Lessons from Coalgate: How to keep crony capitalists in check? Open up coal mining

coalVivek Kaul

In the recent past several columnist and experts have been critical of the recent decision of the Supreme Court to cancel allocation of 204 out of 218 coal blocks that had been allocated free of cost by the government for captive mining.
As economist Abheek Barua writes
in a column in the Business Standard “I have had a flurry of calls (anguished monologues in most cases) and noticed copious Facebook posts from fund manager friends from abroad expressing their concern over the Supreme Court’s cancellation of coal-block allocations.”
Similar arguments saying that foreign investors are worried have been made by several others. As Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales write in a different context in
Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists “No one will have the incentive to undertake long term investment—whether in acquiring specialized skills or in building physical capital—when there is no clarity about what the rules of the game are.”
This is the core point of the argument being made against the Supreme Court decision on the coalgate scam. If we keep changing the rules of the game, foreign investors are not going to come, we are being told by the experts.
The question that none of these experts are answering is what should the Supreme Court have done, if not this? In its judgement the Supreme Court has said that the process of allotment of free coal blocks for captive mining through the Screening Committee route suffers from the “vice of arbitrariness”. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in its audit of the Screening Committee meetings had come to a similar conclusion. (To read
a detailed argument click here).
Given this, the Screening Committee route of allotment of coal blocks was non-transparent and opaque. There were other problems with it as well. Keeping this scenario in mind, the Supreme Court decided to cancel the allocation of coal blocks through this route.
And as far as foreign investors are concerned wouldn’t they want a process of allocation which is transparent, non opaque and based on objective criteria? Again the experts criticizing the Coalgate decision fail to answer this question.
Further, if the Screening Committee route of allocation of coal blocks was such a great method why did it not lead to a significant increase in the production of coal. Again no answers are offered by the experts on this question.
As per the 11th five year plan, which started in 2007-08, the production from the captive coal blocks was to expected to touch 111 million tonnes of coal per year by 2011-12. The captive coal blocks produced 36.2 million tonnes of coal during the course of that year. By 2016-17, the production of coal from these blocks was expected to touch 330 million tonnes. In 2013-2014, these blocks produced 39 million tonnes.
So why have these blocks not gotten anywhere around to producing the amount of coal they were expected to? Only 40 out of the 218 coal blocks allocated are currently producing coal. Given that they had got blocks for free, the companies seemed to be in no hurry to start production. That wouldn’t have been the case, had they paid for it in the first place.
Further, captive coal-mining has not succeeded anywhere in the world. As Partha Bhattacharya, former chairman of Coal India, writes in a column in The Indian Express “Captive end-users mining coal is not optimal. Nor is it known to have succeeded elsewhere in the world. Coal-mining has its own challenges and needs core competence, which the end-users are unlikely to possess.” In the Indian case the expertise required to get a coal mine up and running is largely limited to individuals working for Coal India. There is very little private expertise that is available and can be tapped.
The other big problem with captive mining is that coal blocks need to be artificially divided in order to be allocated to different companies. As Bhattacharya writes “In the process [of artificially dividing blocks, a huge quantity of coal is left out for creating barriers, which otherwise could have been mined out.”
This is something that former coal secretary PC Parakh also talks about in his book
Crusader or Conspirator—Coalgate and Other Truths: “Talibara II and Talibara III are sub-blocks of a contagious coal block that has no geographical or geological features warranting its division into two separate mines. This division was unscientific and was done many years ago when coal blocks were identified for allocation to private companies for private use…Such division of coal blocks leads to loss of sizeable quantity of coal at the barriers.”
Given these reasons Bhattacharya feels that blocks should “be merged to create larger blocks, separated by natural boundaries instead of coal barriers.”
Further, it is important that the government allows commercial mining of coal by companies other than Coal India. Given that expertise in India to set up and run a coal mine is limited it is important that we allow international companies to enter this sector. This will call for the amendment of the Coal Mines (Nationalization) Act of 1973.
Obviously this decision is likely to be opposed by political parties and trade unions. But it is worth remembering that Coal India now produces a major part of its coal through outsourced contracts. In fact, this is the major reason why the company has Rs 52,000 crore of cash on its books. And in that sense the sector has already been privatised. (
For a detailed argument click here).
The first thing opening up of the sector will do is to create some competition for Coal India. The captive block route of coal production does not do that at all. The companies have to pass on the excess coal that they produce and which does not get used up in the production of power, steel, cement, aluminium etc., to the local subsidiary of Coal India.
Between financial year 2009-2010 and 2013-2014, the total amount of coal produced by Coal India went up at the minuscule rate of 1.7% per year from 431.3 million tonnes to 462.4 million tonnes.
Some competition is likely to improve the productivity of Coal India.
As Swaminathan Aiyar writes in The Economic Times “In Australia, collieries produce 75 million tones per manshift (of eight hours) in open-cast mines and 40 tonnes per manshift in underground mines. Coal India averages barely 7 tonnes and 0.8 tonnes respectively…Coal India’s machines work 15 hours per day , against 22 hours per day in efficient mines.”
This is the major reason why the supply of coal in India has far outstripped its demand. If Coal India has to increase its productivity, some competition will do it no harm. As Bhattacharya puts it “Besides turning the current situation of acute coal shortage into one of abundance, competitive pressures are expected to bring prices well below the imported coal price, since the wage cost is likely to remain far lower in India than elsewhere, whereas productivity is expected to converge to international levels.”
In fact, if we had opened up commercial mining of coal in the 1990s, we wouldn’t have been suffering from the current shortage. As Parakh writes “Had we opened up coal mining to private sector for commercial mining, along with power sector, in the early 1990s, we would by now have at least half a dozen large coal mining companies in the private sector. This is what happened in the telecom sector. The country would not be facing huge shortage of coal and large outgo of foreign exchange on import of coal.”
To conclude, it is important that the sector be opened up for foreign companies as well, to keep India’s crony capitalists under check. As Rajan and Zingales put it “The most effective way to reduce the power of incumbents to affect legislation is to keep domestic markets open to international competition…Openness creates competitions from outsiders—outsiders that incumbents cannot control through political means.”
The article originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on Sep 30, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

