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17 March, 2015

Coal block corruption

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

A Delhi special court last week asked former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to appear before it next month, along with industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla, to answer charges of conspiracy and impropriety in coal block allocations. Is this a case of upholding the majesty of law? Or is it one of judicial activism? Time alone can tell.

The coal scam came to light three years ago when the Comptroller and Auditor General reported that during 2004-09 the government had allocated coal blocks to various companies without competitive bidding. He estimated that the government’s inept handling gave the companies an estimated windfall gain of Rs10,673 billion. He later scaled down the figure to Rs1,856 billion.

The first Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government was in power at the time and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself was in charge of the Coal ministry for a while. Acting on a complaint filed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, then in the opposition, the Central Vigilance Commission directed the Central Bureau of Investigation to probe the matter. The CBI registered first information reports against a dozen companies and, apart from company officials, some officers, including Coal Secretary PC Parakh, were cited as accused.

Last year the Supreme Court ordered the setting up of a special CBI court to hear the coal scam cases and appointed a special prosecutor to conduct them. It also cancelled all but four of the 218 coal blocks allotted since 1993, covering the periods of Prime Ministers PV Narasimha Rao (Congress), AB Vajpayee (BJP), and HD Deva Gowda and IK Gujral (both Janata Dal).

The CBI was on the point of closing the case relating to Hindalco Industries Limited and its chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla when special court judge Bharat Parashar asked it to record the statement of Manmohan Singh, who was holding charge of the ministry when the company was allotted coal block. Accordingly, CBI officials interrogated him at his residence and filed a status report.

Former CBI director RK Raghavan said the judge’s order reaffirmed the position that a Prime Minister – in office or outside – had no immunity from criminal prosecution. That a Prime Minister is not above the law was established years ago when Narasimha Rao faced three criminal cases, all of which were conducted by the CBI. Trial courts acquitted him in two cases for want of evidence. In the third, relating to bribing of MPs to buy support for his minority government during the voting on a no-confidence motion, the trial court found him guilty and sentenced him to three years’ rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs100,000. On appeal the high court set aside the conviction.

While the principle of supremacy of law has thus been asserted, there is room to doubt the reliability of the legal processes.

Created in 1963, the CBI traces its origin to the Special Police Establishment which India inherited from the British regime. It established an early reputation with its success in some sensational cases in which the role of the state police was suspect. However, in sensitive cases, like the Bofors scandal of Rajiv Gandhi’s time, it too failed miserably.

In 2013, on finding that the CBI had amended a coal block case affidavit at the instance of the Law Minister, Justice RM Lodha of the Supreme Court dubbed it “a caged parrot”. The court thereafter took certain steps to help it to function without political interference. However, few believe it is now a free bird.

There is something curious about the coal block cases. The CAG only accused the government of inefficiency. He did not allege corruption.

The conspiracy charge levelled against Manmohan Singh rests on the CBI report about a meeting between him and Birla before his firm was allotted the coal block. Neither the CAG nor the CBI has suggested that Manmohan Singh derived financial benefit from the allocation or that there was any quid pro quo.
Former Confederation of Indian Industry president Adi Godrej expressed surprise at the citing of Manmohan Singh and Birla as accused on the basis of their meeting. “It is not uncommon for senior industrialists to meet a minister or even the Prime Minister when an important matter needs to be discussed,” he said in a television interview. “If you keep summoning everybody as an accused, businesses will get disheartened and wouldn’t want to invest in the country.” --Gulf Today, March 17, 2015.

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