So, there you have it. In one of the clearest admissions of wrongdoing, the government on Thursday admitted that it had indeed wrongfully allocated coal blocks to the undeserving and unqualified claimants. Attorney-General Goolam E.
Vahanvati told a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Justice R M Lodha, that “we took the decision in good faith but something turned out to be wrong.” Even the first part of the statement is questionable because a number of allocations for coal blocks were made on extraneous considerations. The Apex Court is hearing a PIL filed by the well-known NGO, Common Cause, for the cancellation of the coal allocations. Notably, most of the controversial allocations were made when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself was holding the coal portfolio. The scam had been exposed by a CAG report, which estimated the loss to the national exchequer to be over Rs 2 lakh crore. For weeks after the CAG report became public, the government tried to undermine its credibility, saying that the CAG was exaggerating the loss figure or had not grasped the reasons why allocations were made to the people these were made to. In fact, senior ministers openly abused the former CAG, accusing him of a political motive. To his credit, Vinod Rai refused to be drawn into any controversy, maintaining a complete silence before and after his retirement. The admission of wrongdoing by the government on Thursday answers loud and clear all his critics. He had worked diligently and most objectively to protect the public interest while examining the books of accounts of the GoI. And, frankly, he found a lot that was wrong on those books simply because the government under Manmohan Singh had allowed the corrupt elements to raid the national exchequer for personal enrichment. During the course of the hearing, Law Minister Ashwani Kumar had lost his job for trying to tinker with the CBI report in the coal scam. The court had specifically instructed the CBI not to share its report with anyone in the government. It may be recalled that the Apex Court had famously said that the CBI was `like a caged parrot’, for changing the thrust of its report to protect senior members of the government. Also, the government had taken a lot of flak in Parliament and outside after it had claimed that a number of crucial files pertaining to the wrongful coal mine allocations had gone missing. The Apex Court had ordered the CBI to trace those files and to register a separate case against the unnamed accused in this regard last August. On its part, the Congress spokespersons had sought to drag the opposition-run governments for recommending some of these coal allocations, though the final decision in this regard lay with the centre. All these diversionary tactics came to nought when, in an effort to cut its losses, the government finally confessed that there was hanky-panky in the coal block allocations. It is notable that due to the mess in its coal exploration policy, India has had to import vast quantities of coal to fire its thermal power stations. Last year alone, coal imports ran up a bill of $13 billion, which further pressured the trade account imbalance.
Meanwhile, the vital question that the Apex Court must address is the fate of the wrongful allocations. Canceling these licenses wholesale, as was the controversial course adopted in the case of the 2G spectrum allocations, may not be the correct solution. It would push back further the development of new coal mines. The country cannot afford this delay, especially when overdependence on thermal power continues unabated. Though the Apex Court can be relied upon to take the best decision in the wider national interest, a mixed approach will fit the bill. New licencees, who have either commissioned the new mines, or are well on the way to do so in the near future, ought to be let off after being made to pay huge penalties. Others who have not proceeded to implement their licences, ought to forfeit them outright. The point is that the 2G type of outright abrogation of licences would put the economic clock back to the disadvantage of everyone. This should be avoided. Meanwhile, politicians like Manish Tiwari and Kapil Sibal should offer a public apology to Vinod Rai, the most upright and fearless CAG in recent years, who served the nation’s interest best by spotlighting the theft of public funds by highly-placed ministers and their minions.