KM Birla, Parakh, 2 Hindalco officials summoned as well
A special court hearing the ‘Coalgate’ scam on Wednesday summoned former PM Manmohan Singh as an accused, with charges of criminal conspiracy and corruption in giving Aditya Birla Group firm Hindalco Industries a share in Odisha’s Talabira II & III coal block in 2005.
In a 73-page order, special CBI judge Bharat Parashar, inter alia, observed that Singh and former coal secretary PC Parakh were “roped” into a criminal conspiracy hatched by the three other accused, including Aditya Birla Group chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla, to “accommodate” Hindalco (along with state-run firms Neyveli Lignite and Mahanadi Coalfields) and asked all five to appear before him on April 8.
The only precedent in India of Singh’s predicament is that of another former prime minister, the late PV Narasimha Rao, who along with Cabinet colleague Buta Singh was sentenced to three years in prison by a trial court in 2000 for allegedly bribing MPs belonging to Jharkhand Mukti Morcha to win a vote of confidence for Rao’s government in 1993. Rao and Singh subsequently remained on bail and were later acquitted by the Delhi High Court in 2012.
While the Congress stood by Singh, saying his “integrity, fairness, impartiality and adherence to transparency is unquestionable”, the BJP said the former PM was paying for the “sin” committed by his party.
Singh said: “Of course, I am upset but this is part of life. I have always said I am open for legal scrutiny… I am sure the truth will prevail and I will get a chance to put forward my case with all the facts. I hope in a fair trial I will prove my innocence.”
Parashar said in his order: “…prima facie it is clear that the impugned criminal conspiracy which was initially conceived by Shubhendu Amitabh and D Bhattacharya and Kumar Mangalam Birla and M/s Hindalco was carried out further by roping in PC Parakh, who was Secretary (Coal), and thereafter the then Minister of Coal, Dr Manmohan Singh”.
The order further said that from the nature of action of the accused, it was prima facie clear that though Parakh and Singh were playing different roles, “there was a concerted joint effort to somehow accommodate M/s Hindalco in Talabira-II, coal block”. “It was the central common objective of the impugned criminal conspiracy known to all concerned,” the order said.
Hindalco said it would study the order of the trial court in detail and would defend its case through the legal process. “(The company) has cooperated with the investigating authorities completely during the course of investigation since October 2013. The company’s management is confident that it will stand vindicated at the end of the ongoing legal process,” a Hindalco statement said.
The larger coal scam came to the fore after the Comptroller and Auditor General highlighted in a report in 2012 loss of Rs 1.86 lakh crore to the exchequer as a result of arbitrary allocation of captive coal blocks to private entities. The Supreme Court subsequently cancelled 204 coal blocks, terming the allocations illegal, prompting the Narendra Modi government to auction them afresh. So far, 32 blocks have been auctioned, and the potential revenue to the respective state governments (inclusive of royalty) from these blocks over a 30-year period is estimated at over Rs 2 lakh crore.
The CBI had in October 2013 registered a case against Parakh, Birla and unknown officials alleging a criminal conspiracy among them and abuse of position by Parakh in reversing a screening committee decision to allot the Talabira II & III coal block to Neyveli Lignite to give a share to Hindalco. But the CBI subsequently softened its stance and in August 2014 it told the special court that “evidence collected during investigation did not substantiate the allegations levelled against the persons named in the first information report”. Refusing to accept the CBI’s closure report, the trial court in December last year ordered further probe into the case and asked the country’s premier investigation agency to record statements of Singh. The former prime minister was questioned by the CBI in January this year and following that, on February 19, it filed the final report in the court.
Hindalco added: “…Hindalco reiterates that none of its officials, including its Chairman Mr Kumar Mangalam Birla, have pursued any unlawful or inappropriate means for securing the allocation of the coal block. The Company had represented its case to the concerned authorities in a transparent and lawful manner, following which it was allocated a 15% share in the combined Talabira-II and III coal block in November 2005, in a JV with Mahanadi Coalfields Limited and Neyveli Lignite Corporation, both public sector undertakings with an 85% stake. The coal block has since been deallocated in 2014… Aditya Aluminium Project, for which this allocation was made, has been implemented by the Company at an investment of over Rs 13,000 crore in Odisha. The plant is already operational even though Talabira-II & III coal block could not become operational for want of clearances. Consequently, Hindalco is having to suffer irrecoverable financial stress.”