Finance Minister P. Chidambaram on Monday rejected the Opposition demand for cancellation of coal blocks that have come under the CAG scrutiny, saying the government had to hear out the allottees and could not enforce cancellation by diktat.

“A fair procedure has to be followed and this is already under way,” he said.

The final week of the monsoon session of Parliament started with the Opposition closing ranks over its demand that the government forthwith cancel allocation of coal blocks. The BJP, which until two days ago was insistent on the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s resignation, aligned itself with the rest of the Opposition, and said it would return to the House if the government cancelled all 142 allocations made by it since taking office in 2004. Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley said the BJP’s offer was a test for the government to prove its commitment to Parliament. “By rejecting our demand, the government has proved that it has a vested interest in continuing the existing arbitrary practice.”

In reply, Mr. Chidambaram said there were multiple problems affecting the coal blocks and no single yardstick could be applied to them. A procedure had to be followed and two probes were already under way. The possibility of de-allocation was being examined by an Inter-Ministerial Group which was likely to give its findings by September 15. Separately, the CBI was inquiring into illegalities in allotments. “Even as I speak, the IMG is holding a meeting. Given all this, what is the impediment to starting a debate? Let the BJP return to Parliament and we will debate the issue thoroughly.”

Unusually, Mr. Chidambaram made these remarks at a Congress briefing which is normally the preserve of the official spokespersons. Congress sources said the party had decided to up the quality of its daily briefing in view of the consolidated assault by the Opposition. Indeed, the Finance Minister arrived in the manner of a top order batsman sent out to demolish the rival team. He started out asking why the Opposition and the media were stuck on the year 2004 as if it was something sacrosanct. “Why should 2004 be the cut off for a policy that started in 1993? If the policy is flawed, it has been flawed since 1993.”

Mr. Chidambaram said some coal blocks were under production, some were expected to commence production soon and many more fell in no-go areas or wildlife corridors. He said 32 allottees had been cautioned and show-cause notices were sent to 52 others. Of the 32 blocks that had thus far shown unsatisfactory progress, seven had been allotted before 2004 and 25 after 2004. “So there are problems with coal blocks allotted by the NDA too.”

Mr. Chidambaram dissociated himself from those in the Congress who had attacked the CAG, saying, “it is the business of the CAG to find fault.” He said the very fact that the CAG’s reports were subject to scrutiny by the Public Accounts Committee showed that it was legitimate to question its findings. “The PAC may well have a different point of view. So why is it wrong to question the CAG’s report?”

The Minister’s tough stance provoked Mr. Jaitley into declaring that the stalemate would continue. Referring to Dr. Singh’s statement that he will not join issue with the BJP on the subject, he said: “The Prime Minister has invoked his right to silence which is a right available to an accused in court. It is not available to a Prime Minister who is the holder of our most accountable office.”

More In: National | News