At Odisha port, bribery case puts the spotlight on a local tycoon | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

At Odisha port, bribery case puts the spotlight on a local tycoon

ByDebabrata Mohanty, Bhubaneswar
Sep 02, 2022 11:32 AM IST

On August 6, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested 39-year-old Charchit Mishra, investigating a bribery case at the Paradip Port Authority on the Odisha coast.

On August 6, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested 39-year-old Charchit Mishra, investigating a bribery case at the Paradip Port Authority on the Odisha coast.

Mahima Mishra formed Orissa Stevedores Limited in 1978 (ANI) PREMIUM
Mahima Mishra formed Orissa Stevedores Limited in 1978 (ANI)

The case itself was not a major financial fraud. A 25 lakh bribe given to the chief engineer of the port in order to avoid payment of about 1 crore in damages for a broken conveyor belt. But it became significant because of who Mishra is, and how the authorities have been trying to pin him down.

Charchit Mishra’s father, 69-year-old Mahimananda Mishra, known popularly as Mahima Mishra, is one of Odisha’s most influential businessmen. This event adds another chapter to an already storied life of intrigue — a man who rose through the ranks, built a business empire, India’s second biggest port after Kandla in terms of handling of bulk cargo, dabbled in politics, and has been accused of strong-arming, bribery, and even murder. He denies all the charges, and has never been convicted.

One day before Charchit’s arrest, Saroj Das, chief mechanical engineer of the Paradip Port Authority, who ensures the maintenance and repairs of mechanical and electrical equipment, was arrested on charges of accepting a the bribe from the Orissa Stevedores Limited (OSL), a company owned by Mishra.

Stevedoring is the act of loading or offloading cargo to or from a ship.

In its FIR, CBI said that the staff of OSL damaged the conveyor belt in the port during the unloading of cargo. Though it was incumbent on OSL to repair the belt for 70 lakh, refurbishing was carried out at the cost of the port, allegedly resulting in financial benefit to the company. In the FIR, CBI said that the chief mechanical engineer had allegedly demanded a 60 lakh bribe, and was caught taking 25 lakh.

On August 5, Mahima Mishra and his elder son, Chandan, 42, who is a director at OSL, were called to the CBI office in Bhubaneswar and interrogated for over 20 hours. The next day, Mishra’s younger son, Charchit, who is also an OSL director, was summoned to the CBI office and arrested for playing a key role in the bribery. Though his counsel moved CBI court for bail on August 10, the plea was rejected, and he was initially remanded to judicial custody till August 27, and then till September 6. His counsel plans to move another bail petition on Friday.

CBI began investigating the case in July after being tipped off about possible corruption at the Paradip Port Trust. “The raid is part of a drive to cleanse important infrastructure sites like ports and the railways of corruption,” said a CBI officer, who asked not to be named.

In Paradip, for much of last month, a team of CBI sleuths has been pouring over files of the port authority for alleged financial malpractices, looking for evidence that OSL or other private companies benefitted at the cost of the port. Six other people have been arrested in the case thus far, but the limelight is squarely fixed on Mahima Mishra, the first-generation Odia businessman who built an empire, but has been controversy’s favourite child.

Humble beginning

The only son of Rabindra Nath Mishra, a modest writer in Odia and Bengali languages, Mahima Mishra grew up in Cuttack, and went to Bhakta Madhu Vidyapeetha, a school in Odia Bazaar locality of the city. Mishra then did an MA in English from Utkal University, and an LLB from the Madhu Sudan Law College in Cuttack, finishing in 1973. During this time, Mishra dabbled in politics, caught the eye of the Congress, and was elected president of the students’ union of the law college in Cuttack in 1974.

Mishra quickly pivoted to business, and started supplying sand to construction companies in Paradip by 1976, progressing to providing labour to existing stevedoring agents at the port.

In 1975, Congress leader Nishamani Khuntia formed a trade union in Paradip, and then Congress chief minister Nandini Satpathy wanted to set up a rival union. “She sent Mahima Mishra to help form this. Satpathy was chief minister for two years, but Mahima Mishra’s business continued to flourish even after her exit during the next Congress regime, led by JB Patnaik. In 1978, he formed his first company, Orissa Stevedores Limited,” said former BJD minister Panchanan Kanungo.

His first big break as an independent stevedoring company came in 1979, when he successfully completed the shipment of wheat flour sent by the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere foods, an international humanitarian agency now known by its acronym CARE, for the container-shipping company American President Line.

Stevedores load and unload cargo from ships when they come into port. Before a ship docks at port, they have to have a local stevedoring agent in place to carry out the process.

In 1982, Mishra formed the Paradip Port Stevedoring Association of companies — a consortium of small stevedoring companies who accepted Mishra as their leader — which soon had a near monopoly on the business.

“From the 1990s till mid-2010s, he (Mahima) had near monopoly of the stevedoring business in Paradip port ensuring that no one else could come up as a rival. The ships of companies that wanted to berth in the port, had to pay the stevedoring charges of OSL even though it was not competitive,” said a senior executive of a logistics company in Paradip, not wishing to be named.

