NEW DELHI: Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has told CBI that he did not try to "influence" anybody, nor was there "any undue haste" in awarding the Talabira-II coal block to HINDALCO which was initially refused.
He also told CBI, investigating the case, that he had neither promised, nor gave any assurance to industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla about allocation of the block in Odisha to his firm HINDALCO. Singh, who was holding the portfolio of the Coal Ministry in 2005, said he only forwarded the letters of Birla and Chief Minister of Odisha Naveen Patnaik in this regard to the Ministry for careful examination.
"On being asked, I state that I do not recall having told anyone in PMO to issue reminders, other than the noting of my PS. It is a routine administrative matter. The PM does not go into these issues. Anyway, I had already stated that I did not try to influence anybody and that there was no undue haste in arriving at the decision," he said. While Birla had written letters requesting the Government to "change the decision" of not considering HINDALCO for the coal block, Patnaik had requested a review of the decision.
Singh, who has been summoned as accused by a special CBI court in the case, in a statement to the agency has said that recommendation of the Ministry to accommodate HINDALCO was approved by him. There was no "undue haste" in arriving at the decision to allocate the block to HINDALCO, he maintained.
The Supreme Court had on April 1 stayed the trial court's order summoning Singh and others, including Birla and ex-Coal Secretary P C Parakh, as accused in the case. In his statement recorded before CBI, which is probing the alleged scam in allotting a coal block to HINDALCO, Singh said he had received a May 7, 2005, letter from Birla urging the government to allocate Talabira-II block to his firm as it would enable them to set up a large aluminium plant in Odisha.
"I knew of the decision that I had already given the approval to the Secretary (Coal) to approve the minutes of the 25th SC (screening committee) at his level. The letter of Mr Birla was merely forwarded to the MoC (Ministry of Coal) with instructions to get a report," he told the CBI. "I gave no promise or assurance to Mr Birla that coal block would be allocated. The request of Mr Birla was to change the decision and matter was whether or not the matter should be re-opened or not," Singh said in his statement which has been placed on record before the court by CBI.
As per the 25th screening committee, the case of number of companies, including HINDALCO, was not considered favourable and it had decided to allocate the Talabira-II coal block to Neyveli Lignite Corporation Ltd (NLC). Singh also told CBI that Birla had written two letters in support of his request which he had asked the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to send to the Coal Ministry for a report. "It is thus clear that as Coal Minister and PM, I did nothing more than merely forwarding the letters of Kumar Mangalam Birla for examination by the Coal Ministry. Kumar Mangalam Birla had requested for allocation of a coal block," he said.
"It was only fair that his representation on the matter be carefully examined. I did no more than this. I repeat that I did not seek to influence the assessment and report of the Coal Ministry in processing Birla's representation at any stage," Singh told the investigating officer.
Regarding Birla's letter, Singh said the industrialist had mentioned about aluminium project in Odisha and emphasised on the need for Talabira-II coal block to set up a globally competitive aluminium smelter which had employment and revenue generation potential in the state. Singh also said that a letter was received from the Chief Minister of Odisha in this regard and it was sent to the Ministry of Coal with a request to take it on record, re- examine the matter and re-submit the file.
"On being asked, I state that I was aware of the fact that Jawed Usmani, the then Joint Secretary, PMO, mentioned in his note dated September 26, 2005... that the screening committee had already recommended the allocation of Talabira-II block to NLC, a PSU, and that this recommendation and its approval by PM was in public domain," he said. "What is to be understood is that the letter of Birla and the letter of CM of Odisha requested a review of the decision of the SC. It was for the Ministry of Coal to come up with a report.
"Finally, the recommendation of the MoC was approved by me as it was brought out in the notings of Secretary (Coal) and the PMO officials that it was possible to take care of the interests of both NLC and HINDALCO," he explained.
The former Prime Minister has also said that he had "many other issues to worry" about being at the helm of the government and it was practically not possible for him to know and recollect every guideline on coal-block allocation. The special court had summoned Singh, Birla, Parakh and others as accused in the case while refusing to accept CBI's closure report filed in the case. They have all denied any wrongdoing in the case.