Tarred With The Same Brush
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 19, Dated May 17, 2008

Coal India wants Transparency International to instil value systems but is saddled with tainted officers, says SHANTANU GUHA RAY

SECURITY, PARTICULARLY against corruption, is naturally good for a company, particularly one as large and as integral to the Indian public sector as the Rs 33,000 crore Coal India Limited (CIL). But when the same company appoints a couple of foxes to guard the henhouse, feathers are bound to fly.

The idea behind CIL tying up with Stockholm- based Transparency International (TI) was to inculcate value systems in a company that, despite being India’s largest, was routinely plagued with charges of financial irregularities that tarred almost everyone, from the all-powerful chairman to the lowly purchase officer.

This tie-up means that an integrity agreement would be signed by the bidders against each tender — and its applicability would begin when a bidder submitted a document to CIL, which too would be a signatory to the agreement. CIL, interestingly, was the second stateowned company after Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) to sign up with TI. With good reason: every bid from these companies are enormous. For instance, in the terminal year of the 11th Plan (2012), CIL will be required to produce 520.5 million tonnes of coal to ensure the nation’s energy security, which will entail procurement of goods and services worth Rs 18,000 crore.

In fact, the decision to tie-up with TI was taken following a brainstorming session involving functional directors of CIL, chairmen and managing directors and chief vigilance officers of all subsidiary coal companies, besides other experts like Admiral (Retd) TH Tahiliani, Chairman of TI India, former ONGC chairman Subir Raha and Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) secretary Sujit Banerjee.

So far, so good. But when Nihar Ranjan Banerjee was appointed chief vigilance officer in August 2007, followed by his close interactions with BN Mishra, a deputy general manager in the vigilance department, there was an outcry: Banerjee, formerly principal secretary to West Bengal minister for cooperatives Rabindra Ghosh, had been accused of serious financial irregularities by the ruling Left Front government just before the CIL appointment. And Mishra has been charged with amassing assets disproportionate to his income.

Worse, the Delhi-based CVC has asked CIL not to post Mishra to the vigilance department. “The Commission would advise the (coal) ministry to shift B N Mishra from the vigilance branch immediately,” the CVCwrote in a confidential note. The CVC in its letter, a copy of which is with TEHELKA, also accuses Mishra of committing serious financial irregularities during his posting in Nagpur at Western Coalfields Limited (WCL), a Coal India subsidiary. “We are looking into the charges,” Bagrodia told TEHELKA.
Mishra is just one part of the story. Banerjee’s spat with Ghosh is still remembered in the corridors of the Writers’ Building in Kolkata. Ghosh called his secretary “mad and mentally disbalanced” and a corrupt person, who openly flouted rules to make things work to his benefit. Banerjee charged the minister of promoting “corruption, ad-hocism and whimsical and inefficient working” in his department. And state chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was not amused when Ghosh declared in a crowded press conference in Kolkata that he would not attend office till Banerjee was removed.

What went wrong? Banerjee, in charge of the department of minority and madrasa, had written scathing reports against party MP Hannan Mollah, former Wakf Board chairman, and raised objections to the appointment of several key officials in his department, including the registrar of co-operative societies and nominees to various co-operative societies in the districts. “His joining Coal India in such a sensitive position is indeed a matter of concern,” a top CVC official said.

Charges against Banerjee in CIL have already begun trickling in. Niranjan Das, recently appointed as Director (Technical), Northern Coalfields, in Singrauli charges that he was not given a clearance certificate for nearly a year by the vigilance department. “I do not want to get into too many details. But my papers were delayed for really long. I do not think it takes such a long time to clear the papers, especially in the case of those in the director-level ranks,” Das said in a telephone interview.

Then, there is the medical reimbursement he has claimed in the name of his father, a pensioner with the Indian Railways. Papers claimed under the Right To Information (RTI) Act from CIL show that Banerjee ran up nearly Rs 3 lakh in a six month period from August 2007. “Banerjee is not entitled to such reimbursements because his father is a retired government employee, with a pension. At a time when the company is tying up with global outfits like TI and Deloitte Consulting (to implement an IT initiative), it is important to remain scandalfree,” says an insider.

OTHERS CLAIM that as many as 45 closed cases have been reopened by Mishra and Banerjee, where the management had dropped charges after they came clean. “There’s total chaos and confusion. No one knows why cases that are 10 years old are being reopened,” says sources.
Can CIL remain free from scandal? Or break the constant chain of financial misdoings that routinely make headlines? Insiders think the possibility remote, probably because financial irregularities are the norm in CIL and its subsidiaries. The most recent has been the misappropriation of funds collected from its staffers for the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. In fact, it was through an RTI application filed by an employee of South Eastern Coalfield Limited, that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) revealed how Rs 10 crore, collected by from CIL employees for over a decade, was fudged. Out of the Rs 40.65 crore collected from the employees, only Rs 30 crore was submitted and Rs 4.71 crore used for unauthorised purchase of relief material. In fact, Rs 5.93 crore is still in the company coffers.

Worse, the PMO, which was forced to conduct an inquiry, found Mujibur Rehman, a lab technician who had filed the orginal RTI application, was severely pressured by the company top brass which wanted him to withdraw it. CIL insiders say that Rs 30 lakh collected during the 2004 Tsunami and Rs 17 lakh during the 1999 Orissa cyclone was never handed over; Rs 7 crore collected for the 2005 J&K earthquake has not yet been deposited, while Kargil collections were submitted eight years late in August 2007. And for all his efforts, Rehman has been threatened, shunted around and twice charge-sheeted by the company.

Now, with people like Banerjee and Mishra in charge over CIL’s anti corruption unit, all that seems transparent is that TI clearly has a job on its hands.