The CBI’s 14-month inquiry into irregularities in coal block allocation since 1993 has been a case of the tail trying to wag the dog. For months now, the CBI has been frustrated at every turn by various arms of the government hellbent on watering down the probe and denying the CBI access to oral and documentary evidence.
The latest in a series of roadblocks that have threatened to derail the CBI probe are the details surfacing from a search committee meeting, constituted after investigators complained to the Supreme Court of being denied access to crucial files relating to the scam.
The search committee meeting of July 16 revealed that several applications filed seeking coal blocks were missing. Also missing was the recommendation made by Congress MP Vijay Darda and forwarded by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to the Coal Ministry for a company vying for the Bander block in Maharashtra.
Earlier, the then Union Law Minister and officials of the PMO and Coal Ministry had vetted a draft status report on the probe that the CBI had to submit to the Supreme Court. This revelation irked the SC bench. After all, the coal ministry and the PMO are under the needle of suspicion over the lack of transparency in the Screening Committee that allocated the blocks.
The court’s observations that government officials “changed the heart” of the draft status report merits a question: To save whom did they do so?
The next attempt at stonewalling came from the Ministry of Corporate Affairs. The CBI’s efforts to question HC Gupta, coal secretary between 2006 and 2009, and the period when the maximum number of coal blocks were allotted, were rebuffed by this ministry until the matter reached the Supreme Court. The CBI’s difficulties have given the
Opposition a chance to castigate the Prime Minister. Manmohan Singh was in sole charge of the coal ministry during UPA-I except for two brief interludes.
The government’s defence has become shaky after the CBI told the Supreme Court that coal block allocation during 2006-09 was done without verifying the credentials of applicant companies which allegedly misrepresented facts and the coal ministry had no guidelines for allotting coal blocks.
After the CAG pegged the loss from non-auctioning of coal blocks between 2004 and 2009 at Rs1.86 lakh crore, a parliamentary committee found that of nearly 160 captive coal blocks allotted since 2004 only two had started production.
The 13 FIRs filed by the CBI have mostly implicated private persons. While Navin Jindal and Dasari Narayana Rao have been booked in an FIR filed in June, many ruling and opposition politicians apart from Darda had recommended coal blocks for a clutch of state-owned and private companies.
For the CBI to connect the links between firms allotted captive blocks, politicians and bureaucrats, and unearth the entire conspiracy it needs to trace the missing files. The Supreme Court has its task cut out; it must take action against the coal minister and coal secretary and order the same CBI team to probe the missing files.
If the Watergate scandal can be cited as precedent, those involved in this cover-up operation can lead the CBI to the
accused in the “coalgate” scam.