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In The Hot Seat

Getting the bill on coal auctions passed by the Rajya Sabha was a real challenge

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It was early morning when I noticed the SMS and the batch-mate who had sent it was not prone to sending frivolous messages. She was also not an early riser. The message read—“Congratulations”. Within minutes, a similar message popped up on my Facebook wall. I wasn’t sure what I had done to deserve this. It was middle of the month and normally transfers or promotions were announced during the last few days of each month. I accessed the Department of Personnel and Training website out of curiosity and there it was—I was posted as Officer on Special Duty in the rank of Secretary in the Ministry of Coal. The post was created to accommodate me in the ministry a fortnight before my formal takeover as Secretary on the retirement of the existing incumbent.

I was keen on continuing with the PMG for some more time, as there were some tasks still to be accomplished to ensure fast-tracking of projects. There was a need for setting up a web-based system for getting all the clearances and I was working towards it. Anyway, the government had felt otherwise. There was a crisis to be managed and I was chosen to manage this crisis. What I discovered subsequently, ‘crisis’ would be an understatement for that.

A large number of friends and well-wishers sympathised with me as I was selected to occupy the ‘hot’ seat. I was not fully conversant with the functioning of the Coal Ministry, so I asked a colleague for details. He replied, “Have you seen ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’?” This was a hard-hitting movie on coal mafia. His response made it all clear.

I joined the Coal Ministry on 16 October. On the very next day, in a meeting presided over by the PM, a presentation was made wherein all the woes of the power sector were attributed to the problems with coal. There was indeed a crisis because of coal shortage, but I could not swallow the argument that coal was the only cause for the pathetic state of affairs in the power sector. Despite being new to the job, I pointed out that the power sector required a more comprehensive look. The PM agreed with me but still went on to state that if I could resolve coal-related issues, the economy would thrive. (Coal issues got substantially resolved eventually, but it is debatable if the economy thrived as a consequence!) There was also a message to finalise an ordinance to take care of the situation created by the Supreme Court order cancelling allocation of 204 coal blocks. The ordinance was to be presented to the cabinet on 20 October. That was only 72 hours away. It was a stupendous task but was successfully accomplished by a committed team of officers.

I hit the ground running.

“Is that so, Mr Swarup?”

In view of the urgency to bring about a legislation to tackle the situation created as a consequence of the Supreme Court judgement, an ordinance was promulgated. However, the real challenge was to get the related bill passed by the parliament. It was easy to get the bill introduced and cleared in the Lok Sabha, but the real test was to get it past the Rajya Sabha where the government did not have the majority. Moreover, the opposition parties were in no mood to play ball. They were keen to pay the government in the same coin by repeatedly disrupting the functioning of the parliament. Precious time was being lost. However, they could not care less. Consequently, in the absence of legislative business, most of the bills that were introduced in the parliament were languishing.

To carry out the auction of the coal blocks that were cancelled by the Supreme Court, it was imperative to get the aforementioned legislation passed. Hence, a multipronged strategy was chalked out to reach out to the parliamentarians and those that mattered and to convey the value proposition behind the legislation.

One of the parts of the strategy was to reach out to the chief ministers of the opposition-ruled states (states where non-NDA parties were in power). On one of the rare holidays, I was with my family as we drove down to a friend’s place in Gurgaon. I got a message from Mr Arun Jaitley’s house that the Chief Minister of Odisha Mr Naveen Patnaik had arrived at his residence and Mr Jaitley would like to invite me to come over and explain the proposed legislation to him. I beat a retreat and reached Mr Jaitley’s residence. I was ushered into a room where Mr Jaitley, Mr Naveen Patnaik, CM, Odisha, Mr Piyush Goyal, Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Power and Coal and the Personal Secretary to the CM, Odisha were already present. Mr Goyal was explaining something to the CM as I walked in.

Mr Jaitley interrupted him and introduced me to the CM. I was then asked to explain the bill and its rationale. I made an opening statement keeping in mind that the CM was upset at his state getting a smaller amount from the auctions as compared to Chhattisgarh. I explained that the central government was not getting a single penny out of these auctions, yet it was putting in all the effort to auction the blocks in a transparent manner. He was surprised and it showed in his response, “Is that so, Mr Swarup?” Then I went on to explain the full process of auction. My statements and explanations were interspersed with his, “Is that so, Mr Swarup!” on a few occasions. I used my smartphone and went to the web portal where the live auction was being webcast. Fortunately, an Odisha based mine was being auctioned. I explained that every INR 2 increase in the bid translated into INR 50 lakhs for the state. He could not but be impressed with the way the auctions were being conducted. Finally, what clinched the issue was my statement that the state of Odisha would get around INR 27,000 crore through these auctions. This was the last “Is that so, Mr Swarup!” Biju Janata Dal (BJD) supported the Bill in the Parliament.

The Rai Sahebs
There is no dearth of advisors in India. They are all around you. These ‘Rai Sahebs’ (advisors) come in all shapes and sizes. Some have the sophisticated presence and appearance like McKinsey & Company, KPMG and PWC, a number of them are retired government officials (not all of whom did anything worthy of note as serving officers) and some are self-professed and well-connected experts. Quite a few of them do not even charge you for the advice so long as you allow them to sneak into your domain which they believe is theirs.

Consequent to the cancellation of the coal blocks by the Supreme Court, the new government wanted to set in motion a process to auction the coal blocks. I had been drafted to carry out this task as Secretary of the Ministry. However, not everyone was convinced that the process being evolved for the auction of coal blocks would withstand scrutiny and the expectations associated with it. It was too sensitive a matter to be left just to the mandarins of the Coal Ministry. The people incharge perhaps trusted the bureaucracy but did not have enough confidence in them to allow a free hand. Hence, an informal proposal was mooted for a committee under Mr Vinod Rai, who had been responsible for pointing out the irregularity in the allocation of coal blocks in his role as Comptroller and Auditor General. It was hoped that he would give ‘rai’ to the Coal Ministry in the conduct of coal block auctions, although he was not keen on giving any ‘rai’ on his own.

The atmosphere was charged. Discussions were held in the room of the Principal Secretary in the PMO. He had suggested that there should be a committee to oversee coal block auctions. I opposed it. As Secretary of the Ministry, I was not willing to have any such committee breathing down my neck in the form of supervision. I was clear that the task of carrying out the auction was ours. Hence, we were prepared to take all the responsibility associated with it. There was a heated debate as I continued to resist. Normally no one argued with the PMO...  

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