Former PM Manmohan Singh, Aditya Birla Group chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla and three others moved the Supreme Court on Wednesday against a trial court’s order summoning them as accused over charges of criminal conspiracy and corruption in a case relating to the allotment of a coal block in Odisha, reports
fe Bureau in New Delhi. Besides Singh and Birla, special CBI judge Bharat Parashar in his March 11 order asked former coal secretary PC Parakh and two Hindalco executives, S Amitabh and D Bhattacharya, to be present in the court on April 8. The case pertains to the allotment of Talabira II and Talabira III fields in Odisha to a joint venture between Hindalco, Neyveli Lignite (NLC) and Mahanadi Coalfields in 2005. In a 73-page order, Parashar, inter alia, observed that Singh and Parakh were “roped” into a criminal conspiracy hatched by the three other accused, including Birla, to “accommodate” Hindalco (along with state-run firms NLC and Mahanadi Coalfields).
The judge said that “a well-planned conspiracy was hatched” to award Hindalco the field after Birla actively lobbied Singh, who was
at the time acting as coal minister. .
Seeking an exemption from appearing in the CBI court, Singh said that “there was no criminal intent and no quid pro quo”. “There is complete non-application of mind (by the trial court),” the former PM said in his appeal.
According to a senior counsel who was involved in the drafting of his petition, there was nothing on record to point out that Singh has done any act that may constitute an offence. “The former prime minister had only taken a decision as a competent authority on allocation of Talabira II coal block to Hindalco on the representation of the Odisha government,” the advocate said, adding that there may be a fault in decision making but there is no evidence to show that there was an abuse of power and moreover, taking a decision in government is not an offence.
Hindalco has also denied using any unlawful or inappropriate means for securing the allocation of the coal block.
Birla in its petition said that the CBI judge misdirected himself in law by critically examining the manner in which the Prime Minister’s Office considered the matter, including the manner in which the PMO dealt with the recommendation of Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik. He submitted that “the separation of powers posits a mutual respect for the functioning of the different wings of the constitutional government — the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The CBI judge misdirected himself in law in taking upon himself the task of critically examining the working of the executive branch of Government of India, including issues such as the manner in which the Prime Minister or the advisor to the Prime Minister should make notings in the files. This exercise was undertaken…on the misdirected premise that the language of Section 13(1)(d)(iii) of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1988 renders any decision considered by a criminal court — in its perception — to be opposed to public interest, an offence without the need for their being any mens rea or dishonest intent.”
According to Birla, a court of judicial review would not substitute its opinion in place of the opinion of the decision maker. “…such an exercise would be beyond the jurisdiction of Constitutional court exercising powers of judicial review — it has repeatedly been held that judicial review concerns itself primarily with the decision-making process and not the ultimate decision.”
According to Birla, the judge erred in coming to an adverse inference on account of the fact that the letter from the Odisha chief minister influenced the PMO, and on account of which ultimately the decision came to be taken to make an allocation in favour of Hindalco.
“In a federal system, sharing of resources is a matter of sensitivity between the Union and the states. It was the belief of the Chief Minister of Odisha, that an aluminium plant and a power plant situated within his state, would serve greater public interest within his state, than the establishment of a power plant for generation of electricity to be consumed in the neighbouring state. Secondly, where an industrial house decides to invest large amounts of money in a state, and in order to set up a project, seeks and obtains support of that state, there is nothing wrong much less there being any conspiracy or criminal offence.”
In his petition, Birla also said that the trial court committed an impropriety in suggesting the letter from the Odisha chief minister had been procured to scuttle the adverse notes being made by the junior officers in the coal ministry and the PMO. “Unless, the court finds that the support was given for a corrupt motive, any criticism of the conduct of a CM constitutes impermissible judicial overreach,” the petition said.
Hindalco had applied for the Talabira II block, but this was allotted to Neyveli Lignite in August 2005. After Birla pointed out that Hindalco had applied for the mine first, in 1996, and that a coal linkage given earlier was not used — the grant of this was presented as a reason by the screening committee for not granting Talabira II to the company — and after it received a letter from Patnaik supporting Birla’s plea, the PMO asked the screening committee to reconsider its decision in October.
The committee headed by Parakh in September 2005 recommended the allocation of the Talabira II and Talabira III coal blocks jointly to Hindalco, Mahanadi Coalfields and Neyveli Lignite. The then PM, who was holding the additional charge of the coal ministry, had approved the proposal in October that year. In October 2013, the CBI filed an FIR in which it named Parakh and Birla for criminal conspiracy and criminal misconduct. The CBI had filed its closure report in the case in August 2014, citing lack of evidence of wrongdoing against the duo.
However, the Supreme Court had in September last year pulled up the CBI for filing the closure report. The investigating agency then filed its revised report and said that it had enough material on record to take cognisance of the offences. However, the SC asked the CBI as to why the former prime minister was not examined and in December directed the agency to record Singh’s statement. In January this year, the CBI presented its status report after recording the statements of the former prime minister and his aides.
Last year, the Supreme Court cancelled more than 200 coal licences, many of them issued by Singh’s government. The coal fields are now being auctioned.
March 2012: CAG’s draft report accuses UPA of ‘inefficient’ allocation of coal blocks in 2004-2009; estimates loss of R10.7 lakh cr, later prunes losses to R1.86 lakh cr
May: Singh offers to give up public life if found guilty. CVC directs CBI enquiry
October 2013: CBI books Birla, Parakh for criminal conspiracy in awarding share of Talabira II/III block in 2005 to Hindalco
August 2014: CBI says evidence doesn’t support the charges, files closure report
November: CBI informs a special court it wasn’t permitted to question Singh
December: Court orders recording of Singh’s statement
January 2015: Singh quizzed
March: Special court summons Singh, Parakh, Birla, two others as accused