RBI keeps repo rate at 8%: Lower interest rates are not a solution to slow economic growth


Ramachandra Guha in a wonderful essay titled An Anthropologist Among Marxists writes about what he calls a “possibly, apocryphal anecdote.” As he writes “When Indira Gandhi was assassinated, her ashes were sent to different cities to allow public homage. When her ashes lay lay in Calcutta’s Government House they were visited one evening by the state’s finance minister. In the previous year this man had delivered no less than two hundred and sixty-two speeches on the discrimination against West Bengal in the release of funds from the central treasury. As the minister came out of the Government House, he was asked how he felt when confronting the mortal remains of his most resolute political opponent. He replied in character: Centre Kom Diye Che (the centre has again given us less than our rightful share).”
In another essay titled
Political Leadership Guha writes “Jyoti Basu’s government, it was said, began every discussion on federalism with the words, “Centre kom diye che.
The communists who ruled West Bengal for more than three decades liked to blame all the problems of the state on the central government, which they felt did not give the state a fair share of the funds.
Dear Reader, if you are wondering why am I talking about West Bengal and its politics in a piece which has the term “interest-rates” in the headline, allow me to explain. Over the last few years, everyone from politicians to businessmen to bankers have called for interest rates to be cut as a solution for reviving economic growth in India. The assumption is that at lower interest rates people will borrow and spend more and that will lead to economic growth.
In that sense, these individuals are not very different from the communist politicians of West Bengal for whom “
Centre kom diye che” was an explanation for all the problems of the state. Along similar lines, individuals calling for a cut in interest rates seem to believe that higher interest rates are a major reason for the slowdown in economic growth, and a cut can really get people borrowing and spending all over again.
The former finance minister P Chidambaram was a major propagator of this belief. His successor Arun Jaitley has carried of where Chidambaram left. Other than the politicians, bankers have also regularly asked the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to cut interest rates.
Today with the RBI deciding to keep the repo rate unchanged at 8% in the fourth bi-monthly monetary policy, the interest-rate-
wallahs will be at it again. Repo rate is the rate at which the RBI lends to banks.
The RBI had its reasons for not changing the repo rate. As it pointed out in a statement “Since June, headline inflation has ebbed…The most heartening feature has been the steady decline in inflation excluding food and fuel…to a new low. With international crude prices softening and relative stability in the foreign exchange market, some upside risks to inflation are receding. Yet, there are risks from food price shocks as the full effects of the monsoon’s passage unfold, and from geo-political developments that could materialise rapidly.”
Nevertheless, over the next few days you will see bankers, real estate company owners, industry lobbies and possibly even the finance minister Jaitley, wondering why the RBI did not cut the repo rate, to get lending going again.
The most recent occasion when the interest-rate-wallahs came out in the open was when the bankers asked the RBI to cut the repo rate, after the growth in bank loans fell to a five year. As on September 5, 2014, the one year growth in bank loans stood at 9.7%. During the same time last year the number was at a significantly higher 17.9%.
The belief as explained earlier is that at lower interest rates people will borrow more. But as the American baseball coach Yogi Berra once famously said “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”
Lower interest rates do not always lead to more borrowing and revival of economic growth. An excellent example of this is what has happened in the aftermath of the financial crisis that broke out in September 2008. Western central banks brought down interest rates to very low levels in the hope that people will borrow and spend more, and help revive economic growth. But that did not happen. All it did was lead to many stock market bubbles all over the world.
Closer to home let’s take a look at car sales. The sales have revived from May 2014, after having continuously fallen for nine months. In August 2014, car sales grew by 15.16%, in comparison to the same period last year. This has happened without much change in interest rates. Why is that the case? Let’s try and understand this through a simple example. Let’s assume that an individual takes a car loan of Rs 4 lakh to be repaid over a period of five years at an interest rate of 10.5%. The EMI on this loan works out to around Rs 8,598.
Let’s say that interest rates were to come down by a massive 100 basis points (one basis point is one hundredth of a percentage)to 9.5%, all at once. At this interest rate, the EMI would work out to around Rs 8,401 or around Rs 200 lower than the earlier EMI. Now how many people will go and buy a car just because the EMI is now lower by Rs 200?
