In his two previous meetings with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), former Coal Secretary P C Parakh says, he spoke to them at length about the flaws in coal allocation that he was attempting to remedy during his stint in the ministry. His battle with "The System" to shift to a bidding-based method of allotting coal blocks - and how it was opposed at every step - is public knowledge. It is, for instance, catalogued in detail in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report.
Which is why Parakh says he was surprised when he found a CBI raiding party outside his Secunderabad apartment at 6 a m last fortnight, hoping to find incriminating evidence to back up the first information report they had registered against him for allotting a coal block, Talabira II, to Hindalco. There is enough publicly-available evidence to suggest that the Talabira II allotment might have less to do with deep-seated conspiracy, and more with a series of unconventional policy reversals by an independent-minded bureaucrat who felt free to bypass those government rules he found unreasonable.
It isn't clear if CBI has arrived at a similar conclusion. But they did come away with a mass of correspondence from the Parakh residence, which suggests the extent to which the political establishment sought to extract pelf from coal, and of the fairly serious consequences to those bureaucrats and officials, such as Parakh, who resisted.
In Parakh's own case, for instance, Shibu Soren - who had two stints as coal minister - complained bitterly, accusing Parakh of being disrespectful to the minister, and (the ironies are lost on no one) withholding information that Soren had sought against the coal mafia. Parakh wrote back saying that Soren was the best authority on the coal mafia given that he came from the coal mafia stronghold of Jharkhand. And that the mafia was no longer outside the government but in it, but that there was no official will to tackle the menace.
More complaint letters came from, among others, former Congress MP from Dhanbad and currently a minister in the Jharkhand government, Chandra Shekhar Dubey, who accused Parakh of going to Switzerland to "update his account" .
Parakh responded to the cabinet secretary denying ever visiting that country as coal secretary, also pointing out that Dubey's anger stemmed from the coal ministry's resistance to his attempts to illegally occupy homes of the public sector undertaking Bharat Coking Coal Ltd in Dhanbad.
The Parakh papers also contain correspondence of the heads of coal utilities facing similar harassment, perhaps the most damning of which is an unsigned note purportedly written by the former CMD of Coal India, Shashi Kumar, who traces the legacy of extortionate demands straddling multiple governments. Kumar, who was given temporary charge of the coal utility in 2003 and became its full-time chairman two years later, records how an agent representing coal minister "KM" asked him for a Rs 10-lakh down payment, and a monthly "princely sum" to stay on as CMD. "KM," he says, was replaced by minister "SS" who, he says, "was hell-bent on receiving regular payments". Then there was the minister of state who came during this period when "SS" was in and out of office, who Kumar describes "as a man without scruples, his hunger for money unlimited... and who claimed to be collecting money solely on behalf of the party".
The only reason, says Kumar, that he could steer through without making the pay-offs and giving into the demands of his ministers was largely because of Parakh's backing. Parakh, in turn, has acknowledged that he was being backed by the cabinet secretary and the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) against complaints by unscrupulous MPs.
Defenders of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)'s tottering legacy have leapt onto this last detail to suggest that the PMO, like Parakh, was committed to cleaning the system. As always, they are being economical with the truth. It is true that the prime minister was in agreement with Parakh's July 2004 proposal to switch to a bidding-based system of coal allocation. But the explanations offered for why it took six long years to bring it into effect are simply unconvincing.
The change in allotment procedures needed a minor amendment in the Coal Nationalisation Act, which Parakh suggested - and the law ministry agreed - could be done through an ordinance. But the same ordinance-friendly UPA suddenly felt the need to capitulate because a handful of Opposition-run coal-bearing states objected. Parakh says he was surprised when a meeting called in the PMO took the view to continue with the existing system of coal allotments until the law could be amended. More time-delaying tactics were deployed such as referring the cabinet note back to the law ministry. "There was no political will," Parakh told us.
Parakh's March 2005 note to the cabinet secretary says "after the PM's decision to continue the present system of allotments, five screening committee meetings were held in the last 4 months (of 2005). And in such time more companies were allotted blocks than in the previous 10 years". The PMO has a defence for this, too: that India needed the coal because it was facing an energy crunch.
This is excellent logic; if the PMO can explain how they allotted coal blocks to companies making chyavanprash, to scrap dealers in Old Delhi, to companies that were squatting on coal blocks for years without going into production, and so on.
The answers to those anomalies will, logically, require CBI to knock on the door of 7, Race Course Road. But after the agency's Hindalco snafu, the chances of that appear even more unlikely.