New Delhi, Sept. 6: The government today countered the BJP’s campaign on the coal block controversy by releasing letters from the states opposing competitive bidding as well as chief ministers’ recommendations for coal-block allotments to specific private parties and their appeals to allow excess mining.
The Centre took this step of releasing confidential documents, which included minutes of meetings between the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and coal ministry officials, as all hopes of a debate in Parliament were dashed on the session’s penultimate day.
Releasing the documents, human resource development minister Kapil Sibal explained that the Centre had to resort to such a step as it wasn’t allowed the opportunity “to counter the propaganda built completely on lies”.
Sibal cited a BJP statement today that claimed its chief ministers had not opposed auctions and only demanded a share for the states. He said that according to the released documents, the claim “was a blatant lie”.
A letter written on March 28, 2005, by BJP-ruled Chhattisgarh’s chief secretary, A.K. Vijayavargiya, to the Union coal secretary said: “The suggested policy change is likely to shift the new steel/iron units from the poorer inland states to comparatively richer coastal states. The proposal (of auction) therefore (would) be detrimental to the development/growth of iron/steel industry in the inland states like Chhattisgarh (and Jharkhand, MP, etc).”
The letter added: “The only option available to the relatively smaller unsuccessful iron/steel units would be to depend on imported coal, the prohibitive cost of which in inland locations will make them unviable, resulting ultimately in their closure.”
The letter feared that the “proposed policy change aims at moving towards (the) free market scenario” and added: “In such a scenario, the supply/sale of coal needs to be regulated rather than putting it on competitive bidding route.”
Vijayavargiya concluded unambiguously: “The state government, therefore, does not support the proposal and instead is of the view that allotment of captive coal blocks to iron/steel industry needs to be continued as per the extant policy.”
On April 11, 2005, Rajasthan’s then chief minister Vasundhara Raje of the BJP had herself written to the Prime Minister: “The proposed change would take away the state’s prerogative in selection of the lessee, since under the proposed system the lessee would be chosen by the central government through a process of competitive bidding. It is, therefore, requested that the existing practice of allocating lignite mines be continued.”
Sibal latched on to this letter to vindicate his claim that the states had the decisive role in choosing the lessee (the firm that gets the block), and wondered how the Prime Minister was being criticised for something he had not decided.
Sibal also revealed how Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik and his Madhya Pradesh counterpart Shivraj Singh Chauhan had lobbied for particular companies. (See chart)
The minutes of the CAG’s meeting with coal ministry officials suggest the CAG believed that “estimates were being employed to project and empathise a material issue and should not be construed as a core finding of the audit report”.
The ministry requested the CAG to take into account the views it had expressed while recasting the relevant portion of the draft report and organise another meeting to discuss the draft performance audit report. The CAG assured the ministry that its replies would be considered and incorporated appropriately.
Sibal, who refused to go into the merits of the CAG’s findings, asked how the estimates were projected later as “core findings” and why the ministry’s views were not incorporated.
He also dug up various statements made by Arun Jaitley, now the Rajya Sabha leader of the Opposition, during NDA rule.
On December 12, 2001, when the Congress had stalled Parliament on the coffin scandal dogging the NDA government, Jaitley had said: “I make a direct charge against the Opposition that they would not stand anywhere if the issue was discussed threadbare in Parliament. That is why they are not agreeing to discuss the CAG report and stalling proceedings.”
Sibal, pointing to the irony of the BJP’s current stance, recalled another statement by Jaitley that went: “If there are lapses, these should be corrected. If deliberate lapses are there, those responsible should be held accountable. If there are no lapses, no doubt should be allowed to stay. Normally, a discussion on a CAG report is undertaken after the PAC report, but if there are any doubts we are willing (to have) a discussion in Parliament.”
Sibal wondered whether the UPA government was saying anything different now and demanded that Jaitley explain what made him change his viewpoint.