Anyone who has the ability to repay an EMI of Rs 8,401 can also repay an EMI of Rs 8,598. Hence, what people look at while taking on a loan is their ability to service the EMI. This involves at looking at factors like job prospects, the prospects of the company the individual works for and some idea of how he expects the broader economy to do. A major reason for the revival in car sales has been the election of Narendra Modi as the prime minister of India.
People have bought his election slogan “
acche din aane waale hain” and hence, have taken on car loans and bought cars because for now they believe that their future will be better than their past. Interest rates have had no role to play in the revival of car sales.
Let’s consider real estate next. Here again the belief is that if interest rates are cut people will borrow and buy homes. This logic again doesn’t really hold. Home prices are now way beyond what an average Indian can afford. Let’s consider the city of Mumbai.  
A July 2014 report in The Times of India quotes Pankaj Kapoor of property research firm Liases Foras as saying “In Mumbai, the average cost of a flat is Rs 1.2 crore.”
An estimate made by Forbes puts the average income of a Mumbaikar at $5900 or around Rs 3.54 lakh (assuming $1 = Rs 60) per year. This means it would need nearly 34 years of annual income (Rs 1.2 crore divided Rs 3.54 lakh) for an average Mumbaikar to buy a home in this city currently. What this tells us very broadly that homes in Mumbai are very expensive. Similar calculations done for other parts of the country are most likely to show similar results.
Hence, the point is that homes in most parts of the country are now much more expensive than what most Indians can afford. Given this, lower EMIs because of lower interest rates aren’t going to help much. The real estate market has priced itself out.
This was the demand side of things. Now let’s look at what the economists call the supply side. Investments made by corporates have fallen rapidly over the last few years. As Sanjeev Sanyal of Deutsche Bank Market Research writes in a research report titled
India 2020: The Road to East Asia and dated September 2014, “Gross Fixed Investment by the private corporate sector dropped from a peak of 14.3% of GDP in 2007-08 to 8.5% of GDP in 2012-13 (and likely even lower in 2013-14) with investments in machinery and equipment being particularly hit.”
The interest-rate-
wallahs would like us to believe that this fall in investment has primarily been because of the high interest rates that have prevailed over the last few years. Nevertheless is that really the case? As Rahul Anand and Volodymyr Tulin write in an IMF Working Paper dated March 2014 and titled Disentangling India’s Investment Slowdown “Our results suggest that real interest rates account for only one quarter of the explained investment downturn. However, we find that standard macro-financial variables (interest rates, external demand, relative prices, global financial market volatility and others) do not fully explain the recent investment slump. Finally, using the new measure of economic policy uncertainty, the results suggest that heightened uncertainty and deteriorating business confidence have played a key role in the recent investment slowdown.”
Hence, if the current government really wants to get corporate investment going it needs to bring in a lot of much delayed structural reform. Also, it is worth remembering here that a some of the major business groups in India have already borrowed a lot of money and are having tough time paying interest on the debt they already have. Hence, where is the question of borrowing more?
Further, it also needs to be remembered that financial savings in India have fallen dramatically over the last few years. The latest RBI annual report points out that “the household financial saving rate remained low during 2013-14, increasing only marginally to 7.2 per cent of GDP in 2013-14 from 7.1 per cent of GDP in 2012-13 and 7.0 per cent of GDP in 2011-12…the household financial saving rate [has] dipped sharply from 12 per cent in 2009-10.”
Household financial savings is essentially the money invested by individuals in fixed deposits, small savings scheme, mutual funds, shares, insurance etc. The household financial savings were at 12% of the GDP in 2009-10. Since then, they have fallen dramatically to 7.2% in 2013-14. A major reason for the fall has been the high inflation that has prevailed since 2008.
The rate of return on offer on fixed income investments(like fixed deposits, post office savings schemes and various government run provident funds) has been lower than the rate of inflation. This has led to people moving their money into investments like gold and real estate, where they expected to earn more. If the household financial savings number has to go up the rate of interest on offer on fixed income investments needs to be higher than the rate of inflation. Only recently has the consumer price inflation fallen to levels below the rate of return available on fixed income investments. This situation has to be allowed to persist if the financial savings of India are to increase.
To conclude, calling for lower interest rates on almost every occasion is not a solution to anything. It is time the interest-rate-
wallahs understand this.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

