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.
The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022. The session was scheduled to be held over five days. In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures.
13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days
As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days. 13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day. These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1). Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022. As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills). This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.
Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda
Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny
Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others. The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny). While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law. Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny. This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision. This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.
However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties. It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion. Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.
For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill). The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful. The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion. Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts. For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent. It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality. The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.
Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions.
Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny
In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day. Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). 91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction. In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days. This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.
Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021
Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council).
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.
Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time. This may be due to disruptions in the House. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills. For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills. However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session. This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.
In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session. In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent. These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent. However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm. In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees. None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee. States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination. However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.