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Sunday, September 02, 2012

 Don't cancel coal blocks, levy high royalties instead  
~~Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar
Don't cancel the allocations. That would be politically, legally and economically wrong.
Politically, it will look like a confession of crookedness. Neither the CAG nor anybody else has produced any evidence of kickbacks. That makes it very different from the 2G case.
The CAG estimated that 2G spectrum auctions might have fetched Rs 1.86 lakh crore. But that was a criticism of policy, not evidence of kickbacks. Former telecom minister Raja was indicted not for failure to auction spectrum but because he perverted the first-come first-served policy into a first-served then-come policy, favouring friends.
There is no such evidence in the coal block case. If the Congress cancels all coal allocations, as it has cancelled 2G spectrum, it will send voters the message that it is as guilty as Raja. That would be politically stupid.
It would be even more wrong on the grounds of justice or economic sense. The rule of law implies penalties only for the guilty, not for all allottees. Cancellations will be right only where there is evidence of kickbacks. Cancellations may also be justified where companies have sat on coal blocks without any effort to develop them. But not in other cases.
Some companies have raised thousands of crores in equity and loans to finance new projects for power, cement and steel, based on their allocations. India badly needs these projects. If you now kill these projects by cancelling their coal allocations, who will invest in future?
Ever since Independence, central and state governments have allocated lucrative permits of all sorts. In the heyday of socialism, industrial licences were gold mines. So were import licences and forex permits. Were these auctioned? Never. So, why focus only on coal since 2004? Why not on every allocation since Independence? Can these all be cancelled?
With economic liberalisation, some licences stand abolished. So, nobody pays kickbacks today for industrial and import licences, or foreign exchange. But humungous central and state government controls remain in natural resources. These controls, supposedly in the public interest, have been misused for private gain.
The most hilarious example of misuse relates to the scam ending the political career of Andhra Pradesh governor N D Tiwari. Photos of him cavorting with three naked prostitutes were made public by the madam of the brothel. Why did she expose him? Because Tiwari had promised her a mining licence but did not deliver. Her expose caused much merriment. Yet it is hardly a laughing matter that in India, even brothel-owners can aspire to be allocated mines.
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