A 400 year old economic theory explains who really runs the Indian stock market


Vivek Kaul

On September 12, 2008, the Bank of England, had total assets worth £83.8 billion on its books. In the six years since then, the total assets of the British central bank have gone up by a whopping 385.6% to £ 404.3 billion, as on September 17, 2014.
Things haven’t been much different in the United States. The Federal Reserve of United States had assets worth $905.3 billion as on September 3, 2008. Since then it has jumped to $4.45 trillion, as on September 17,2014. An increase of close to 392%.
The total assets of the Bank of Japan have more than doubled since the start of 2011. In January 2012, the total assets of the Japanese central bank had stood at 128 trillion yen. Since then, it has more than doubled to 275.9 trillion yen at the end of August 2014.
Since the start of the financial crisis in the middle of September 2008, Western central banks have printed money big time. This money has been pumped into the financial system by buying bonds. These bonds have ended up as assets on the balance sheet of central banks.
The idea behind this, as I have often mentioned in the past, was to drive down long term interest rates, leading to people borrowing and spending more at lower interest rates. This would, in turn, lead to economic growth, the hope was.
When central banks started printing money, the Cassandras (which included yours truly as well) started to point out that the era of high inflation was on its way. The logic offered was fairly straight forward. With so much money being pumped into the financial system, it would lead to a lot of money chasing the same amount of goods and services in the economy, and that would drive prices up at a rapid rate, and lead to high inflation.
But that did not turn out to be the case. The Western world had already taken on huge loans before the financial crisis broke out and was in no mood to borrow and spend all over again.
This lack of inflation has been used by central banks to print and pump more money into the financial system. The hope now is that with all the money that has been pumped into the financial system some inflation will be created. This inflation will lead to people spending more. The logic here is that no one wants to pay a higher price for a product, and if prices are going up or likely to go up, people would rather buy the product now than wait. And this will lead to economic growth. That in short is the gist of what the policy of the Western central banks has been all about over the last few years.
The economist Milton Friedman had suggested that a recessionary situation could be fought even by printing and dropping money out of a helicopter, if the need be, to create inflation.
And this is what Western central banks have done since September 2008, in the hope of reviving economic growth. While they may not have been able to create “some” conventional inflation as they wanted to, there is a lot else that has happened. And that needs to be understood.
When central banks print money, they do so with the belief that money is neutral. So, in that sense, it does not really matter who is standing under the helicopter when the money is printed and dropped into the economy. But the Irish-French economist Richard Cantillon who lived during the early eighteenth century, showed that money wasn’t really neutral and that it mattered where it was injected into the economy.
Cantillon made this observation on the basis of all the gold and silver coming into Spain from what was then called the New World (now South America). When money supply increased in the form of gold and silver, it would first benefit the people associated with the mining industry, i.e., the owners of the mines, the adventurers who went looking for gold and silver, the smelters, the refiners and the workers at the gold and silver mines.
These individuals would end up with a greater amount of gold and silver , i.e., money. They would spend this money and thus drive up the prices of meat, wine, wool, wheat, etc.
This rise in prices would have impacted even people not associated with the mining industry, even though they wouldn’t have seen a rise in their incomes, like the people associated with the mining industry had.

This is referred to as the Cantillon Effect. As analyst Dylan Grice puts it : “Cantillon, writing before the days of Adam Smith, was the first to articulate it. I find it very puzzling that this insight has been ignored by the economics profession. Economists generally assume that money is neutral. And Milton Friedman’s allegory about the helicopter drop of money raising the general price level completely ignores the question of who is standing under the helicopter.”

The money printing that has happened in recent years has been unable to meet its goal of trying to create consumer-price inflation. But it has benefited those who are closest to the money creation. This basically means the financial sector and anyone who has access to cheap credit.
Institutional investors have been able to raise money at close to zero percent interest rates and invest it in financial assets all over the world, driving up the prices of those assets and made money in the process.
As the economist William Bonner put it in a column he wrote in early 2013: “The Fed creates new money (not more wealth… just new money). This new money goes into the banking system, pretending to have the same value as the money that people worked for. And people with good connections to the banks take advantage of the cheap credit this new money creates to aid financial speculation.”
This financial speculation has led to massive stock market rallies all over the world.
As I wrote in a piece last week The Dow Jones Industrial Average, America’s premier stock market index, has rallied more than 30 percent since October 2012. This when the American economy hasn’t been in the best of shape. The FTSE 100, the premier stock market index in the United Kindgom, has given a return of 15 per cent during the same period. The Nikkei 225, the premier stock market index of Japan has rallied by 53 per cent during the same period. Closer to home, the BSE Sensex has rallied by around 43 per cent during the same period.”
Let’s take a closer look at the Indian stock market over the last two years. The foreign institutional investors have invested Rs 1,82,789.43 crore during this period (up to September 19,2014). During the same period the domestic institutional investors sold stocks worth Rs 1,07,327.65 crore.
It is clear from this that foreign money borrowed at low interest rates has been driving the Indian stock market. The domestic investors have continued to stay away.
So, even though a lot of domestic investors may talk about the India growth story being strong, they really don’t believe in it. If they did, they would invest money and not simply talk about it.

