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Sunday 5 April 2020

GSI Disclaimer Appears Issued Under Pressure

A section of the media rushing to Kolkata to get a reaction to the news of the discovery of gold mines in Sonbhadra of Uttar Pradesh would have looked fishy to any seasoned journalist. Alas, that breed is constantly shrinking. While the celebrations for hitting the gold mines were shortlived, another section of Indians, a sick breed that is growing at an alarming rate in the country, celebrated the disclaimer by M Sridhar, director-general of the Geological Survey of India (GSI).

The Sonbhadra discovery had stirred not only the country but also the world. The news of India having an additional reserve of about 3,000 tonnes of gold panicked the US, too. It was not a mere Germany that was upset that its second position in the world was threatened. For, a sudden spike in the value of the Indian currency owing to the additional gold would upset trade relations across the globe as India would demand a higher price for all goods it exports while importers from across the world would be reluctant to pay it up.

This does not happen only when a country suddenly discovers it is much richer than what it had estimated. It happens also when poverty, unfortunately, descends on a nation like a bolt from the blue. Recall the India-Russia dispute after the USSR collapsed and disintegrated. India was just past the period when the Soviet Union was its big brother. It owed a humongous amount in debt to leftover Russia. But the rouble had tanked. So, at what rate should India have repaid the communist-turned-anarchic nation steered those days by a drunk Boris Yeltsin?

A desperate Yeltsin rushed to India and virtually fell at the feet of the then Prime Minister, PV Narasimha Rao. Generous — perhaps unduly — that Indians are, Rao agreed to sign a pact that said that the cut-off date for calculating India’s outstanding debt would be 1 January 1990. Whatever India had bought from the USSR before that date would cost it Rs 31.57 for a rouble whereas for goods imported from 1 April 1992 onwards, India would pay Rs 19.90 per rouble. That was a discount of 32% for India. The jury is still out on whether paying Rs 31,100 crore to a fallen nation was a fair deal from the Indian point of view. Mercifully, the Rao regime recovered in another manner. It reduced all further trade with Russia by 40%.

Now imagine the turmoil a suddenly high-valued Indian currency would result in. Not everybody even in India will rejoice. Exports will tank on account of the appreciation of the rupee riding on thousands of tonnes of newfound gold. If someone prompting the GSI to issue a disclaimer, unnerved by this turn of events, sounds like a conspiracy theory, consider the following.

What did the Times of India story dated 23 February, the breaking news many other media houses followed up, say? If you click on the link, you will see the disclaimer by GSI tweeted by Union minister Hardeep Singh Puri after two initial paragraphs. The newspaper does say this is the updated version. But why should the government get into this disclaiming business? What fallout is the Indian state trying to manage here?

Lest the content should be fiddled with again, let’s study the screenshots. Sonbhadra’s district mining officer KK Rai is clearly speaking in the future tense, implying that the discovery he spoke to the media about was not yet reported officially.

What follows punches a bigger hole in the GSI disclaimer. The team that ‘struck gold’ was not of the GSI in the first place! So, what was the GSI director-general disowning?

The next paragraph makes it clear that the GSI “had sought permission” to survey the area but apparently there was no progress on that front yet.

But the biggest blow to his disclaimer came from Sridhar himself! The following are excerpts from a PTI story published in The Hindu BusinessLine. This was published about 12 hours after The Times of India broke the news of the discovery. The GSI director-general admits here that his department worked in the area not after the year 2000. How can he then rubbish data that is dated 2020? Before the Uttar Pradesh mining department sends him the report, how would he know what they managed to find in the past 20 years since the GSI was no longer active in Sonbhadra?

Another media house (Network 18) has reported that the PMO had inquired about the gold mines found in Sonbhadra. Apparently, the government is not comfortable with the idea of turning international markets jittery.

Did the Uttar Pradesh mines officer speak out of turn? Not quite, I’d say. All that happened was that a nosy reporter (this is an appreciation) dug out some inter-departmental correspondence. When the officer was questioned, he couldn’t lie. Mind you, a scientist is not supposed to be an equally good economist who could gauge the politics that would ensue from his department’s discovery.

This is not to say that the UP government’s department has dug out 2,943.26 tonnes of gold indeed. What I can bet on is that Sridhar spoke prematurely. And since the moment he issued the disclaimer, UP’s Directorate of Geology and Mining has turned mute. Not risking their government jobs, cannot one of the metallurgists say at the least that they were referring to the mass of ore and not necessarily usable gold? No. When your job is at stake, not a squeak comes out of you.

Now the Director of Geological Survey of India GS Tiwari tells Network 18 that that gold ore of mass 52,806.25 tonnes was found in Sonbhadra, from which, at the rate of 3.03 g per tonne, only about 160 kg of gold can be produced. Sridhar had made this point already. Tiwari then reluctantly says that the GSI is still working on “new experiments to find gold through new techniques”. “We sincerely hope that we will be able to extract more and better gold in the hills of Sonbhadra. Therefore, the possibility of getting more gold in Sonbhadra cannot be ruled out,” he says.

The GSI will for sure. India is richer, but let’s not give the world sleepless nights. The time, until the realisation dawns, is better spent watching Satyajit Ray-directed Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone/La Pierre Philosophale, 1958), based on Parasuram’s (Rajsekhar Bose) story on how the world gets disturbed by a person with a Midas touch.

Surajit Dasgupta
Surajit Dasgupta
The founder of सिर्फ़ News has been a science correspondent in The Statesman, senior editor in The Pioneer, special correspondent in Money Life and columnist in various newspapers and magazines, writing in English as well as Hindi. He was the national affairs editor of Swarajya, 2014-16. He worked with Hindusthan Samachar in 2017. He was the first chief editor of Sirf News and is now back at the helm after a stint as the desk head of MyNation of the Asianet group. He is a mathematician by training with interests in academic pursuits of science, linguistics and history. He advocates individual liberty and a free market in a manner that is politically feasible. His hobbies include Hindi film music and classical poetry in Bengali, English, French, Hindi and Urdu.

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