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‘No malafide intention’: How CBI’s case against former coal secretary HC Gupta fell apart

CBI levelled several charges against H.C. Gupta in a corruption case related to the allocation of a Chhattisgarh-based coal block, but couldn’t prove any.

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New Delhi: When a special CBI court acquitted former coal secretary Harish Chandra Gupta in a coal scam case earlier this week, it confirmed what many in the IAS community had been vouching for.

“No malafide intention on the part of accused H.C. Gupta stands proved on record.”

This is what CBI judge Bharat Parashar stated as he passed the order in a corruption case related to the allocation of a Chhattisgarh-based coal block Thursday, while also acquitting the company to which the block was allotted.

In his judgment, Parashar said the prosecution “miserably failed” in proving that Gupta had abused his official position in any manner.

Gupta, who was the coal secretary from 31 December 2005 to November 2008, has 12 cases of alleged irregularities in coal block allocation pending against him. Out of these, he has been convicted in three other cases of coal block allocation, with jail terms of one and three years imposed on him.

He has filed appeals against all these convictions before the Delhi High Court, which has suspended the sentence during the pendency of these appeals. So the result in this case comes as a respite to him.

For the CBI, however, the verdict has dealt a severe blow.

CBI’s charges

In September 2006, Pushp Steels and Mining Pvt. Ltd (PSMPL), the accused company, was recommended by a screening committee to be allotted a coal block for a proposed sponge iron end use project in Chhattisgarh’s Durg district.

Gupta chaired this committee at the time.

The CBI highlighted the fact that the Union Ministry of Steel had initially found PSMPL ineligible for allocation of any captive coal block and the state of Madhya Pradesh, where the block was situated, had also recommended the block’s allocation to another company.

According to the practice adopted at the time by the Ministry of Coal to process applications for allotting coal blocks, each application was sent to the concerned administrative ministry; the concerned state government where the relevant coal block was situated; and to the state government where the proposed end use project was to be established.

In this case, the coal block allocation was sought to manufacture sponge iron, which comes under the steel ministry.

Subsequently, PSMPL’s eligibility was confirmed by the steel ministry, following which the allocation was confirmed by then prime minister Manmohan Singh in June 2007.

However, CBI registered a case against PSMPL as well as Gupta in April 2013, alleging that Gupta took “undue interest” in favouring the company for the allocation.

It further alleged that Gupta submitted wrong facts to the PM to justify his decision. It relied on PSMPL’s lack of experience and financial worth to drive home its assertions.

The agency then charged Gupta with offences under Sections 120-B (criminal conspiracy) and 409 (criminal breach of trust by a public servant) of the Indian Penal Code, and criminal misconduct under Sections 13(1)(c) and 13(1)(d) of the Prevention of Corruption Act.

Also read: Coal scam convict HC Gupta’s son wants to be an ‘upright’ IAS officer just like his father

What Gupta said

In his defence, Harish Chandra Gupta Gupta pointed out that he joined as the coal secretary in January 2006, two months after PSMPL submitted its application in October 2005. He emphasised this fact to deny any conspiracy with PSMPL.

He further asserted that the screening committee’s decision to allot the coal block was a unanimous one, not just his. He pointed out that while the CBI selectively chose to examine only two witnesses from the committee, the other members present during the panel meetings had said that they were free to express their objections during the discussions.

What the court found

In its verdict, the court said that none of CBI’s allegations could be proved.

Dismissing the charge that Gupta misled the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) into approving the allocation by misrepresenting and lying about certain facts, the court said “the PMO was… clearly told the purpose for which the coal from the allotted coal block will be used by the company coupled with the futuristic use of the sponge iron”.

“In these circumstances, it can not be thus stated that PMO was in any manner misled by accused H.C. Gupta,” it said.

The court further noted that the record showed the central government had approved the grant of a lease to PSMPL. The agency had claimed that Gupta lied about the company having already received an iron ore mining lease in its favour.

The court also observed that an order issued by the Chhattisgarh High Court in July 2016 had directed the state government to execute the mining lease as PSMPL had already invested a large sum in the project.

‘Decision wasn’t just Gupta’s’

In its allegations, the CBI said that no discussion took place in the screening committee meeting where the decision to allot the coal block was taken. The charge was on the basis of the testimony of Laxman Jha, then Coal India Ltd director who claimed that they were treated like “bin bulaye mehmaan” (uninvited guests).

The court, however, found this to be incorrect on the basis of the submissions made by another witness, Pradeep Kumar, the then special secretary, coal ministry.

During cross-examination, Jha, too, detracted from his submission and said that he was not stopped from speaking during the discussions. The court even asserted that Jha had attended the meeting as a “completely disinterested person”.

It concluded that the agency failed to prove that there was no discussion during the meeting and the decision was only Gupta’s.

While the court added that the minutes of the committee’s meeting should ideally have mentioned the factors that led to the move, it observed that Gupta had spelled out the reasons behind the decision in a meeting held with the PM’s secretary.

No ‘exclusive dominion’ over coal blocks

Further, the court ruled that even the charges of criminal breach of trust by a public servant were not proved against Gupta.

It noted that an essential ingredient to establish the offence of criminal breach of trust is that the accused public servant must have been either entrusted with the property in question or have been given control over the property.

Gupta was controlling the affairs of the Coal Ministry as well as the screening committee, but it cannot be said that he was exercising any “exclusive dominion” over the coal blocks that were to be allocated by the ministry, the court said.

Ruling out the charge of criminal conspiracy in the absence of any agreement between Gupta and PSMPL, the court held, “The prosecution has thus clearly failed in proving this circumstance/allegation against any of the two accused persons beyond shadows of reasonable doubts.

“Accordingly, no inference about the existence of any criminal conspiracy in between the two accused persons can be drawn on the basis of evidence so led.”

‘Justice has been done’

On Friday, the IAS Association tweeted that “justice” has finally been delivered in one of the cases against Gupta.

The IAS fraternity has constantly shown strong support for Gupta ever since he was convicted.

“The conviction of Mr Harish Chandra Gupta and a few other IAS officers in the so-called coal scam had come as a shock to those who knew these officers since they enjoyed an impeccable reputation… Their conviction could have a devastating impact on governance,” Anil Swarup, former coal secretary to the Government of India, told ThePrint.

“I am so glad that justice has finally been done at least in one case but after a lot of pain. There is still a long battle ahead for a man who did no wrong but finds himself on the wrong side of the law despite the law having been amended,” said Swarup.

He added, “If we hound the honest and the efficient this tribe will cease to take decisions. This will be sad in the context of governance.”

Advocate Rajat Mathur, the lawyer for Gupta, too expressed his happiness at the verdict.

“Special Court came to the conclusion that prosecution has miserably failed to stand on its own legs and failed to prove any of the circumstances as alleged against Mr. Gupta – acquitted of all charges! Glimpse of hope!” said Mathur.

With inputs from Sanya Dhingra

Also read: Delhi HC orders Bihar govt to pay Rs 5 lakh to IAS officer it ‘harassed’, orders his transfer


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