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Govt rules out immediate cancellation of coal blocks

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BJP's apparent climbdown produced no breakthrough in the Parliament deadlock with  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rejecting the demands for immediate cancellation of 142 coal block allocations and an independent probe into the allotments.

Any signs of a thaw following Friday's telephonic talk on between Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj were dispelled when BJP continued to disrupt both the Houses on Monday demanding Singh's resignation.

After the talk, Swaraj and others in BJP said a debate in Parliament on the allocations can begin if the government cancels 142 allotments immediately and sets up an independent probe.

However, the Prime Minister, who met some senior Cabinet colleagues, ruled out any immediate cancellation of the coal blocks and made it clear that the government would fight it out.

Finance Minister P Chidambaram rubbished the demand for Singh's resignation as "outrageous" and rejected the two other demands of the BJP.

"The demand for cancellation of all 142 coal blocks allocated after 2004 is not founded on sound logic.... It (cancellation) cannot be done through dictat or arbitrary orders," Chidambaram said.

"There is a procedure for it (cancellation) and that procedure is underway. This is a fair procedure," Chidambaram said while pointing out an Inter-Ministerial Group (IMG) was going into the allocations made since 1993 and is expected to give its recommendations by September 15.

Seeking to turn tables on BJP, Chidambaram said Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi had made a strong pitch for speedier allocation of coal blocks for captive power and steel plants at a meeting of power ministers on May 28, 2007.

The IMG, headed by Zohra Chatterjee, Additional Secretary in the Coal Ministry, met this afternoon and reviewed the performance of 58 allottees. The Group will meet again on September 6.

Calling BJP's demand for independent probe as "a little belated", he said "if there are irregularities or any illegalities, then the CBI will go into it. It is the criminal aspect... What is the purpose of a judicial inquiry?"

Reacting to the government's stand, senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley said there were two pre-conditions for a Parliament debate. That did not preclude the party's demand for the Prime Minister's resignation.

He said cancellation of blocks would itself be an admission of guilt and a ground for Singh to step down.

Jaitley said Swaraj's offer provided an opportunity to the government to prove its bonafide and fairness. But by rejecting the demands, the government has demonstrated it has "vested interest" in continuing this "arbitrary and discretionary" allocation.

Questioning the cut-off date of 2004 for probing allocations, Chidambaram said "if the policy is flawed, it is flawed since 1993."