“Congress party has put the PM in the dock”
If it is a conspiracy, then the Prime Minister was part of it. He was the final authority as the minister handling coal.
Former coal secretary Prakash Chandra Parakh, 68, seems cool and confident in the eye of the storm. Since October 15, when the CBI came knocking on his door, he has stuck to his routine—a morning walk followed by yoga—before meeting visitors. He spoke to India Today Senior Editor Amarnath K. Menon about the allegations against him. Excerpts:
Q. On September 5, 2012, you had told us how you had tried to prevent the coal scandal. You were prepared to tell all to the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament. Does that hold true today?
A. The Public Accounts Committee of Parliament did not call me to give evidence. If they really wanted the truth, they should have called me first in the light of my initiatives for transparent bidding. I have not told the media anything because I am writing my memoirs. It will take another three or four months. I will put the entire story in it. Q. Surely, you can reveal more... A. The Prime Minister was definitely in favour of initiating the bidding system. What I can guess—only guess—is that perhaps he did not have the support of the party.
Q. In July, 2004 you had taken the auctions file to PMO. Principal Secretary TKA Nair returned it after raising a few technical queries. Did the bureaucrats stall the introduction of a transparent regulatory system?
A. The process started with a stakeholders meeting on June 28, 2004, when I put forward my idea that the competitive bidding process is a better way to allocate coal blocks. I did not find many takers for this even in the industry. My guess is that people thought that when they can get it for free why pay for it? I thought when the number of applicants is large it will be difficult to make an objective selection. Therefore, I drafted the competitive bidding proposal and put it up to the Prime Minister. I discussed it with him during my first briefing about the ministry. He agreed with me. I set the ball rolling by bringing some amendments to the Coal Mines Nationalisation Act 1973. My assessment at that time was that the system would be in place by the end of 2004. Therefore, I kept the screening committee on hold.
Then, Shibu Soren came back as the coal minister and the Cabinet note was put up.He pointed out that it was not desirable at this point of time and decided to continue with the existing system. The competitive bidding process went into cold storage. So, when the Prime Minister became coal minister again after Soren resigned, it was decided that work on the bidding process could be started. I submitted a Cabinet note, suggesting small amendments to the Coal Mines Nationalisation Act. The law department
The Prime Minister was in favour of initiating the bidding system. Perhaps, he didn’t have the party’s support.
suggested the inclusion of a brief amendment suggesting that coal block allocation would be done by competitive bidding and another amendment to frame the relevant rules. But the PMO took the view that we need not take the ordinance route for priority and instead take the parliamentary route. That was the first hurdle. It showed that in no way could competitive bidding be introduced soon.
Then, the Minister of State for Coal Dasari Narayana Rao said the state governments are opposed to the new process. T.K.A. Nair took a meeting with chief secretaries of the states. All that the states had to do was provide information limited to verifying the bona fides of the applicants which serve as inputs in decision making. But the PMO took the view that the states had reservations about the allocation process and this was included in the Cabinet note which, thereafter, Dasari Narayana Rao put in cold storage until I retired. From what I gathered subsequently, he returned it with the noting that the existing system of allocation could continue. Thereafter, it was proposed that it should not be limited to coal but cover other minerals which are governed by the Mines and Minerals Development Regulation Act, 1957, pushing the bidding process deeper into cold storage.
You don’t need any great intelligence to understand why this is done. If I had circumvented existing systems to some extent, it was only to impart rationality to the allocations.
Q. What happened when you made a second attempt to convince the PMO before retiring in December 2005?
A. After Shibu Soren came to power a second time he held on to some important files, I went to him and told him my reading was that they were being deliberately held up. He took it up with the Prime Minister through T.K.A. Nair which he mentioned to me when we met at a function a few days later. But after two weeks, Shibu Soren suggested the proposal be dropped as he disagreed with me. The file thereafter remained with Narayana Rao.
Q. How will you counter the Prime Minister now that you are named in a FIR accusing you of conspiracy? What is your defence?
A. Talabira II is a captive block for which Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC ) and Hindalco were two credible applicants. Both parties have equally good financial muscle and technical competence. Initially, there was a slight bias towards NLC which was my own ministry’s company. The screening committee took the decision in its favour and I supported it. Before we issued an order, Kumar Mangalam Birla made a representation and asked me how his company’s claims were inferior to that of NLC. He pointed out that his claim was slightly better than that of NLC as his company was the first applicant. He asked that while I am not disputing giving it to NLC,why exclude us? He also explained how NLC as a PSU could get a block anywhere while he as a private player was entitled to apply only for notified blocks. I thought there was merit in what he was saying.
The PMO also sent the representation for reconsidering it. I found there was logic in what he said. So, I made the proposal for NLC and Hindalco to make it a joint venture and the PM approved it. The reconsideration of a decision does not become a conspiracy with Kumar Mangalam Birla. I take full responsibility for a fair decision and I do not regret it. The Prime Minister as the coal minister at that time approved of it. To my mind there is nothing wrong. If it is a conspiracy there are three persons—Kumar Mangalam Birla, me as the Coal Secretary and the Prime Minister who was then in charge of Coal. By calling a fair and logical decision a conspiracy, the CBI is putting the Prime Minister in the dock as a co-conspirator along with Birla and me. Q. Do you think there is a witch hunt? A. I do not understand what the Congress gets by doing this to me. If at all, I think they are just unnecessarily putting the Prime Minister in the dock. And by calling it a conspiracy, he becomes a co–conspirator. It defies logic.
Follow the writer on Twitter @AmarnathKMenon