Coal scam: Manmohan Singh, K M Birla named accused

About 10 months after he relinquished the post of prime minister, Manmohan Singh has been summoned as an accused in the coal block allocation case by a trial court. A 75-page order by the judge has said Singh needs to be summoned for alleged criminal conspiracy with government officials to “accommodate” Hindalco for a coal block in Odisha about a decade ago, when he held additional charge of the coal ministry.

Hindalco, its chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla, and two other officials and former coal secretary P C Parakh have also been summoned as accused in the case. Some government officials have been accused of criminal misconduct, too. All the accused have been asked to appear before the court on April 8.

The case pertains to the allocation of the Talabira-II and -III coal blocks in Odisha’s Jharsuguda district to Hindalco Industries (an Aditya Birla Group company) and two other firms in 2005.

In the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime, Singh was prime minister for two consecutive terms. Compulsions of coalition politics during this period have often been blamed for scams pertaining to the allocation of 2G telecom spectrum and coal blocks, which allegedly resulted in huge losses to the exchequer.

Earlier, another former prime minister, P V Narasimha Rao, was convicted by a court in the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) bribery case. It was alleged ahead of a no-confidence motion in 1993, Rao had, through a representative, offered bribes to JMM members to vote for him. In 2000, a court sentenced Rao and his colleague Buta Singh to three years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs 1 lakh. Subsequently, Rao moved the Delhi High Court and was released on bail. In 2002, the high court overturned the lower court’s decision.

This time, too, all those named accused are determined to take legal recourse. Backing Singh, the Congress said a legal route was being explored. On his part, Singh told the media, “I am upset, but this is a part of life…I am sure the truth will prevail and I will get a chance to put forward my case with facts.”

Hindalco, too, is planning to move a higher court.

P C Parakh, otherwise open to speaking to the media, remained tight-lipped, saying the “matter is sub judice”.

Pronouncing the order, judge Bharat Parashar said, “I am of the considered opinion that an offence of Indian Penal Code 120-B (pertaining to criminal conspiracy) is prima facie made out as having been committed by the representatives of Hindalco and the public servants involved in the impugned coal block allocation process.”

The court said it was “a well-planned and well-designed exercise initiated by the representatives of Hindalco and, subsequently, involved various public servants at different levels in the coal ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

“By virtue of their (public servants) acts of omission and commission, they dishonestly allowed Hindalco to misappropriate the nationalised natural resources of the country and the public servants so acted in complete disregard to the public interest involved,” the order said.

The order, the court said, was based on a “matrix of events” that showed scuttling of allotment of the coal block to public sector unit Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) to “accommodate Hindalco”. The court said, this “well-planned exercise” could be termed a criminal conspiracy, as an earlier recommendation of a screening committee was nullified “by adopting a procedure contrary to the approved guidelines and rule of law”. The order didn’t mention of any money trail or any instance of quid pro quo.

In the 25th meeting of the screening committee, Parakh had initially recommended the Talabira-II block to NLC for its 2,000-Mw power plant, while Talabira-III was meant to be allocated to a public sector undertaking (PSU) alone (Mahanadi Coal Ltd), not a private company. However, the original decision was reversed to help Hindalco get the coal block in a joint venture with PSUs. The court said Parakh stated wrong facts about a joint venture between NLC and Mahanadi Coal in one of his notes, adding he was silent on taking their consent before proposing a new framework to “accommodate” Hindalco.

“It is also beyond comprehension as to how Parakh, who had dealt at length with the issue of allocation of Talabira-II coal block vis-a-vis the claims of NLC and Hindalco in the screening committee headed by him, came to overturn the decision on his own, without referring the matter to the screening committee and that, too, without any plausible logic either in favour of Hindalco or by way of any logic that could negate the earlier reasons mentioned in the minutes of 25th screening committee in favour of NLC and against Hindalco,” the court said. “Hindalco was allowed to dishonestly misappropriate excess amount of coal and the coal ministry and the PMO did so in complete disregard to the public interest involved.”

“The repeated reminders – written and telephonic – to the coal ministry to expeditiously process the matter from PMO prima facie indicate the extra undue interest shown by the PMO in the matter,” Parashar said. The court said it was a “conscious effort” on Singh’s part to “accommodate” the coal blocks to Hindalco, as he had ignored a cautionary note by subordinates. It further accused him of “compromising” the status of the Talabira-III coal block, meant only for public sector companies but allocated to a private firm. The court noted though it wasn’t possible for a PM to look into the minute details of every case placed before him, in the Hindalco case, “Singh chose to keep the coal portfolio” and was acting in the capacity of a coal minister.

On Hindalco, the court said the company’s officials, including Birla, left “no stone unturned in their efforts to secure allotment of Talabira-II coal block”.

Hindalco, however, said it was confident it would stand vindicated, adding it would defend its case through legal means. “Hindalco reiterates none of its officials, including Chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla, have pursued any unlawful or inappropriate means for securing the allocation of the coal block. The company had represented its case to the authorities concerned in a transparent and lawful manner,” it said in a statement.

Parashar observed the coal block allocation case couldn’t be compared to the one pertaining to 2G telecom spectrum, which involved another top industrialist, Sunil Bharti Mittal, the chairman and managing director of Bharti Cellular Ltd. In the 2G case, the Supreme Court had set aside the order of a trial court that had summoned Mittal as an accused. The court said, “Birla played an active role by tapping his bureaucratic and political channels to secure allocation of the Talabira-II coal block in favour of Hindalco.”

It added though the PMO had initially urged Singh shouldn’t be involved in the allocation process, “for reasons best known to the PMO and the Ministry of Coal, the files for final allocation were again being sent to the PMO and were being approved over there.”

Business interests – either that of any big industrial group or of a small businessman – cannot be allowed to be pursued in the manner in which it has been done in the present case,” the court said.