Friday, February 3, 2023
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H.C. Gupta’s conviction in coal scam case will force IAS officers to play safe

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Despite being castigated and pilloried over the years, India’s IAS officers have performed well.

Should Harish Chandra Gupta have been convicted in the coal scam? Absolutely not. Then why was he punished? What was his fault? What went wrong?

It all started with the hype created around the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) report that red-flagged the coal block allocations and the subsequent intervention of the Supreme Court. Posterity will determine whether it was actually a “scam” of the scale it was made out to be, a “tsunami” the swept the good, the bad and the ugly.

Speak to anyone who was associated with H.C. Gupta (former coal secretary), K.C. Samaria (ex-director in ministry of coal) or K.S. Kropha (ex-joint secretary in ministry of coal) and the unanimous response would be that they belonged to the first category, the category of the “good” in any sense of the term.

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If that be the case, then why are they suffering? They are suffering on account of a legal provision (Section 13.1.d. of the Prevention of Corruption Act) that was subsequently found to be “unjust” and was amended. However, H.C. Gupta (a 1971-batch IAS officer) and other officers have been penalised under the law that existed at the time when the purported “crime” happened. Admittedly, there was no mala fide yet these officers were nailed.

Now, let us understand whether it was a “crime” at all. Certain sets of “facts” and documents came before a committee that was chaired by H.C. Gupta. Some of the documents provided incorrect information. These errors were not apparent on the face of the documents presented to him. The committee accordingly made recommendations, which were accepted at an “appropriate level”. This “appropriate level”, the decision-making authority, was privy to the same set of information that the committee headed by H.C. Gupta had. All this raises a few questions that need answers.

Was it practically possible to verify all the facts that came before the committee? Won’t administration come to a grinding halt if all committees of the government start verifying the facts that come before them? If, for the sake of argument, H.C. Gupta and the two other officers are held liable, why shouldn’t the other members of the committee be held equally liable? Why shouldn’t the higher “level” that took the final decision be also held liable?

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What has happened will impact decision-making in the government deeply. Officers will become averse to expressing their views on the files. Ultimately, governance will suffer. Bureaucracy is an instrument which enables governance. Despite being castigated and pilloried over the years, India’s IAS officers have performed well. The bureaucracy hasn’t withered away. It is not likely to wither away in future either. IAS officers’ contribution is rarely recognised, especially when it is rendered amid very trying set of circumstances:

मुक्तसर सी जिंदगी के अजब से अफसाने है
यहाँ तीर भी चलाने हैं और परिन्दें भी बचाने हैं

(The story of this short life is such that one had to shoot arrows as well as save the birds).

Such decisions will make even routine tasks difficult because civil servants will have the apprehension of being hauled up even when there is no mala fide. Playing safe had been the hallmark of some bureaucrats. Many more will join them. An extremely unfortunate development.

The author is a retired civil servant and former secretary in the government of India.

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  1. As the case was already tried and the guilty was punished, it is not proper to delve in to the merits of the case, unless on feels that a particular service is above the Law. The allocation of coal blocks is certainly not a trivial issue for the Secretary to depend on the lower ranks and commit breach of trust against the Nation.

  2. The author seems to suggest that IAS is above the law and the law of the land has to carve out exceptions for them. I request him to read English Law on Rule of Law and ponder over our system. Mr. Gupta is uncertainly guilty on the sole ground that he was tried under the procedure applicable to a common man.

  3. Why would working safely and in service of public, precisely affect bureaucracy? In most Indian govt departments it is the juniors who verify documents and forward it to their seniors for further approvals, verdict is proper in my oppinion. And if people don’t trust CAG then who is to be trusted in India??

  4. To lead a project to succeed is to involve 10% risk by the decision makers. If these gapes are not filled by showing the risk taking capacity, the success of a project may turn into a mess. This risk taking capacity, when shown by ‘good’ IAS officers, gets normally approved. The captioned case shivers a good officer to shrink himself to become a non performer.

  5. No one with a scintilla of good sense will doubt that the virtual gifting away of tens of billions of tons of priceless coal blocks, at the height of the commodities boom, was a first rate scandal. An economist Prime Minister ought to have listened to his Coal Secretary, Shri Parakh, who smelt cordite in the air, and recommended auctions. What was required was an anaemic small paragraph to be added to the relevant Act, which was done several years later, after the damage was done. 2. There are striking similarities between coal and spectrum allotments made by UPA. Natural resources allotted without transparency, at below fair market value. The sophistry underlying both decisions was that cheap spectrum / coal will translate into affordable mobile calls / power / steel. The fallacy became apparent when allottees of 2 G licences, with no background in telecom, effectively sold or monetised then, by inducting partners who valued them at 10,000 crores, six times the figure at which A Raja gave them to preselected friends. 3. CAG rightly pointed out that huge losses had taken place, although the quantum is a matter of judgment and ever changing market conditions. The apex court rightly cancelled both sets of allotments and laid down the unexceptionable principle that natural resources should be allotted by tender / auction. 4. What has happened to Shri H C Gupta and his colleagues is most unfortunate, they are deserving of presidential pardons. Coal, like oil, is a messy product to handle with bare hands. Even the saintly Dr Singh was summoned as Accused no 4 in the Talabira coal allotment case, but the trial has been stayed by the apex court.

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