New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government looked the other way when the country’s top auditor, the Comptroller and Auditor General, raised concerns about business groups deploying shell companies and colluding to corner India’s coal reserves, reveals an investigation by The Reporters’ Collective published in Al Jazeera.
Documents accessed by The Collective reveal the Modi government allowed the RP-Sanjiv Goenka (RP-SG) group, a $4 billion revenue conglomerate with interests in power, IT, education, retail and media, to manipulate the auction for a coal mine in West Bengal. The company accomplished this by using its shell companies to undercut competition in the auctions, and breaking bid secrecy protocol.
The Union government also ignored the country’s top auditor’s warning of collusion in auctions by 10 other private companies to corner large coal reserves, causing loss to the exchequer.
These auctions were held after the apex court in 2014 cancelled leases for 204 coal mines that had been given to private companies “arbitrarily” by the previous governments in what was then alleged to be a $22 billion coal scam. Fresh off ousting the previous Congress-led regime accused of selling the nation’s assets cheap, the new government led by the BJP promised a clean and fair re-auction of coal mines.
Previously undisclosed internal documents of the CAG, the Al Jazeera report notes, reveal that three of the five companies selected by the Modi government’s coal ministry for the auction of the Sarisatolli coal mine in West Bengal belonged to the RP-Sanjiv Goenka (RP-SG) group.
Financial records of the group show that Goenka’s company acquired three shell firms immediately before the coal auctions. Of the three companies from the RP-Goenka group that participated, one of the RP-SG subsidiaries
did not bid at all. Another subsidiary, a shell company, bid from the same private IP address as that used by the parent company and the winner – Calcutta Electricity Supply Corporation (CESC).
The West Bengal mine was part of the first lot of auctions that the Modi government carried out to hand over national assets to private companies. The CAG officials red-flagged its auction and that of 10 other mines to the government in its final report submitted to Parliament in August 2016. It said the “potential level of competition” was not achieved during the auctions.
A few months after these auctions, the Modi government internally admitted the auction process was “prone to be misused” and rules that governed the auctions could allow bidders to collude and “stifle competition”. But it modified the rules only after most “ready-to-use” coal mines were auctioned. Most of the winners, including the RP-SG firm CESC, continue to operate the mines till today.
The CAG’s final report listed these 11 mines for which it suspected collusion among bidders and the companies that participated in the auctions along with their sister firms. In the case of the Sarisatolli mine, the CAG found evidence of RP-SG Group’s companies bidding from the same IP address. However, in the final report, the mine’s name and bidders’ identities were not disclosed, the Al Jazeera report notes. Instead, a “case study” was presented, detailing the bidders’ modus operandi as an example of collusion without revealing their identifiable information.
The Union coal ministry rubbished the findings, and the secrecy around the names of the bidders and the mine helped the government bury the Sarisatolli case, the report continues.