Coal controversy: Crores lost as Parliament remains paralysed

New Delhi: For the third day in row, parliament was paralysed after a cacophonous chorus by the BJP demanding the Prime Minister’s resignation for allegedly allowing private firms to gain thousands of crores because they were sold hugely under-priced coal fields. Each hour of parliament in session costs Rs. 25 lakh. So over the last  two days, two crores have been wasted.

Both houses were adjourned within minutes – the BJP has said it will not allow parliament to get to work till Dr Manmohan Singh accepts responsibility for “Coal-Gate” and quits, a possibility shot down by the ruling Congress as “preposterous.”

Congress ally Mamata Banerjee suggested an all-party meeting to find a compromise. Rajya Sabha chairman Hamid Ansari has  met with representatives of different parties, where some leaders suggested that the Prime Minister meet the Leader of the Opposition from both the Houses. Speaker Meira Kumar is expected to hold an all-party session shortly for the Lok Sabha.

Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde has said he will speak to all leaders, including  the Leader of the Opposition, to break the deadlock. Mr Shinde, who is also the Leader of the House, reiterated today that the PM is ready to speak on the issue in a discussion in Parliament.

But the BJP doesn’t appear to be in the mood for a truce. Yesterday, its members walked out of a meeting of a parliamentary committee that’s  dissecting the country’s massive telecom scam.  Sources say the BJP may quit this and other parliamentary panels as a symbolic gesture to prove it is serious about unearthing corruption and fixing accountability, while the government is not.

The coal controversy is pivoted on a report by the national auditor which said that private players got ‘windfall gains’ of upto 1.86 lakh crores between 2005 and 2009 because they were not made to bid for coal fields. Instead, they were allotted coal fields at a fraction of their value.  Because the PM was Coal Minister for a part of this period, the BJP says the alleged swindle – being investigated now by the CBI – took place on his watch.

The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG)   has been described as faulty by the government and has been seized by the opposition as evidence of the government’s alleged ineptitude and tolerance of corruption.

“We  believe we have a compelling case,” said Law Minister Salman Khurshid,  faulting the BJP for not allowing a debate.The government says that the BJP knows it is on shaky moral ground –  in 2005, when the government suggested that  using an auction to assign coal fields would increase transparency, several states governed by the BJP objected on record.

The government has said that at the time, the state-run Coal India Limited was not able to meet the demands of a growing economy. The law at the time did not allow for coal fields to be auctioned. Creating consensus among political parties and other stake-holders, and then introducing new administrative and legal guidelines, would take time.  So a screening committee with representatives of state governments assigned the coal fields to different firms. The national auditor has said that there appears to be no clear record of how recipients were chosen; it finds that the allocations were made largely on the basis of recommendations by state governments.

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