The Essar Group has told the Supreme Court that there is “nothing illegal or improper” in politicians and bureaucrats making job requests and that some small favours to government servants are “common courtesies extended by corporate houses”.
Submitting its counter-affidavit last week in response to a PIL demanding a court-monitored investigation into an alleged unholy nexus of Essar Group with politicians, bureaucrats and journalists to promote its business interests, the company has said there is no wrongdoing in giving gifts to people in public life or in the civil service since there has been no attempt to obtain undue favour.
“As far as job requests are concerned, in the Indian environment, considering the enormous demand for corporate jobs, people in office or in public life frequently make requests for getting jobs. There is nothing illegal or improper in such requests,” stated Essar, adding no appointments were made “only based on the recommendations”.
Defending meetings of MPs and civil servants with its officials “in a democracy”, it said the PIL has not been able to corroborate how the company derived any benefit after giving jobs on requests by politicians and bureaucrats and claimed those given employment had prescribed qualifications and were otherwise also eligible for appointments.
On hospitality, like arranging vehicles for private visits by public officials visiting Delhi from another state, Essar has said that “these are common courtesies extended by corporate houses and do not impinge the question of propriety much less on legality”.
Essar’s response will be examined by a bench led by Justice T S Thakur on Thursday. The PIL was filed by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) after The Indian Express reported in February how a “whistleblower” had decided to go public with Essar Group’s internal company communications — the correspondence are attached to the petition as instances of alleged impropriety.
Urging the court to either direct the CBI or set up a special investigation team to probe the alleged complicity adversely impacting matters of public policy, the CPIL also asked for framing guidelines to regulate relationships of big corporate groups with individuals in positions of power and influence.
Attached with the PIL, a June 2009 inter-office memo has an Essar executive addressing the subject of dealing with what he calls the “phenomenon of job requests” from politicians and bureaucrats. The memo asks for keeping 200 jobs for VIP referrals to entertain qualified applicants and maintain a data bank.
One email, dated July 23, 2013, picks the most important ones from a list of 60 referrals. They include candidates referred by Sriprakash Jaiswal (then coal minister); Digvijaya Singh (Congress general secretary) and Yashbant Narayan Singh Laguri (then Congress MP from Keonjhar in Orissa where an Essar plant is located).
Further, a December 2012 email stated: “A senior official in Bastar wants an Innova to visit a temple in Gwalior from Delhi. If possible please try to meet him in Delhi. According to sources, he may become Industry secretary.”
Essar, in its affidavit, has however, said the authenticity of e-mails is “highly questionable”; they are “unverified”, “pure hearsay” and relate to “matters of commercial sensitivity”.
“There is no material to suggest any wrongdoing in the sense of commission of a criminal offence in any of these,” the company said. It added even if the e-mails were assumed to have emanated from its officials, “they may show at the highest questionable business practice that may fall short of highest standards of ethics in governance,” and this is not a matter of judicial review, much less a basis for directing a criminal investigation.
Seeking dismissal of the PIL, the affidavit said the CPIL’s assertions are based on surmises and conjectures and the NGO has targeted Essar by unleashing a smear campaign against it for a political mileage. The company has referred to various reports published by The Indian Express to state that CPIL has acted with passion for publicity. While Essar has said there is no ground to order a CBI probe, the CBI is still to respond to the court notice.