Hence, even though the economic growth through large parts of the world continues to remain subdued, the stock markets can’t seem to stop rallying. The explanation lies in the access to the “easy money” that the big institutional investors have.
And this access to easy money will continue in the days to come. The Bank of Japan, 
the Japanese central bank is printing around ¥5-trillion per month and is expected to do so till March 2015. The European Central Bank is also preparing to print €500-billion to €1-trillion over the next few years. All this money will be available for big institutional investors to borrow at very low interest rates.
The Federal Reserve of United States has made it clear that even though it will go slow on printing money in the days to come, it is unlikely to start pumping out all the money that it has put into the financial system any time soon.
Hence, the stock market bubbles around the world are likely to continue in the days to come. As Claudio Borio and Philip Lowe wrote in
the BIS working paper titled Asset prices, financial and monetary stability: exploring the nexus  “lowering rates or providing ample liquidity when problems materialise but not raising rates as imbalances build up, can be rather insidious in the longer run. They promote a form of moral hazard that can sow the seeds of instability and of costly fluctuations in the real economy.”
The worst, as they say, is yet to come.
The article originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on Sep 27, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is the author of Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

Lessons from Coalgate and Naveen Jindal: It is important to save capitalism from capitalists

Fostering Public Leadership - World Economic Forum - India Economic Summit 2010

Vivek Kaul


In an interview to NDTV, Naveen Jindal , chairman of Jindal Steel and Power, and Congress politician said that his company would not be able to pay the fine imposed by the Supreme Court. “We will not be able to pay it..because we have not made a provision for it,” Jindal said.
Jindal also told the television channel that the Supreme Court decision “was a ‘setback’ for companies which have mined coal for the past 20 years to generate power and make steel, and now been told that what they are doing is illegal, while they have been creating wealth for the country.”
In a decision on September 24, 2014, the Supreme Court had cancelled 204 out of the 218 coal blocks allocated by the government since 1993. The coal blocks were allocated for free for captive mining. Companies which were given these blocks could use the coal to produce power, iron and steel, aluminium, cement etc. The Court has also fined companies at the rate of Rs 295 per tonne for all the coal that they have produced till date and will continue producing till March 31, 2015, when they need to hand over their mines to the government.
Jindal was the biggest beneficiary of the captive coal block allotments, having been given nine blocks in all. Given this, things he has said in the NDTV interview need to be looked at closely.
The first thing Jindal talks about are “companies which have mined coal for twenty years.”
No company has been mining coal for twenty years. Provisional coal statistics released by the Coal Controller Organisation, which is a part of the coal ministry, shows that coal was first mined by the captive coal blocks only in 1997-98. Also, during this year a minuscule amount of 0.71 million tonnes of coal was produced by these mines. The production crossed 10 million tonnes of coal only in 2004-2005, when these blocks produced 10.11 million tonnes. Hence, serious production from these coal mines has happened only for 10 years and not 20 years as Jindal points out. This was primarily because between 1993 and 2002 only 15 blocks had been allocated to private companies.
This maybe nitpicking, nonetheless it is an important factual point to make given the sensitivity of the issue. In Jindal Steel and Power’s case the Gare Palma IV coal block has been operational from February 1999. This coal mine produced 6 million tonnes of coal in 2013-2014 and is expected to produce a similar amount in 2014-2015.
Further, just because something has been happening for many years, doesn’t mean it is right, even though it may have been government policy. The coal blocks were allocated based on the recommendations of an inter ministerial screening committee. The committee was set up in July 1992 and the coal secretary was its chairman.
As Vinod Rai writes in 
Not Just an Accountant—The Diary of the Nation’s Conscience Keeper “This committee was to scrutinize applications for captive mining and allocate coal blocks for development, subject to statutes governing coal mining, following which the coal minister would approve the allotment…The screening committee is expected to asses applications based on parameters such as the techno-economic feasibility of the end-use project, status of preparedness to set up the end-use project, past track record in executing projects, financial and technical capabilities of applicant companies and the recommendations of the concerned state governments and ministries.”
The committee was supposed to look at each application based on these criteria and then make a decision of who to allot the coal block to. But that doesn’t seem to have happened. As the Supreme Court judgement dated August 25, 2014, clearly points out “The entire exercise of allocation through Screening Committee route thus appears to suffer from the vice of arbitrariness and not following any objective criteria in determining as to who is to be selected or who is not to be selected.”
