Two former officials questioned; T.K.A. Nair likely to be quizzed next

After procedural wrangles were ironed out, the CBI’s probe into Coalgate has now reached the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and its officials.

Investigators have recorded statements of two former PMO officials, questioning them as witnesses in the questionable allocation of coal blocks, sources in the CBI said on Tuesday.

Next in line, they indicated, would be Prime Minister’s Adviser T.K.A. Nair, whose statement would be recorded as a witness in connection with the alleged irregularities in the allocation during 2006-09 when Manmohan Singh himself had looked after the Coal Ministry. At that time, Mr. Nair served him as Principal Secretary.

The CBI questioned two mid-level officials — Vini Mahajan and Ashish Gupta — who were posted in the PMO during 2006-09.

The CBI has also summoned the former Coal Secretary, H.C. Gupta, as an accused. He is believed to be a crucial link in the alleged irregularities when the Ministry was under the charge of Dr. Singh. He is likely to appear before the CBI on Thursday. As Coal Secretary, Mr. Gupta was the de-facto chairman of the Screening Committee that allocated coal blocks, the sources said.

Earlier, the CBI’s efforts to question Mr. Gupta hit a dead-end when the Ministry of Corporate Affairs — nodal ministry for the Competition Commission of India, of which member he was till last week — denied the investigating agency permission.

The CBI has to file a progress report before the Supreme Court on July 10. It is probing how valuable mining rights were granted at throwaway prices to companies that made windfall gains.

The CBI took up the case after a report from the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) said the exchequer suffered a revenue loss of Rs. 1.86 lakh crore through the allocation of coal blocks to select companies. The CBI has so far registered 11 regular cases. During 2006-09, 68 coal blocks were allotted to 151 companies, and the files relating to some of them have gone missing.

The CBI registered the latest FIR, the 12th in the case, earlier this month, naming Congress MP and industrialist Naveen Jindal and the former Minister of State for Coal, Dasari Narayan Rao, as accused.

The CBI said the government’s screening committee, which processed applications from companies, did not conduct background checks. It also questioned the working of the committee: in its earlier status report submitted to the Supreme Court, it had said the allocations during 2006-09 were done without verification of the credentials of the companies which had allegedly misrepresented facts about themselves.

The CAG, too, pointed out that the Screening Committee recommended the allocation of a coal block to a particular company. However, the minutes of the meeting that made the decision did not indicate how each of the applicants was evaluated.

The CAG report said a transparent method was not followed by the Screening Committee for allocation.

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