Mahima Mishra grew and grew. From stevedoring, he branched into hospitality, education, mining, automobile dealerships, chartered aviation and construction. Some of the companies he owns include OSL Motors Pvt. Ltd, DPS Kalinga, Orissa Magnetic Private Ltd, Nandighosh Coal & Coke Product Pvt Ltd.

Prasanna Pradhan, director of the Biju Patnaik airport in Bhubaneswar, said that Mishra maintains a hangar at the facility, and has a chartered plane.

Allegations mount

But while his business grew, Mishra was also at the centre of multiple criminal allegations. In July 1995, he was investigated as a prime suspect in the abduction of stevedoring and logistics company JM Baxi’s manager Pratap Chandra Das, allegedly abducted from a hotel in Paradip on July 13, 1995. Though CID investigated the case, the case was closed in 1996, with no evidence against Mishra.

In May 1998, Mishra and his associate Basant Bal were accused of murdering Bichitrananda Mallick, vice-president of Paradip Phosphates Mazdoor Union. Again, the Odisha CID closed the case for want of evidence in 1999. In 2013, Mishra was accused in the murder of Arun Bhatt, from whom he had allegedly wanted to purchase land that Bhatt was reluctant to sell. Bhatt was attacked with bombs, and then shot dead in Cuttack city. Mishra’s counsel have argued that he had nothing to do with the incident, and the case is under trial.

In these three cases, Mishra spent no time in jail. CID officials told HT that there was no direct proof against Mishra, and it was difficult to carry out arrests of a man of such influence on circumstantial evidence.

In 2016, the Company of Master Mariners of India, a trade organisation, described him as a “mafia don” who has had a monopoly over the bulk vessel handling and stevedoring in Paradip port for decades. “Earlier, whenever it seemed that someone was breaking his hold, he has resorted to underhand tactics like kidnapping, setting fire to equipment etc.,” Captain Harjit Singh, then CEO of Company of Master Mariners of India, wrote to Union shipping minister Nitin Gadkari in October 2016.

It was in that same month that Mishra’s name came under the scanner again for the alleged murder of Mahendra Swain, an executive of a rival shipping company, Seaways Shipping and Logistics Limited. In 2015, Jindal Steel and Power Limited ended its stevedoring agreement with Mishra’s OSL over higher cargo rates and instead handed it to Utkal Stevedores Association, a consortium of three other companies that included Seaways Shipping and Logistics Ltd.

“In September 2015, Seaways Shipping quoted a price of 103 per tonne while Mishra’s company quoted 143 for import of limestone for Jindal Steel and Power,” said a senior police officer who handled the murder case.

Police contended that, apprehensive of his hold over the port’s cargo operations, and undermined by the new entrants, Mishra allegedly decided to eliminate Swain.

On October 26, 2016, Mahendra Swain was on his way to his office at around 9am in Paradip when miscreants allegedly hired by Mishra hurled bombs and fired at his vehicle resulting in his death. Following an FIR by Swain’s brother, Mishra was arrested along with his associate Bal from Bangkok in December 2016. He spent nearly two-and-a-half years in jail in the case in which eight others were arrested. He was first granted bail by the Orissa high court in May 2017 but the Supreme Court in September 2018 set aside the HC order, noting that Mishra was an influential person in terms of both money and muscle power, and ordered that he should be taken into custody.

“Mishra was eventually granted bail in the case by the high court in November 2019,” said Subhalaxmi Pujari, inspector of Paradip port police station where the murder case was lodged.

‘No evidence’

Mishra’s lawyer, Joydeep Pal, who is also defending his son Charchit Mishra in the CBI case, said all the allegations against him are motivated. “OSL did not resort to any unfair means during stevedoring operations along last few decades. Even the 2016 case in which he has been accused of conspiring to kill the manager of a logistics company, there is no evidence against him. In the bribery case also his son seems to have been framed,” said Pal.

HT called and sent messages to Mahima Mishra and his son, but did not receive a response.

Chairman of the Paradip Port Authority, PL Haranadh, refused to comment on the CBI case saying the matter is still being investigated. CBI officers did not respond to a detailed questionnaire sent by HT on the bribery case.

The 2016 murder case, however, led to Mishra’s company losing some influence in Paradip.

Prior to 2016, the management committee of stevedores at the port consisted of only nine stevedoring companies, including Mishra’s.

“Till 2016, this committee controlled the labour pool available in the port. Most of the registered stevedores could not avail labour from the pool without permission of the management committee. This led to a situation where only few stevedores had monopoly in controlling the entire business at Paradip Port. All auxiliary works like supply of machinery, engagement of dumpers for the transportation and labour supply were also dominated by these stevedores. After the Mahendra Swain murder case in 2016, this system was abolished and a more democratic system of selection of stevedoring agents was adopted, and his word no longer carries weight. With Mishra out of action for over three years battling cases, his stevedoring business has taken a hit,” said a port official who asked not to be named.

For Mahima Mishra, the CBI investigation is now a fresh challenge that threatens to undo his dramatic rise.

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