies in the Gomti Riverfront project is any indication.

The agency’s credibility would always be suspect as CBI DIG Gagandeep Gambhir, who was supervising the investigation into SP chief and former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s alleged role in illegal mining, was transferred in the changes effected by interim CBI Director M Nageswara Rao.

The two CBI inquiries are in a way different. While it was the state government which first instituted a judicial inquiry into the riverfront case before bringing in the CBI, the probe into illegal mining was handed over to the central investigative agency by the Allahabad High Court. The High Court, in 2016, had asked the agency to look into all cases of illegal mining, submit a preliminary report on the involvement of officials and file FIRs wherever necessary. As such, the charge of political vendetta does not hold in the illegal mining case which started during Yadav’s tenure when there was an outcry against large-scale depletion of natural resources by a nexus of politicians, bureaucrats and contractors.

The order for a CBI probe was passed by a division bench of the High Court comprising then Acting Chief Justice VK Shukla and Justice MC Tripathi on a bunch of PILs. The petitioners alleged that mining leases had been illegally extended in several cases and district magistrates were filing false affidavits claiming that there was no illegal mining activity in their areas. The petitioners also claimed that the illegal activities were going on with the connivance of officials who had the government’s patronage.

The High Court’s order pertained to the districts of Hamirpur, Deoria, Shamli, Siddharth Nagar and Fatehpur where illegal mining was alleged to be rampant. The principal secretary, mining, UP government, filed an affidavit in the case but the High Court was not satisfied with his reply. It said that the affidavit was filed “in a casual manner”.

Subsequently, the CBI approached the High Court for clarity on the action it could take while probing the matter. This time, a division bench of the High Court comprising Chief Justice DB Bhosale and Justice Yashwant Varma said that the CBI “should not only probe the matter but expedite the legal proceedings by filing FIRs”. The Court also asked the agency to focus on the above five districts even as the investigation order covered the entire state.

The Yadav government opposed the High Court’s order for a CBI probe but its application was rejected. The state then went to the Supreme Court which allowed the CBI probe after initially staying the High Court order.

In pursuance of the High Court order, the CBI on January 5 this year raided several places in Lucknow, Kanpur and Jalaun. The raids were conducted at the residences of B Chandrakala, IAS, who served as the district magistrate of Hamirpur, Bijnor, Bulandshahr and Meerut, SP MLC Ramesh Kumar Mishra, and Sanjay Dixit of the BSP as well as eight others. The CBI had registered five preliminary inquiries in the case in the last two years.

On the basis of the CBI’s FIRs, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) too registered cases of money laundering against the accused. An ED official said that the case had been registered to probe the money trail of those involved.

Coming soon after the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party announced their political alliance for the Lok Sabha elections, the raids were obviously perceived as the BJP government’s vendetta. Saying that he is ready to face the CBI, Yadav warned the BJP at a press conference: “Why is the CBI conducting raids? Whatever they want to ask, they can ask me. But the BJP should remember that the culture it is leaving behind, it may have to face it in the future.”

Denying that it was acting as the BJP government’s handmaiden, the CBI was quoted as saying that Yadav held the mining portfolio for a year, from 2012 to 2013, and had cleared 14 leases. Of these, 13 leases were cleared by him on a single day—February 17, 2013—in violation of the e-tendering policy cleared by the High Court in January the same year. Controversial IAS officer Chandrakala, who was the district magistrate of Hamirpur during that period, granted the leases on February 17—the day these were cleared by the chief minister, the agency said.

The Gomti Riverfront project was in Yogi Adityanath’s crosshairs from the day he took charge as chief minister, and to that extent the action being taken is politically motivated. The chief minister was upset that out of the total Rs 1,500 crore earmarked for the project, Rs 1,433 crore had been paid to the executing agency. For completing only 60 percent of the work, the agency had spent Rs 1,427 crore and had raised a demand for another Rs 1,500 crore.

Yogi ordered an inquiry into the project by retired High Court judge Alok Kumar Singh as head of a judicial commission. He was to be assisted by AK Garg, professor of finance at IIM-Lucknow, and UK Chaudhary, a former professor of riverine engineering at IIT-BHU. The commission submitted its report in 45 days, the period stipulated by the chief minister. Submitted in May 2017, the report was learnt to have indicted a couple of senior bureaucrats, some engineers and bureaucrats. Soon after receiving the judicial inquiry report, another high-level panel was constituted to study Justice Singh’s findings and fix responsibility so that charges could be framed.

Subsequently, in June 2017, an FIR was registered against several engineers of the state irrigation department. The police said that “an FIR was filed by an executive engineer against eight engineers of the irrigation department for their alleged role in anomalies in the execution of Gomti Riverfront Project”.

On the state’s request, the centre referred the matter to the CBI on Nov­ember 24, 2017. Those named in the CBI FIR included chief engineers Gulesh Chandra, SN Sharma, Qazim Ali and then superintendent engineers Mangal Yadav, Akhil Raman, Kamleshwar Singh and Roop Singh Yadav. Of these, Gulesh Chandra, Mangal Yadav, Akhil Raman and Roop Singh Yadav have since retired.

On January 24, the ED carried out searches in Lucknow, Noida, Delhi, Rajasthan and Haryana. The premises of the accused and their associates were raided for documentary evidence.

So far, nothing suggests that Yadav is being personally targeted for the project. However, politics before the Lok Sabha polls may decide whether he feels the heat of CBI probes or is left alone.

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