Making the most of Chawla panel measures

Written by Santosh Tiwari | Updated: Dec 24 2013, 05:36am hrs
Cabinet secretary Ajit Kumar Seth is slated to hold a high-level meeting on Thursday to discuss the implementation of the Ashok Chawla committee recommendations on allocation of natural resources.

The meeting is crucial because there has been a clamour in the government to expedite administrative and legislative moves which were being seen as part of the second generation of economic reforms before the upcoming general elections. The government's eagerness in pushing the steps suggested by the Chawla panel in the next few months would, therefore, be hardly surprising.

The panel's recommendations have been considered critical because the allocation and management of natural resources has proved to be the UPA governments Achilles heel. Be it coal, spectrum, oil & gas, forest or land, the government's poor handling of the policies associated with allocation of these resources always begged immediate corrective steps. But the government's record in bringing in changes suggested by the committee, in itself, speaks of the seriousness in taking the required measures.

To begin with, the report of the panel is yet to be made public for consultation. The committee set up in January 2011, submitted its report on May 31 the very same year. It identified natural resources such as coal, minerals, petroleum and natural gas, spectrum, forests, water and land, as areas where the central government had a major role to play in articulating the policy framework or influencing the process of their allocationand recommended steps to enhance transparency, effectiveness and sustainability in their allocation, pricing and utilisation through open, transparent and competitive mechanismsand also suggested changes in the legal, institutional and regulatory framework to implement its recommendations.

The committee of secretaries then discussed the steps advised by the committee and submitted its views on the suggested measures to the group of minister (GoM) for further action. And then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh discussed these recommendations in a meeting on May 25, 2012, in which he was told that the recommendations of the committee had been examined by the GoM on corruption headed by the finance minister and the GoM had accepted 69 of the 81 recommendations11 recommendations were to be examined further.

It was decided in the meeting that all the 69 agreed recommendations would be implemented by the individual ministries in a time-bound manner.

Among its critical recommendations, the committee has suggested standardisation of the format of minutes for all standing linkage committee meetings, especially for those meetings where allocation decisions are made in case of the coal blocks. Though the government has brought in transparency here, the real test will be in the auctioning of the coal blocks to the private players. This has not happened as yet.

Then, the proposed Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Bill, 2011, which has been drafted to replace the existing MMDR Act, 1957, has accommodated open and transparent allocation mechanisms but the Bill is yet to be passed by Parliament.

For the oil and gas sector, the committee has suggested speedy creation of an National Data Repository (NDR) for petroleum exploration and formulation of an open acreage licensing policy (OAL) to operate on the NDR. This is extremely important for the sector as nine rounds of NELP have failed to yield much, and the next round of NELP, which is round the corner, is unlikely to change the situation dramatically with most of the private players wary of the government policies despite the fact that a number of steps have been taken by the petroleum ministry in recent months to improve the investment climate. The poor quality of surveys at present are unlikely to help the cause if the government wants to improve the results of exploration. The Directorate General of Hydrocarbons (DGH) is still working at a slow pace on setting up the NDR to concretise reliable information on oil and gas reserves. Considering that the NDR will help the country move to the open acreage licensing policy, under which any company can bid for any block at any point of time, the delay is undoubtedly a costly one.

In telecom, the panel had said that all future telecom licenses should be unified licenses and spectrum should be de-linked from the license. The government has made these changes in policy while the movement has been fast here because of the 2G scam pressure.

The Chawla panel also recommended that a reform-linked capacity building scheme should be initiated for state forest departments for improving accessibility of information, and its predictability, and reducing the time taken for clearances. Among other steps, the committee also suggested the enactment of a comprehensive national legislation on water related issues. And it also suggested that the land available with central government ministries and departments should be inventorised and all transfers should take place through competitive and transparent e-auctions.

Needless to say that in real terms, most of these recommendations are still in the process of implementation and lot more could have been done by the government here. Indeed, the least that the government can do now, in the next few months that it has left, is expediting the steps like creation of NDR and auction of coal blocks for allocation to the private companies. And though late, it would not be a bad idea to make the Chawla panel report public.