Is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh actually a very astute politician?

The really alarming story about the coal scam lies one layer below public glare.

April 25, 2013 in Columns
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Illustration: Anand Naorem

The coal scam is not just an ordinary corruption story. It is a blueprint of many things that are going to haunt India in the years ahead: incompetence, myopia and a colossal abdication of responsibility.

The Opposition is right to demand that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh furnish some answers to the country. This is not a demand he can evade. Apart from being the head of the council of ministers, during the UPA’s first tenure, Prime Minister Singh was himself the coal minister for about three-and-a-half years. His coal secretary PC Parakh raised strong flags about the arbitrary and nepotistic ways in which captive coal fields were being handed out. Though Singh accepted this and suggested moving to auctioning coal fields in 2004 itself, it took six years for him to operationalise this decision. The rules of play are yet to be set.

It is true there was opposition to the policy change from the states — ironically even from the BJP and CPM who are now his most bitter critics. It is also true that every party and state government was a part of the screening committee that handed out largesse at whim. In that sense, every party is a part of this scam. But the prime minister cannot escape the fact that it was his government in power. Decision-making was his prerogative. And coal is a Union subject over which the Centre has complete authority.

But, citing coalition pressures, Singh repeatedly failed to act. Clearly, the silence of a lamb can sometimes be more harmful than the ill-intent of a wolf. But there is already enough heat in the public domain over this. What is perhaps far more alarming lies one layer beneath. The coal scam is not just evidence of dithering leadership, loss to the exchequer, or the, as yet unproved, speculation about myriad kickbacks and political favours. It is about a missing epicenter in governance.

The logic for allocating coal blocks in a panicked rush to private players was that thermal power plants and steel and cement companies were desperate for coal: the country’s growth and energy security was at stake. Yet, after the blocks were allocated, no one monitored whether these companies had begun to mine, or were competent to mine at all. They were allowed to squat on the resource, presumably to sell at a premium at a later date. They had also been given cheap coal blocks so they would pass the benefit on to consumers, but whether they were doing so was not monitored.

That’s not all. Public sector giant Coal India has 1.5 lakh hectares of coal-bearing areas at its disposal but is utilising only 25 percent of this coal. Also, existing power plants are functioning at about 40 percent efficiency. The global norm is 80 percent. Additionally, almost 40 percent of the already minimally-efficient power being generated is lost in transmission. Like food, electricity is rotting unused in many locations because of bad distribution. Yet none of these facts seemed to even feature, let alone impact, decision-making in a holistic way.

In January 2011 — perhaps aware of the growing mess around him — Prime Minister Singh set up a high-level committee under former finance secretary Ashok Chawla to suggest ways to overhaul the legal, institutional and regulatory framework around the use of all natural resources: minerals, land, water, forests, gas and spectrum. Such was the urgency, the committee was asked to file its report in four weeks. It submitted its report in June 2011. Two years later, nothing has moved.

At this very moment, therefore — even as report after report lies mute and helpless — the same crushing mess around coal is also playing itself out on all the other vital areas of our national lives: our rivers, our groundwater, our forests, our coastlines, our sandbanks, minerals, mountains and land. All of it is being indiscriminately squandered because there is just no cohesive planning and bird’s eye view informing decisions being made on the use of natural resources. There is no joining of dots, no comprehensive gameplan. No sense of a national future weighted against the present.

Be certain then. It’s coal today: it’s going to be water tomorrow. By the time we understand the disappearance of forests and coastlines and sandbanks is worthy of being called scams, it will be too late.

In the 10 years that he has ruled the most populous democracy in the world — without being an elected leader himself — Prime Minister Singh has been criticised for being an inadequate politician. By a strange trick of fate, are we now to discover he’s been an astute politician all along, but just a very poor administrator?


  • D C Joshi April 25, 2013 - 7:43 pm Reply

    Had it not been for late Sri Narasimha Rao and later by Sri Atal Behari Vajpayee, India today would have been in the category of 3rd world countries.Congress did not suffer any war or drought or unprecedented sanctions for nuclear blasts unlike Sri Vajpayee’s regime but the growth road laid by him helped Congress to proclaim itself as a development engine which sputtered when new roads of growth were not expanded.In sixty years the Congress has practically subverted all the constitutional institutions and made the nation as a horde of supplicants.
    D C Joshi

    • jack sparrow April 26, 2013 - 11:01 am Reply

      Who says we are not a third world country anymore? have you looked at the Human Development Index of India? it’s worse than many countries in sub Saharan Africa. A few billionaires here and there don’t make this country developed. The less i talk about our crumbling cities the better. BTW, the architect of economic reforms of the late “sri” Narasimha Rao is the very man who is at the top post currently and the result is for all to see. And don’t forget the scams that were tumbling out of the closet when the great “sri” Rao was PM. the less i talk about “sri” Vajpayee the better….India is not so shining….get real, my dear.

  • John Smith April 25, 2013 - 9:56 pm Reply

    MMS represents the vast majority of our population. Unwilling (or scared) to speak, Unable or deliberately not see things as they are and unwilling to hear the truth. He represents the quintessential largesse of the population who may have brains but have no brawn. We lack the quality to take the bull by the horns and would rather take the easy way out that is do nothing. I remember P.V. Narsimha Rao once saying ‘Not to take a decision is a decision in itself’. MMS seems to have take this a step further -‘Ignoring the issue will mean not to take a decision…’. A Prime Minister who could have otherwise been a role model to an entire generation that seeks role models in hollow characters of Bollywood or Cricket, will sadly be remembered as a mute witness to arguably the worst sociopolitical phase of Indian Politics.

  • Suresh P April 25, 2013 - 11:46 pm Reply

    It is really unfortunate that the PM has tarnished his image in this way. I have a feeling that the Congress will dump him the same way PVN was dumped. He will be blamed for all the ill. My only question to the PM is that if he is innocent why does not he leave the chair. Atleast this will prove that he has not been given the freedom he wants. It really feels to see the sorry state of affairs in the country.

  • S. Siddiqui April 26, 2013 - 2:07 am Reply

    Indian media is obsessed with scams and feels it is doing a favor by exposing them. But actually this is having a detrimental effect on the economy. look at the 2G expose. India’s growth story took a slump since the CAG p=borught out those ‘notional losses’. That was the turning point in the rupee vs dollar equilibrium. nothing wrong in exposing malpractices. But in the present setup, it is a wrong question to even ask where is corruption, since the lack of transparency and acocuntability pervades, so logically, corruption should be in all places and everywhere. I bet it would also be found in the way the Tehelka office building came up, or certain inspections were done. Its just an assertion however if Tehelka looks closely it will find something even there. The right question considering the milieu should be: where is no corruption. Those fields will be much rarer, and they would have more robust processes built on transparency and accountability. The entire edifice at the moment is built on you scratch my back and I’ll scratch your, so it cannot happen until, a grand amnesty is provided across the socio political spectrum for certain conditionalities, where the next step towards such process building can proceed. The existing politicians and media are both needed and cannot be wished away for that to happen.

    • Angadbir Singh April 26, 2013 - 7:46 pm Reply

      Sir, yes the providing amnesty seems to be the first step of taking this country out of this rut but that would require a Pole Star Personality of which we don’t have shadows in our current leaders or speculative leaders for that case. The article mentions we are reaching hard to still connect the basic dots to make sense of pervasive exploitation of resources going around, and in that perspective, allowing amnesty seems like a far off possibility with no leader in top echelons having any idea to the repercussions that would have. Moral turpitude has set in our society. An amnesty sadly, won’t be enough.

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