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Observing there was a “conscious effort on his part to somehow accommodate” the Aditya Birla Group flagship Hindalco in the 2005 allocation of the Talabira-II coal block in Orissa, a special court Wednesday summoned former prime minister Manmohan Singh, who also held the coal portfolio then, as an accused in the case.
Special CBI judge Bharat Parashar, who found prima facie “incriminating circumstance” against Singh, also summoned five other accused: Kumar Mangalam Birla, chairman of the Aditya Birla Group; former coal secretary P C Parakh; Hindalco Group executive president B Shubhendu Amitabh and managing director D Bhattacharya.
There were gasps in the packed court room when Parashar first named five accused, paused, and then called out accused number 6 as the “then coal minister”. They have been directed to appear before the court on April 8.
In September 2013, The Indian Express first reported that the CBI investigating officer in the case put on record what he called the “requirement’’ to examine Singh, then prime minister, among a lengthy list of “pending actions’’.
The court summons come at a time when coal block auctions are on and Hindalco has bagged three blocks.
Stating that he had to act with a “heavy conscience” and with “full realisation” of the effect this will have on the “morale of the country as a whole”, Parashar summoned Singh on charges of criminal conspiracy, criminal breach of trust by a public servant under the IPC and under provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act.
Parashar said K M Birla “played an active role” by “tapping his bureaucratic and political channels” to secure the coal block allocation. “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 Hindalco, was carried out further by roping in P C Parakh and, thereafter, the then Minister of Coal, Dr Manmohan Singh.”
In first remarks after the court order, Singh said “I am upset” and hope to “prove my innocence”. When reporters sought his comment, he 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 truth will prevail and I will get a chance to put forward my case with all facts.” He said he respected the judicial process and “I hope in a fair trial I will prove my innocence”.
Hindalco said it would defend its case through “legal process” after studying the order. “Hindalco reiterates that none of its officials, including its chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla, have pursued any unlawful or inappropriate means for securing the allocation of the coal block,” the company said in a statement.
Parashar said: “I have taken cognizance of offence under 120-B/409 IPC & 13 (1)(d)(iii) of PC Act against six accused i.e Hindalco, Shubhendu Amitabh, D Bhattacharya, Kumar Mangalam Birla, P C Parakh and Dr Manmohan Singh.”
He said Singh “allowed” the matter pertaining to allocation of Talabira-II coal block to be “reopened” even though “he himself had permitted” the approval of the minutes of the 25th screening committee which recommended the allocation of the block to Neyveli Lignite Corporation Ltd (NLC). He observed that “repeated reminders from PMO”, written as well as telephonic, to the coal ministry to “expeditiously” process the matter in view of letters received from K M Birla also “prima facie indicate the extra undue interest” shown by the PMO.
“His (Singh) approval of the proposal put forth by P C Parakh to Hindalco in Talabira-II and III coal block while ignoring the words of caution put forth by K V Pratap and Javed Usmani, the two officers of the PMO, regarding relaxation of the already approved guidelines, again prima facie shows that there was a conscious effort on his part to somehow accommodate Hindalco in Talabira-II coal block,” Parashar said.
While noting that the prime minister “cannot personally look into the minute details of each and every case placed before him”, Parashar said that in this case, Singh “chose” to keep the coal portfolio with him and, therefore, “he cannot claim” that as prime minister he could not be “expected” to personally look into minute details of each and every case.
He also referred to the statement of B V R Subramanyam, then PS to Prime Minister, who said Singh was a “thorough and diligent person” and “as departmental minister would go through what the Secretary, the Minister of State and the officers below in the PMO has written in the file”.
Parashar said the “omission” not to refer the request of Hindalco to the screening committee, in accordance with established procedure being followed at that time, “prima facie shows that it was a conscious decision to accommodate Hindalco” in a joint coal block comprising Talabira-II and Talabira-III coal blocks “while at the same time negating the right of NLC”. “His action thus prima facie resulted in loss to NLC which was a PSU and facilitated windfall profits to a private company i.e. M/s Hindalco.”
On Parakh’s role, Parashar said he “chose to remain silent” on the excess coal allocation to Hindalco even after the new proposal to accommodate Hindalco in Talabira-II & III coal blocks was approved by the coal minister. “This act of silence on his part prima facie appears to be a conscious decision. He even made a wrong noting in the file by stating that both NLC and MCL (Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd) intends to establish the power plant jointly by forming a joint venture company,” he said.
Parakh, the judge said, “chose to overturn the recommendation of the screening committee on his own without any legally sustainable reason or logic”.
Parashar also observed that the “claim of PMO” that the Hindalco case was revisited in view of the strong recommendation by the Orissa chief minister. It is “clearly an eyewash and a lame excuse”.
Slapping the criminal conspiracy charge against the six accused, the judge said it was a “well-planned exercise” which was “meticulously carried out… only to do an illegal act”.
“It is prima facie clear that a well planned conspiracy was hatched to accommodate Hindalco in Talabira-II coal block so as to extend wrongful gain to Hindalco while at the same time causing wrongful loss not only to the Government of India… custodian of the nationalized natural resources… but also to NLC,” he said.