The judgement further points out that “there is no evaluation of merit and no 
inter se comparison of the applicants. No chart of evaluation was prepared. The determination of the Screening Committee is apparently subjective as the minutes of the Screening Committee meetings do not show that selection was made after proper assessment. The project preparedness, track record etc., of the applicant company were not objectively kept in view.”
Further, the guidelines that the Screening Committee was supposed to follow did not contain “any objective criterion for determining the merits of the applicants.” “As a matter of fact, no consistent or uniform norms were applied by the Screening Committee to ensure that there was no unfair distribution of coal in the hands of the applicants.” The Supreme Court came to this conclusion after studying the minutes of the Screening Committee meetings.
Interestingly, the Comptroller and Auditor General(CAG) had come to a similar conclusion when it had audited the procedure for allotment of coal locks in mid 2011. As Rai points out “The process that the committee actually followed was not really clear from the records. All that the records showed was that the committee met, deliberated and merely recorded the name of the block allotted to a company, and the state where the end-use plant existed. It is left to the reader to decide if transparency was a victim and, if so, how audit erred in pointing out this lacuna.”
The problem was that even if the Screening Committee wanted to follow objective criteria, at times it was simply not possible. Former coal secretary P C Parakh (who took over as coal secretary in the second week of March 2004) explains this in 
Crusader or Conspirator—Coalgate and Other Truths “By the time I took charge of the ministry, the number of applicants for each block had increased considerably although still in single digits. I found a number of applicants fulfilling the criteria specified for allocation of each block on offer. This made objective selection extremely difficult.”
In fact in the years to come the situation became much worse as more and more companies applied for coal blocks. As Parakh writes “According to CAG’s report, 108 applications were received for Rampia and Dip Side of Rampia Block [names of two coal blocks]. I found it difficult to make an objective selection when the number of applicants was in single digits. How could the Screening Committee take objective decisions when the number of applicants per block had run into three digits?”
Parakh to his credit realized pretty early that the Screening Committee method of allotment wasn’t working. In fact, in his book Parakh goes on to list several reasons on why giving away coal blocks free for captive mining by companies just did not make sense. By giving away coal blocks for free, companies which had no experience in coal mining were getting into a totally unrelated field. The government had no way of monitoring whether the captive mine was being used for captive use. Or was the company, which had got the coal block, selling the coal it was producing in the open market and thus “promoting corruption and black money”. Further, the system of allocation of coal blocks for free was discriminatory. It offered a huge premium to companies which managed to get a free coal block, in comparison to ones that did not.
Hence, Parakh proposed to Manmohan Singh(who had taken over as coal minister) in August 2004 that coal blocks should be allotted through the competitive bidding route. Before he did this Parakh had even called an open discussion of all the stakeholders in June 2004.
The stakeholders included the business lobbies FICCI, CII and Assocham, other ministries whose companies had applied for coal blocks and private companies.
Parakh points out that most invitees were not in favour of competitive bidding of coal blocks. As he puts it “not many participants were enthusiastic about open bidding. Their main argument was that the cost of coal to be mined would go up if coal blocks were auctioned.”
Parakh suggests that assuming that business men bidding for coal blocks (if such a process were to be introduced) would drive up the price of coal to astronomical levels is suggesting that they are stupid. As he writes “Participants at open auctions are hard-headed businessmen with an acute sense of profitability. They do not make irrationally high bids. The price at which coal from CIL[Coal India Ltd] was available would automatically put a cap on the bid amount.”
The industry ultimately resisted open bidding simply because until then they had been getting coal blocks for free. And if something is available for free why pay for it. “To an extent, it was a reflection of corporate India’s aversion to transparency,” writes Parakh.
Nevertheless on August 20, 2004, Manmohan Singh approved allocation of coal blocks through the competitive bidding route. Immediately after this a number of letters written by MPs opposing competitive bidding started coming in. As Parakh writes “This included one from Mr Naveen Jindal who had considerable interest in coal mining.”
This is when Dasari Narayana Rao, the famous Telgu film director, who was the minister of state for coal. entered the scene. As Rai points out in his book “Rao, observed that any change in the procedure for the allocation of coal blocks would invite further delay in allocation.”
