Earlier this week, Lok Sabha passed the Bill that provides for the allocation of coal mines that were cancelled by the Supreme Court last year. In light of this development, this post looks at the issues surrounding coal block allocations and what the 2015 Bill seeks to achieve.
In September 2014, the Supreme Court cancelled the allocations of 204 coal blocks. Following the Supreme Court judgement, in October 2014, the government promulgated the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Ordinance, 2014 for the allocation of the cancelled coal mines. The Ordinance, which was replaced by the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Bill, 2014, could not be passed by Parliament in the last winter session, and lapsed. The government then promulgated the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Second Ordinance, 2014 on December 26, 2014. The Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Bill, 2015 replaces the second Ordinance and was passed by Lok Sabha on March 4, 2015. Why is coal considered relevant? Coal mining in India has primarily been driven by the need for energy domestically. About 55% of the current commercial energy use is met by coal. The power sector is the major consumer of coal, using about 80% of domestically produced coal. As of April 1, 2014, India is estimated to have a cumulative total of 301.56 billion tonnes of coal reserves up to a depth of 1200 meters. Coal deposits are mainly located in Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. How is coal regulated? The Ministry of Coal has the overall responsibility of managing coal reserves in the country. Coal India Limited, established in 1975, is a public sector undertaking, which looks at the production and marketing of coal in India. Currently, the sector is regulated by the ministry’s Coal Controller’s Organization. The Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973 (CMN Act) is the primary legislation determining the eligibility for coal mining in India. The CMN Act allows private Indian companies to mine coal only for captive use. Captive mining is the coal mined for a specific end-use by the mine owner, but not for open sale in the market. End-uses currently allowed under the CMN Act include iron and steel production, generation of power, cement production and coal washing. The central government may notify additional end-uses. How were coal blocks allocated so far? Till 1993, there were no specific criteria for the allocation of captive coal blocks. Captive mining for coal was allowed in 1993 by amendments to the CMN Act. In 1993, a Screening Committee was set up by the Ministry of Coal to provide recommendations on allocations for captive coal mines. All allocations to private companies were made through the Screening Committee. For government companies, allocations for captive mining were made directly by the ministry. Certain coal blocks were allocated by the Ministry of Power for Ultra Mega Power Projects (UMPP) through tariff based competitive bidding (bidding for coal based on the tariff at which power is sold). Between 1993 and 2011, 218 coal blocks were allocated to both public and private companies under the CMN Act. What did the 2014 Supreme Court judgement do? In August 2012, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India released a report on the coal block allocations. CAG recommended that the allocation process should be made more transparent and objective, and done through competitive bidding. Following this report, in September 2012, a Public Interest Litigation matter was filed in the Supreme Court against the coal block allocations. The petition sought to cancel the allotment of the coal blocks in public interest on grounds that it was arbitrary, illegal and unconstitutional. In September 2014, the Supreme Court declared all allocations of coal blocks, made through the Screening Committee and through Government Dispensation route since 1993, as illegal. It cancelled the allocation of 204 out of 218 coal blocks. The allocations were deemed illegal on the grounds that: (i) the allocation procedure followed by the Screening Committee was arbitrary, and (ii) no objective criterion was used to determine the selection of companies. Further, the allocation procedure was held to be impermissible under the CMN Act. Among the 218 coal blocks, 40 were under production and six were ready to start production. Of the 40 blocks under production, 37 were cancelled and of the six ready to produce blocks, five were cancelled. However, the allocation to Ultra Mega Power Projects, which was done via competitive bidding for lowest tariffs, was not declared illegal. What does the 2015 Bill seek to do? Following the cancellation of the coal blocks, concerns were raised about further shortage in the supply of coal, resulting in more power supply disruptions. The 2015 Bill primarily seeks to allocate the coal mines that were declared illegal by the Supreme Court. It provides details for the auction process, compensation for the prior allottees, the process for transfer of mines and details of authorities that would conduct the auction. In December 2014, the ministry notified the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Rules, 2014. The Rules provide further guidelines in relation to the eligibility and compensation for prior allottees. How is the allocation of coal blocks to be carried out through the 2015 Bill? The Bill creates three categories of mines, Schedule I, II and III. Schedule I consists of all the 204 mines that were cancelled by the Supreme Court. Of these mines, Schedule II consists of all the 42 mines that are under production and Schedule III consists of 32 mines that have a specified end-use such as power, iron and steel, cement and coal washing. Schedule I mines can be allocated by way of either public auction or allocation. For the public auction route any government, private or joint venture company can bid for the coal blocks. They can use the coal mined from these blocks for their own consumption, sale or for any other purpose as specified in their mining lease. The government may also choose to allot Schedule I mines to any government company or any company that was awarded a power plant project through competitive bidding. In such a case, a government company can use the coal mined for own consumption or sale. However, the Bill does not provide clarity on the purpose for which private companies can use the coal. Schedule II and III mines are to be allocated by way of public auction, and the auctions have to be completed by March 31, 2015. Any government company, private company