Nothing symbolises both the rot in India’s bureaucratic system, and its utter hopelessness, than the CBI special court holding former coal secretary HC Gupta—along with former Jharkhand chief minister Madhu Koda and then chief secretary AK Basu—guilty of corruption in a coal scam involving a private company Vini Iron and Steel Udyog. With no possibility of auctioning coal mines in 2007—from June 2004 when prime minister Manmohan Singh wanted this, it took 66 months for the Cabinet to clear the policy!—allocating mines to private firms was always going to be fraught with danger since it was never clear whether the full value was being paid. In this case, the CBI argues that while Vini had applied for a coal mine, this was never recommended by the Jharkhand government—this was required by law since the mine was in that state—and, despite this, the screening committee headed by Gupta cleared the allocation.
For Gupta to be guilty, this means that either fake papers were submitted to show the Jharkhand government had given a recommendation or that Gupta knew there was no recommendation, but he pretended this had been given and went ahead. No such proof of Gupta knowing this—and overruling the person who pointed this out—has been presented but it is assumed that, as the head of the committee, Gupta must have or should have known about this. But if every senior officer or head of a committee has to personally vouch for the integrity of every piece of documentation placed before him/her, all decision-making will come to a halt. And if Gupta was declared guilty on this account, surely others on the committee should have been held guilty as well, and since prime minister Singh doubled up as the coal minister, wasn’t he also guilty? While the CBI has alleged Gupta kept Singh in the dark while getting his clearance, it has to show that Gupta knew and then withheld information from the prime minister.
To be fair to CBI, and the court, the way the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA) is framed, a bureaucrat is presumed to be guilty if, “while holding office as a public servant, (he/she) obtains for any person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage without any public interest”—that is, as long as Vini benefitted, Gupta is guilty. Sadly, while the present government has, for the last three years, been trying to change the PCA to make it necessary to show mens rea before a person is judged guilty, this has not happened. It is this Section 13(1)d of the PCA that has ensured that, while the telecom sector is bleeding due to rapacious government policies, no one has dared to change this. It is this section that makes it difficult for the government to change gas prices when an ONGC says they are uneconomic, it is this section that ensures PSUs can’t take decisions since, if the public interest is seen to have been compromised a decade from now, the CBI will come knocking at the official’s door—never mind if there is no proof of the official having benefited. The BJP is also to blame since it trashed so many UPA decisions on the assumption they were based on corruption, but in today’s surcharged atmosphere, changing the PCA will be seen as an attempt to protect cronies by a suit-boot-ki-sarkaar. So, expect more HC Guptas every time a decision is taken or, if the bureaucracy is smart, no decisions at all.