As Rao wrote while submitting the file to Manmohan Singh: “It is difficult to agree with the view that Screening Committee cannot ensure transparent decision-making. This alone was not adequate ground for switching over to a new mechanism, particularly when the interests of core infrastructure areas are involved.”
On March 25, 2005, Manmohan Singh “recorded the approval of the cabinet note seeking sanction of the competitive bidding system,” Rai points out. But Rao still did not give up and kept talking about the “cost implications” of the competitive bidding system of allocation of coal blocks. He finally succeeded and on July 25, 2005, it was decided that the coal ministry would continue to allot coal to blocks through the Screening Committee route.
In May 2014 the enforcement directorate slapped money laundering charges against Rao and Jindal. 
As the PTI reported “The agency, according to sources, has framed the charges after it found multi-layered transactions between the firms owned by Jindal to Rao’s firms based in Hyderabad and “illegal money” was routed for alleged favours given for the allocation of coal firms to Jindal.”
Interestingly Jindal told NDTV that “one of the Jindal companies had lent money to an unrelated company, which in turn invested in a company in which the Mr Rao had a controlling stake.”
Given this, the situation is not as simplistic as Jindal tried to project in his NDTV interview. Also, between the Supreme Court and the CAG it has been clearly established that the Screening Committee route to allot coal blocks was not transparent at all and companies which got coal blocks benefited from this lack of transparency. Given this, it led to the Supreme Court cancelling 204 out of the 218 blocks that had been allocated, including coal mines which were already under operation.
Jindal in his interview also told NDTV that his company won’t be able to pay the fine imposed by the Supreme Court because they hadn’t made a provision for it. The Supreme Court has fined the companies already operating coal blocks Rs 295 per tonne for all the coal that they have produced till now and all the coal they will continue to produce till March 31, 2015, when they need to hand over the mines back to the government. This in a way took care of what Parakh termed as discriminatory. As he writes “The [Screening Committee] system of allocation of captive [coal] blocks offers huge advantage to industries that get coal blocks over those who are not able to get coal blocks.”
Edelweiss Securities estimates that Jindal Steel and Power will have to pay a fine of close to Rs 3000 crore. While the company may not have made a provision to pay the fine, it needs to be pointed out that as on March 31, 2014, the company had a balance sheet size of Rs 74,072.1 crore. Its reserves and surplus amounted to Rs 22,519 crore. It had cash and bank balances of Rs 1,015.28 crore. Further, in the last two financial years it has made a total profit of Rs 4820.5 crore.
Also, let’s calculate the financial benefit arising out of the Gare Palma IV coal block which as pointed out earlier has been operational from February 1999. This coal mine produced 6 million tonnes of coal in 2013-2014 and is expected to produce a similar amount in 2014-2015.
A research report brought out by Kotak Institutional Equities suggests that it costs Rs 600-800 per tonne to produce captive coal. In comparison, it costs Rs 3,500 per tonne to import coal. Hence, imported coal is four to five times more expensive than captive coal.
So the cost of producing 12 million tonnes of coal over a two year period at the upper end cost of Rs 800 per tonne would have been Rs 960 crore. Along with a fine of Rs 295 per tonne this amounts to Rs 1314 crore. Consider the other possibility of importing coal at Rs 3500 per tonne. This would have cost the company Rs 4200 crore. The difference between these two numbers comes to Rs 2886 crore. This calculation just takes the last two years into account. Nevertheless the mine has been functioning for close to 15 years now.
The total fine that the company needs to pay amounts to around Rs 3000 crore. Hence, even after it pays the fine the company would have managed to save a lot of money over the years because it got the coal block for free through a process which wasn’t transparent at all.
In fact, Jindal isn’t the only one protesting. The pink papers over the last few days have been full of quotes criticizing the Supreme Court’s decision to cancel the coal block allocations. But when a process has not been transparent for 20 years, it needs to be cancelled. And when this happens, there are bound to be repercussions, which the incumbents won’t like.
As the American author Upton Sinclair once wrote “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” The corporates and their lobbies who are coming out against the Supreme Court’s decision are a good example of this.
It needs to be pointed out here that only 40 out of 218 coal blocks are currently operational. Companies, given that they had got blocks for free, seemed to be in no hurry to start production. That wouldn’t have been the case, had they paid for it in the first place.
To conclude, it is worth quoting what Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales write in 
Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists “Since a person may be powerful because of his past accomplishments or inheritance rather than his current abilities, the powerful have a reason to fear markets…Those in power – the incumbents – prefer to stay in power.” Jindal clearly would have liked that.
The article originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on Sep 28, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