or a joint venture with a specified end-use is eligible to bid for these mines. In addition, the Bill also provides details on authorities that would conduct the auction and allotment and the compensation for prior allottees. Prior allottees are not eligible to participate in the auction process if: (i) they have not paid the additional levy imposed by the Supreme Court; or (ii) if they are convicted of an offence related to coal block allocation and sentenced to imprisonment of more than three years. What are some of the issues to consider in the 2015 Bill? One of the major policy shifts the 2015 Bill seeks to achieve is to enable private companies to mine coal in the future, in order to improve the supply of coal in the market. Currently, the coal sector is regulated by the Coal Controller’s Organization, which is under the Ministry of Coal. The Bill does not establish an independent regulator to ensure a level playing field for both private and government companies bidding for auction of mines to conduct coal mining operations. In the past, when other sectors have opened up to the private sector, an independent regulatory body has been established beforehand. For example, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, an independent regulatory body, was established when the telecom sector was opened up for private service providers. The Bill also does not specify any guidelines on the monitoring of mining activities by the new allottees. While the Bill provides broad details of the process of auction and allotment, the actual results with regards to money coming in to the states, will depend more on specific details, such as the tender documents and floor price. It is also to be seen whether the new allotment process ensures equitable distribution of coal blocks among the companies and creates a fair, level-playing field for them. In the past, the functioning of coal mines has been delayed due to delays in land acquisition and environmental clearances. This Bill does not address these issues. The auctioning of coal blocks resulting in improving the supply of coal, and in turn addressing the problem of power shortage in the country, will also depend on the efficient functioning of the mines, in addition to factors such as transparent allocations.
Tribunals function as a parallel mechanism to the traditional court system. Tribunals were established for two main reasons - allowing for specialised subject knowledge in disputes on technical matters and reducing the burden on the court system. In India, some tribunals are at the level of subordinate courts with appeals lying with the High Court, while some others are at the level of High Courts with appeals lying with the Supreme Court. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament may create an alternative to High Courts provided that they have the same efficacy as the High Courts. For an overview of the tribunal system in India, see our note here.
In April 2021, the central government promulgated an Ordinance, which specified provisions related to the composition of the search-cum-selection committees for the selection of members of 15 Tribunals, and the term of office for members. Further, it empowered the central government to notify qualifications and other terms and conditions of service (such as salaries) for the Chairperson and members of these tribunals. In July 2021, the Supreme Court struck down certain provisions of the Ordinance (such as the provision specifying a four-year term for members) stating that these impinged on the independence of the judiciary from the government. In several earlier judgements, the Supreme Court has laid out guidelines for the composition of Tribunals and service conditions to ensure that these Tribunals have the same level of independence from the Executive as the High Courts they replace.
However, Parliament passed the Tribunals Reforms Bill, 2021 in August 2021, which is almost identical to the April Ordinance and includes the provisions which had been struck down. This Act has been challenged in the Supreme Court. For a PRS analysis of the Bill, please see here.
On 16th September 2021, the central government notified The Tribunal (Conditions of Service) Rules, 2021 under the Tribunals Reforms Act, 2021. A couple of the provisions under these Rules may contravene principles laid out by the Supreme Court:
Appointment of the Administrative Member of the Central Administrative Tribunal as the Chairman
In case of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), the Rules specify that a person with at least three years of experience as the Judicial Member or Administrative Member may be appointed as the Chairman. This may violate the principles laid down by the past Supreme Court judgements.
The CAT supplants High Courts. In 1986, the Supreme Court stated that if an administrative tribunal supplants the High Courts, the office of the Chairman of the tribunal should be equated with that of the Chief Justice of the High Court. Therefore, the Chairman of the tribunal must be a current or former High Court Judge. Further, in 2019, the Supreme Court stated – “the knowledge, training, and experience of members or presiding officers of a tribunal must mirror, as far as possible, that of the Court it seeks to substitute”.
The Administrative Member of the CAT may be a person who has been an Additional Secretary to the central government or a central government officer with pay at least that of the Additional Secretary. Hence, the Administrative Member may not have the required judicial experience for appointment as the Chairman of CAT.
Leave Sanctioning Authority
The Rules specify that the central government will be the leave sanctioning authority for the Chairperson of tribunals, and Members (in case of absence of the Chairperson). In 2014, the Supreme Court specified that the central government (Executive) should not have any administrative involvement with the members of the tribunal as it may influence the independence and fairness of the tribunal members. In addition, it had observed that the Executive may be a litigant party and its involvement in administrative matters of tribunals may influence the fairness of the adjudication process. In judgements in 1997 and 2014, the Supreme Court recommended that the administration of all Tribunals should be under a nodal ministry such as the Law Ministry, and not the respective administrative ministry. In 2020, it recommended setting up of a National Tribunals Commission to supervise appointments and administration of Tribunals. The Rules are not in consonance with these recommendations.