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Delhi govt U-turn on Reliance gas case

New Delhi, Aug. 19: The Delhi government today told Delhi High Court that it lacked the powers to act on an FIR against Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani and two former Union ministers for alleged collusion to inflate gas prices, barely two weeks after asserting it had the authority.

The anti-corruption branch (ACB) of the state administration — headed by a lieutenant governor who reports to the Narendra Modi government — cited a Union home ministry notification saying it had no authority in the case against Ambani, Veerappa Moily and Murli Deora.

The notification was issued on July 23, over two weeks before the last hearing on August 9 when the state authorities claimed they had the powers to proceed in the case and cited a 1993 notification issued by the Centre.

Questions are being raised whether the Delhi administration had not been informed of the new notification.

Today’s move echoes the stand of the UPA, which was in power at the Centre when the FIR was filed in February on the orders of then Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal.

Senior counsel Vikas Singh, appearing for the Delhi government and the ACB, today pointed to the July 23 notification and said the ACB was empowered only to act in corruption cases involving the state government and not the Union government.

Singh, a former solicitor-general, sought a two-week adjournment to formally place the notification in court. The court granted the request.

At the previous hearing, the ACB had filed an affidavit contesting the contentions of Reliance and the previous UPA government that it had no authority in the case. It said the 1993 home ministry notification granted it powers to probe all cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act.

Today, the ACB said the latest notification stipulated that the 1993 order applied only to authorities “under the National Capital Territory of Delhi government”.

“The central government hereby declares that the (1993) notification shall be applicable to officers and employees of that (Delhi) government only and for that purpose amends the said notification,” the July 23 order states.

In other words, the 1993 order would not apply to central ministers and officials or industrialists based outside the capital, such as Ambani.

Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing in the case for an NGO that wants action on the FIR, said: “The latest move is nothing but an attempt to shield not only RIL but also the former UPA ministers by the present NDA government.”

Bhushan is a member of Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). “The NDA appears to be afraid that if the AAP comes back to power in Delhi, it may file cases against its ministers too. So they want to pre-empt it. This decision should be seen in that context,” Bhushan said.

Kejriwal has been pushing for fresh elections in Delhi.The FIR accuses Moily and Deora, both former petroleum ministers, and the former director-general of hydrocarbons, V.K. Sibal, of favouring Reliance by trying to raise the gas prices.

The pricing formula has not been implemented yet. The issue is pending in the Supreme Court and the Modi government has not taken an explicit stand on the issue.

The FIR claims that because of the alleged conspiracy, the planned gas price hike would cost the country a minimum of Rs 54,500 crore every year and allow Reliance to make a windfall profit of Rs 1.2 lakh crore.

At the previous hearing, the ACB had cited, besides the 1993 order, a 1995 notification by the then lieutenant-governor that said the ACB would have the powers to probe all corruption cases.

“The lt governor, who issued the said notification, is the Union government’s representative under the Constitution. Thus, there is no violation of any federal structure as alleged in the present petition,” the ACB had said in its affidavit.

It was filed in response to petitions by Reliance and the then UPA government questioning the ACB’s authority to probe alleged offences by the Union petroleum ministry.

The high court had on May 20 directed RIL and the central government to cooperate with the investigations.