Recently, the government issued letters de-allocating coal blocks of various companies, based on the recommendations of the Inter Ministerial Group (IMG). This post discusses the history behind the de-allocations, the parameters the IMG used while examining the progress of various coal blocks and the action that has been taken by the government. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) released a performance audit report on 'Allocation of Coal Blocks and Augmentation of Coal Production' on August 17, 2012. Some of the key findings of the Report were:
The IMG on Coal was constituted for the periodic review of the development of coal blocks and end use plants. The IMG had requested a status paper from the Coal Controller, MoC. This has been submitted to the IMG but is not available. The IMG will decide if private allottees have made substantial progress based on certain parameters. The parameters used by IMG are: approval of Mining Plan, status of environment and forest clearance, grant of mining lease and progress made in land acquisition. They are also examining the physical status of End Use Plant (EUP), investment made and the expected date of opening of the mine and commissioning of EUP. The IMG has made the following recommendations:
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Of the coal blocks that the IMG has recommended for de-allocation, until now the government has accepted the de-allocation of the following: Bramhadih block, Gourangdih, New Patrapara, Chinora block, Warora (Southern Part) block, Lalgarh (North) block, Bhaskarpara block, Dahegaon/Makardhokra-IV block, Gondkhari block and Ramanwara North block. The government has accepted the deduction of bank guarantees for blocks such as Moitra, Jitpur, Bhaskarpara, Durgapur II/Sariya, Dahegaon/Makardhokra-IV, Marki Mangli II, III and IV, Gondhkari, Lohari, Radhikapur East, Bijahan and Nerad Malegaon. The letters issued by the government de-allocating coal blocks and deducting bank guarantees are available here.
For a detailed summary of the CAG Report, click here.
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.