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SC crushes ‘mindless’ petrol order

New Delhi, Dec. 20: The Supreme Court today quashed the Union government’s August 9 notification that cancelled 3,760 petro dealerships allotted since January 1, 2000, in the wake of allegations of favouritism.

A division bench of Justices Y.K. Sabharwal and H.K. Sema termed Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s decision to cancel the allotments as “window dressing” for “public consumption”. The judges, however, constituted a two-member committee to scrutinise 413 cases of alleged favouritism. The rest of the allotments will not be affected.

Justice S.C. Agrawal, a retired apex court judge, and Justice P.K. Bahri, a retired Delhi High Court judge, form the two-member panel.

“The (Centre’s) order of August 9, 2002, is hereby quashed, except in respect of cases referred to the committee,” the bench said in its 40-page judgment.

The judges came down heavily on the manner the country’s top leadership decided to scrap the petrol pump, LPG and kerosene dealerships following media reports alleging nepotism and stalling of Parliament’s last session by Opposition parties. The Centre’s notification was challenged in the apex court.

“The cure is worse than the disease and the government had tried to equate the rotten apples with the good ones,” it observed while segregating “genuine allotments” such as the ones made to war widows, handicapped persons and the under-privileged from cases of alleged “political favouritism”.

The judges said the decision was taken “without any application of mind”. “If there are allegations of political favouritism, the government should have inquired into them and wherever the allegations are substantiated it would have been justified to cancel them,” the judges said.

“How can those against whom no insinuation was made be clubbed with those against whom allegations of political favouritism was made,” the bench added. The “only reason” the government advanced during arguments was that the notification was issued in “public interest”, the apex court noted.

It ordered copies of the judgment to be sent to all the high courts so that they could dispose of pending petitions, “if any”.

The four government oil giants — Indian Oil Corporation Ltd, Bharat Petroleum, Hindustan Petroleum and the Indo Burma Petroleum Company Ltd — were ordered to make available to the two-member panel all relevant records and files relating to the 413 allotments. They should be submitted to the committee within five days, the bench said.

The Centre was ordered to appoint a nodal officer “not below” the rank of a joint secretary, to assist the committee. All states and Union Territories were directed to provide assistance to the panel to enable it to complete the probe within three months.

The court also said that if, in due course of examination, the committee thinks an allotment was made on merit, it would be up to it to close the case.

But all allotments would continue to function till the judges submit their report and till further orders from the apex court.

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