Coalgate: SC has vindicated CAG by fining crony capitalists over Rs 10,000 crore


Vivek Kaul

The Supreme Court today cancelled 214 out of the 218 coal blocks allocated by the various governments starting in 1993. The Court found the process of allocation of these blocks to be suffering “from the vice of arbitrariness”.
As the Court had pointed out on an earlier occasion “The entire exercise of allocation through Screening Committee route…appears to suffer from the vice of arbitrariness and not following any objective criteria in determining as to who is to be selected or who is not to be selected. There is no evaluation of merit and no inter se comparison of the applicants. No chart of evaluation was prepared. The determination of the Screening Committee is apparently subjective as the minutes of the Screening Committee meetings do not show that selection was made after proper assessment. The project preparedness, track record etc., of the applicant company were not objectively kept in view.”
Given this, the court has decided to cancel 214 out of the 218 coal blocks that had been allocated.
Only four coal blocks which included two blocks allocated to the Sasan Power (an ultra mega power project) in Madhya Pradesh, and one each to NTPC and SAIL were not cancelled. Further, companies which are already operating mines have been given six months to wind up their operations.
Over and above this the court has also fined the companies which are already mining coal to pay a fine. As senior lawyer Prashant Bhusan said “The Supreme Court has also asked the companies running the coal blocks for the next months to pay Rs 295 per tonne of coal they extract. They also have to pay the same amount per tonne for the coal they have already extracted from the blocks.”
This is where things get interesting. Data from the ministry of coal suggests that around 42 coal mines of the 218 blocks that had been allocated are currently producing coal. They are expected to produce close to 52.9 million tonnes of coal during the course of this financial year (from April 1, 2014 to March 31, 2015).
Of these mines, two mines are owned by Sasan Power which is an ultra mega power project and one by SAIL. These allocations have not been cancelled by the Supreme Court. Between them these mines are expected to produce around 2.07 million tonnes of coal (2 million tonnes from Moher & Moher Amlori extension mines owned by Sasan Power and 0.07 million tonnes from the Tasra mine owned by SAIL).
This leaves around 50.83 million tonnes of coal (52.9 million tonnes minus 2.07 million tonnes) which will be produced by the remaining mines. At Rs 295 per tonne, the companies which own these mines will have to pay a total fine of around Rs 1500 crore (50.83 million tonnes multiplied by Rs 295 per tonne) just for 2014-2015.
Between 1997 and 2013-2014 a total of 301.6 million tonnes of coal was mined. The coal mined by mines whose allocation has not been cancelled was minuscule and can be ignored. At Rs 295 per tonne, the companies which were producing coal will have to pay a total fine of around Rs 8900 crore (301.6 million tonnes multiplied by Rs 295 per tonne) for these years.
Hence, the total fine that these companies will have to pay for the period 1997-1998 and 2014-2015 will work out to close to close to Rs 10,400 crore (Rs 8900 crore plus Rs 1500 crore). This with the assumption that they are able to produce as much as has been targeted for this financial year. If they are not, the number will be a little lower than Rs 10,400 crore.
This fine is a clear vindication of Vinod Rai, the former Comptroller and Auditor General of India. The CAG had estimated that by giving away coal blocks for free the government had essentially lost Rs 295 per every tonne of coal that would be mined. Rai explains the maths behind this calculation in his book Not Just an Accountant—The Diary of the Nation’s Conscience Keeper. For establishing the price at which this coal could be sold at, the Rai led CAG had considered three options.
As Rai points out in his book: “The first was by imports. The average import price of non-coking coal sourced from Indonesia during 2010-2011 was Rs 3,678 per tonne (Indonesia supplied most of our non-coking coal imports). The second source was the coal sold in e-auction by Northern Coalfields Limited, a subsidiary of CIL [Coal India Ltd] based in Singrauli. The third and major source of coal supply in the country was that which was mined and supplied by CIL. Audit utilized the only creditable data available in the public domain—that of CIL. CIL is regularly audited by the CAG, so its accounts and other details can be taken as authentic. From the audited accounts of 2010-2011, the average sales price of all grades of coal sold by CIL was taken as Rs 1,028 per tonne. This was the most conservative price.”
Having established a selling price, the CAG then went back to CIL to establish the cost of production of coal. For this, the CAG again went back to CIL, which produces most of the coal in the country. As Rai writes “The average cost of coal mined by CIL was found to be Rs 583 per tonne. The MoC has indicated, after due verification, that the financing cost ranged from Rs 100 to Rs 150 per tonne. To be on the safe and conservative side, audit assumed it to be at Rs 150. Thus, while the average sale price was Rs 1,028, the average cost was Rs 583 plus Rs 150, namely Rs 733.”
This left Rs 295 per tonne (Rs 1028 minus Rs 733) as the financial benefit. And this is the amount per tonne of coal that the Supreme Court has asked companies which benefited from the allocation of free coal blocks to pay as a fine for the coal that they have already produced and the coal that they will produce over the next six months, which they have been given to wind up their operations.
This decision is also a slap on the face for the likes of P Chidambaram who had constantly questioned the CAG’s calculation and tried to tell the world at large that there has been no loss. “If coal is not mined, where is the loss? The loss will only occur if coal is sold at a certain price or undervalued,”Chidambaram had said.
Nevertheless between 1997-1998 and 2013-2014 more than 300 million tonnes of coal was mined. This financial year more than 50 million tonnes of coal is expected to be mined. And on this, the Supreme court has asked companies to pay a fine.
To conclude, it is fair to say here that the crony capitalists who got coal blocks for free have been taken to task and justice has finally been delivered.
The article originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on Sep 26, 2014
(Vivek Kaul is the author of the EasyMoney trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)