New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday censured the government over what it said was the opaque manner in which the administration’s screening committees allocated captive coal mining rights.
On Monday, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had filed a third status report before the apex court in the case. A three-member bench headed by R.M. Lodha is hearing the case.
While the court did not discuss the contents of the status report, it said the government had failed to keep proper documentation of the minutes of committee meetings and supporting papers, which it said would have made the criteria clear for the allocations.
“The CBI still maintains the same position that the records and detailed minutes are unavailable. Mid-way (in) the process (of allocations of the coal blocks), recommendations of state governments have changed and have not been considered,” Lodha said.
Lodha said the agency had blamed the coal ministry for not sharing the records. “The CBI is struggling,” the judge said. “There is nothing given to them.”
CBI has also said that in some cases allocations of coal fields were made on applications that were “factually incorrect”, Lodha said after reading the status report.
The judge asked the government to file comprehensive affidavits and supporting material for each allocation made. “We are concerned with decisions taken in each (screening committee) meeting. How decisions were taken, comparative merits and demerits, and whether more meritorious candidates were ignored?” Lodha asked. “With all your voluminous affidavits and documents, there is no basic document to display your intention (toward transparent allocations), otherwise you would supply them to the CBI.”
Records for the screening committee meetings were available and will be placed before the court, attorney general G.E. Vahanvati told the court.
Lodha said the apex court will deal with the issue of allocations and the criminality of the actions under investigation, and would let the Parliament decide upon the issue of CBI’s autonomy.
“Since the government has taken some steps regarding the selection of the CBI director and created a committee for ensuring accountability, it seems that the Supreme Court is willing to give the government some latitude” said Rahul Singh, an assistant professor at the National Law School of India University.
On Monday, CBI had filed two so-called modification applications, seeking relaxation of an earlier Supreme Court order that directed the agency not to share details of its investigation with the government.
“This in-house mechanism of seeking legal opinion during investigation ensures that only those cases are sent for trial which can stand the litmus test. Not only this, the scrutiny of evidence collected during the investigation by law officers leads to strengthening of evidence required for proving the commission of the offence against the accused,” CBI said in its application, which was reviewed by Mint.
“With progress in the enquiries in allocation of coal blocks, more investigating officers are required to be associated with investigation,” the application said, Mint reported on Monday.
The Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the government auditor, said in an August 2012 report that the allocation, rather than auction, of coal blocks between 2005 and 2009 had caused notional losses to the tune of $1.86 trillion to the national exchequer.
CBI has been investigating the allocations of coal mining rights for captive use since 1993.
Between October and December, the government cancelled the allocation of at least 15 coalfields and encashed the bank guarantees of at least 14 other allottees on the grounds that they had failed to develop them.
On 23 April, a parliamentary panel that had reviewed the process of coal block allocations said in a report that all allotments since 1993 should be cancelled. The panel said that the “whole procedure adopted by the government for distributing coal blocks betrays the confidence of the people of our country reposed in the government”.
On 10 May, law minister Ashwani Kumar resigned after CBI said in an affidavit in the Supreme Court that he, along with officials from the coal ministry and the Prime Minister’s office (PMO), had effected changes in its status report on coal block allocation irregularities.
On 13 May, CBI questioned Dasari Narayana Rao, who was a minister of state in the coal ministry during the time the bulk of the blocks were allocated.
In June, CBI had questioned former coal secretary H.C. Gupta and two former officials in the PMO, Vini Mahajan and Ashish Gupta, regarding the case.
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for 17 July.