Friday, March 20, 2015

The truth is on the march

Pankaj Sharma
16 March 2015, New Delhi, 

The present government is maintaining a studied silence and does not want 

to support the conclusion reached by the CBI

Congress President Sonia Gandhi once again showed her mettle by calling an emergency meeting of the party’s working committee early Thursday morning and marched along with senior leaders to Manmohan Singh’s residence to offer their unstinting support and solidarity. She declared that the Congress shall fight this legally with all means available to them. Nobody can question the Special Court if it has decided to summon Manmohan Singh in spite of the findings of CBI, but the former Prime Minister and the Congress party certainly have the right to feel outraged;as he is known to be a person of integrity and probity. 

What is the “extra undue interest” the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took to “somehow accommodate” a private corporate in Talabira-II coal block? Special CBI judge Bharat Parashar has said in his 75-page order that “there was a conscious effort” on the part of Singh and he “chose to keep the coal portfolio with him” and that his actions seem to have resulted in “windfall profits to a private company”. The matter was investigated by CBI more than once and it was directed to question not only the former Prime Minister but many other stakeholders. After examining the available evidence, the CBI filed a report to the Special Court reiterating that there was complete transparency, there was no wrongdoing and everything was above board. 

Let us try to understand the history of allocation of coal blocks to private companies for captive use. It started in 1993 after the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973 was amended.  This was done with the explicit objective of attracting private investment in specified end use projects. Since 1993, allocation of coal blocks was being done on the basis of recommendations made by an “Inter-Ministerial Screening Committee”. Between 1993 and 2011, Government of India allocated 206 coal blocks to government and private companies. Out of these, 41 blocks were allocated by the NDA government and 165 blocks by the UPA government. In 2005, the erstwhile UPA Government headed by Dr. Manmohan Singh changed/improved the procedure for allocation of coal blocks by:- 
(a) Inviting application through open advertisements after providing details of the captive coal blocks on offer along with guidelines and conditions of allotment to be mentioned in each advertisement; 
(b) Examination and evaluation of these applications by a broad based “Steering Committee” comprising of representatives from State governments, related Ministries of the Central Government and coal companies; and (c) Ensuring that applications were assessed on pre-set parameters such as techno-economic feasibility of the end use projects, preparedness to set up the project, past track record in execution of projects, financial and technical capabilities of applicant-companies and recommendations of the State governments along with the concerned ministries in-charge i.e. Coal, Steel, etc.

The Prime Minister’s Office headed by Dr. Manmohan Singh convened a meeting of Coal and Lignite bearing States to switch to the system of competitive bidding on  July 25, 2005. The aforementioned switch to competitive bidding was opposed by all the states headed by BJP governments and the parties that are opposed to Congress from time to time. Arjun Munda, BJP Chief Minister of Jharkhand wrote to the Union Government on February 20, 2004 against the policy of competitive bidding. BJP’s Rajsthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje also expressed similar sentiments in her letter dated April 11, 2005. Subsequently Biju Janta Dal’s Chief Minister of Odisha,Naveen Patnaik opposed it through his letter dated July 25, 2005. Shivraj Singh Chouhan, BJP Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh also expressed his opposition to it in his letter of May 2, 2007.  A.K. Vijayvargiya, Chief Secretary of BJP ruled Chhatisgarh government wrote a similar sounding letter to the Central government on March 28, 2005, raising questions against competitive bidding, and Ashok Gupta, Chief Secretary of CPM ruled West Bengal also sent a letter dated  March 31, 2005 along similar lines.

Now, let us examine some facts about the Hindalco case in which summons have been issued to Manmohan Singh. On May 7, 2005, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh received a letter from Kumar Manglam Birla of Hindalco requesting for allocation of Talabira-II Coal Block for his Integrated Aluminium Project in Sambalpur District of Odisha and for expansion of Hirakude Aluminium Plant in Odisha. Singh’s instructions on this letter say “Please get a report from the Coal Ministry”. Odisha Chief Minister Navin Patnaik, wrote a letter to Prime Minister on August 17, 2005 requesting for allotment of Talabira-II to Hindalco on the grounds that the Government of Odisha had strongly supported the case of Hindalco in the Steering Committee meeting; Aluminium Plants should get higher priority as they generate more employment and wealth; and it is equitable to accord higher priority to units adding more value through manufacturing in the State. This letter was also sent by Singh to Coal Ministry for examination. Coal Ministry through its Secretary, Shri P.C. Parikh submitted a proposal on  September 16, 2005 that Talabira-II and III be mined as a single Mine with mining being done by a joint venture formed between government enterprise Mahanadi Coal Limited, government’s Neyveli Lignite Corporation and private enterprise Hindalco in which Mahanadi will have 70 per cent shares and Neyveli and Hindalco will have 15 per cent shares respectively. Prime Minister Singh approved this proposal on  October 1, 2002.

The entire decision making process in allocation of only 15 per cent share in Talabira to Hindalco was completely transparent and Manmohan Singh’s role came due to the recommendation made by the Chief Minister of the state where the coal block was situated. Central Bureau of Investigation upon investigation found no criminal angle in the process. The government claims that the CBI is truly independent and this independent investigating agency has come to an independent bona fide conclusion exonerating Singh; saying there was no criminality involved in the allocation of Talabira-II coal blocks. But the present government is maintaining a studied silence and does not want to support the conclusion of CBI. Let’s hope that no court will ever observe in future that Prime Minister Narendra Modi “chose to keep the power to take all the policy decisions with his office” and took “extra undue interest” in the schemes such as Make in India and there were “conscious efforts” on his part to attain the better rank of ease of doing business in India.

Author is editor & CEO of News Views India.

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