I have had a chance to go through the CAG report on Coalgate. I believe that there are several flawed propositions in the ongoing controversy:
1. Coal blocks had to be allocated to the private sector because Coal India Limited (CIL) was inefficient.
Not true. CIL couldn't make progress with its exploration or mining because of environment and land acquisitions problems, lack of rail connectivity from mines, etc. For these very reasons, private operators have not been able to go ahead with the blocks allotted to them. CIL's track record over the years has been pretty good in relation to its internal targets.
2. Auction is the best route for selling natural resources.
The CAG has asked for competitive bidding in the case of coal. Private parties, however, would find it difficult to bid because of various uncertainties- you don't know about extractable reserves, coal quality, the cost of mining etc. That is why bidding for such resources involves royalty related to the resource extracted rather than a lump sump upfront payment. Perhaps, private players could have been asked to bid for a bundle of mines. But what if the projections are belied after allotment? The player may simply walk away from the mines instead of wasting more money.
Secondly, competitive bidding would tend to push domestic prices of coal up to the international price. This would wreak havoc on the power industry and end-users of power. (For this reason, scrapping the coal mine nationalisation is undesirable in today's situation). In principle, one could set the coal price as the bid parameter and seek the lowest bid. Again, what if the allottee found that the coal price to which he has committed is uneconomical? Or, if the low price caused operators to compromise on safety or resort to stripping coal in the shortest time? It may be better, therefore, to seek the highest bid price for a mine and expect to tax profits in the hands of end-users.
3. The government has lost Rs 185,000 crore in the allotment to private sector.
This estimate is based on several assumptions, notably the sale price and extraction cost of CIL (which latter may not apply to new players), and not discounting the stream of benefit. If you discount the flows, you arrive at a figure of Rs 58,000 crore, which too represents an upper limit.
4. The government should cancel all allotments made so far
This doesn't make sense if you accept that competitive bidding was not desirable and allocation was, therefore, inevitable. Allocations based on transparent criteria and where the allottees have made acceptable progress do not need to cancelled. Where allotments were clearly mala fide and allottees have been sitting on their allotments, cancellation is in order- and I imagine that is just what the government is doing.
More in ET column, Coalgate uproar is overdone