Manmohan Singh in Coal pit; Court puts him in dock

New Delhi:  As a special CBI court ordered former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Hindalco chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla, former Coal Secretary PC Parakh and three others to appear before it on April 8 in a case related to allotment of coal mines to private firms, political sparks flew within minutes.

The timing of the court order coincided with an on-going debate in the Rajya Sabha over an amendment bill that deals with allotment of coal mines by auction and immediately Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar Environment observed that the issue was a blot on the Congress and demanded that the party end its opposition to the Bill.

“I hope reason will prevail,” Javadekar commented while denying any vendetta or political interference in the judicial process.

The Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala retorted that the BJP was bent upon politicising a judicial process. ‘‘This is a poor and desperate attempt by the BJP to politicize an on-going judicial process. By making such comments, the government of the day wants to distract the attention of the people from the anti-farmer Land & Acquisition Bill which they have placed before Parliament,” said Surjewala.

The CBI court issued a 75-page order after rejecting the investigating agency’s final report which had said that it has no prosecutable evidence in the case.

The court order says after Hindalco chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla met Dr Singh, the Prime Minister’s office “showed undue interest in the allocations and sent reminders to the coal ministry.”

The case involves allocation of 15 percent of the mines to Hindalco, whereas the lion’s share, 70 percent of the Talabira mines in Odisha, had been allocated to the public sector company Mahanadi Coalfields and another 15 percent to Neyveli Lignite Corporation, a public sector unit. The court has also accused the former prime minister of ignoring the decision of a screening committee to allot the coal field to Neyveli Lignite Corporation, a public sector unit.

Popularly known as coalgate, the controversy over allocation of 206 coal blocks from 1993 to 2012 to private companies without auction has become a major political issue. It has gained added momentum as the Modi government has reportedly raked in Rs 2 lakhs crores through auction of 31 mines in the last few months. The BJP is touting this to show the contrast between the handling of country’s resources between the UPA and the NDA regimes as well as point a finger at Manmohan Singh’s impeccable credentials.

But the Congress too has come back with full force. Making a departure from its practice of not commenting on sub judice matters, the party rallied round the former prime minister and asserted that he is a man of impeccable credentials when it comes to integrity, honesty and probity.

“No one has raised a finger against him on these issues,” said Surjewala.

On his part, Dr Singh said: “I am upset, but this is a part of life. I am sure that truth will prevail and I will get a chance to put forward my case with all the facts. I have always said I am open to legal scrutiny. “

Former cabinet colleague and senior lawyer Kapil Sibal also stood by the side of his former prime minister. “I don’t think anyone can believe that he can do something wrong or corrupt. He always wanted to be on the right side of the law, yet he finds himself summoned. We shall defend him with all our might.”

This defence began with Surjewala getting into the details of the coal block allocations by the former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee during the six year period from 1998-2004. “Initially the Congress only followed the footsteps of the Vajpayee government while allocating both coal mines (it allotted 41 mines) and spectrum, and when the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wanted to change the process from the screening committee to auction, this was opposed by the BJP ruled states. He ultimately managed to secure this process, and coal auctions that have taken place now are based on the changes introduced by him,” said Surjewala.

The Congress spokesperson also made light of the BJP’s claim that it has earned Rs 2 lakh crores from coal auctions. ‘‘It is part of the process brought in by the Congress and Dr. Singh, but the BJP government must also remember that the money that is coming, will be there over the next 30 years and may be it could be Rs. 6000 crore per year. There is another very interesting facet that comes out and it is that the bulk of this money is from the four coal blocks which were allocated by the Vajpayee-led NDA government,” he said.

[alert type=”e.g. warning, danger, success, info” title=””]”I am upset, but this is a part of life,” the 82-year-old former PM said after the court order.[/alert]

HAULED OVER COALS

  • Manmohan Singh summoned as accused in case that saw mining rights being assigned without transparency to private firms.
  • Hindalco, of the Aditya Birla Group, had first been refused the coal field it sought, but the decision was later reversed.
  • The 75-page court order says Kumar Mangalam Birla met Singh, after which the prime minister’s office “showed undue interest and sent reminders to the coal ministry.”
  • Singh also accused of ignoring the decision of a screening committee to allot a coal field to Neyveli Lignite Corporation, a public sector unit.
  • Hindalco chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla, former Coal Secretary PC Parakh and three others also summoned
  • Singh in his capacity as Coal Minister will be under lens for criminal conspiracy and breach of trust, a charge that carries a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
  • The CBI had told the court in its final report that there was “no prosecutable evidence against anyone.”

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