As the controversy over 'Coal-gate' heats up, sources told NDTV that a draft report prepared by an inter-ministerial panel, set up by the Coal Ministry to review the progress of all coal blocks, is likely to recommend the cancellation of licenses of companies that are yet to develop mines. The Government had slapped cancellation notices on several companies in April this year for non-performance.
Of the 58 companies under review, 17 have been named in the Comptroller and Auditor General of India's report on alleged irregularities in the allotment of 142 coal blocks between 2004 and 2009. However, any cancellation may lead to more questions on the process in which the companies were selected.
The draft also recommends that the cancelled licenses be handed over to the state-owned Coal India. The panel, which is meeting on September 3, Monday, will submit the final report on September 15.
The CAG report, which says coal blocks were sold at a fraction of their market value leading to whopping losses, stirred a political storm that has paralysed Parliamentary proceedings with the BJP demanding Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s resignation. The BJP has also demanded that the licenses for the 142 coal blocks be cancelled.
Although the ministerial panel’s recommendations are for non-performance, and not alleged mis-allocation, the Opposition can use this as vindication of its stand since the panel was appointed by the Coal Ministry.
The group’s recommendations are, however, not binding on the Coal Ministry.
“This seriously impinges on the decision-making process. And what is crucial is it belongs to the period when the Prime Minister was the Coal Minister as well,” BJP Member of Parliament Ravi Shankar Prasad said after NDTV broke the news. “If a show cause (notice) was given and yet wrongdoing continued… I am only reading two plus two as four. There was a saga of irregularities, a bounty was given when the competitive bidding policy was deliberately delayed on 145 blocks in three years,” he added.
“We have for long been demanding that all licenses be cancelled. The Prime Minister should step down… nothing less,” BJP Member of Parliament Rajiv Pratap Rudy said.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi has spoken to BJP MP Sushma Swaraj to break the coal impasse. Meanwhile, the de-allocation issue has led to deep fissures within the Coal Ministry with its top two officials at odds with each other, sources said.
The situation was triggered off when the ministerial group, headed by Additional Secretary Zohra Chatterji, recommended the de-allocation of two coal blocks in Jharkhand. The Jitpur and Lohari blocks had been allotted to JSPL and Usha Martin, respectively. But the companies allegedly did not develop the blocks optimally, leading the panel to recommend de-allocation, sources said.
Coal Secretary SK Srivastava is of the view that the ministerial panel should not have expressed its opinion on the cancellation of coal block licenses since the guidelines for de-allocation have yet to be finalized, sources said. The Coal Secretary is reportedly unhappy because the panel did not give the concerned companies an opportunity to defend themselves.
In response to a query from Mr Srivastava on the rationale for de-allocating the Jitpur and Lohari coal blocks, Ms Chatterji said the panel has only "recommended" de-allocation and the final decision is pending.
On giving the concerned parties an opportunity to present their case, she wrote, "The paper, including replies to the show cause notices, required by the ministerial group have not yet been put up or circulated." The reason given by the additional secretary is that the concerned department within the ministry is, "overburdened with work related to a CBI inquiry".
However, officials from the concerned companies said this is not a valid reason for recommending de-allocation of the blocks.
Officials from other ministries which are a part of the inter-ministerial group said the de-allocation reports may be baseless, and the September 3 meeting will only review the progress of the coal blocks and may not recommend any cancellation.
The ministerial panel has asked the concerned department of the Coal Ministry to table all relevant facts before it to facilitate recommending appropriate action.