At 68, Prakash Chandra Parakh is like any other retired bureaucrat, with a wealth of administrative experience waiting to be shaped into a memoir. However, even before that chronicle could be completed, the former coal secretary has found himself in the eye of a controversy that is threatening the survival of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, and could severely dent the image of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself.
Not surprisingly, Parakh has dominated news pages and television screens over the past three days with his interviews. The controversy relates to allocation of a coal block called Talabira II, in mineral-rich Odisha, to Aditya Birla Group's flagship Hindalco Industries which Parakh had recommended in 2005 as chairman of the Screening Committee for coal blocks. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on Tuesday registered a First Information Report (FIR) against Parakh and industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla, alleging cheating and criminal conspiracy.
According to CBI, the Andhra Pradesh-cadre Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer overturned the committee's recommendation to allocate the block to public sector Neyveli Lignite Corp and allocated the block to Hindalco after a meeting with Birla, "abusing his official position". This was not the first FIR lodged by CBI in the coal scam. Thirteen earlier FIRs have been filed naming industry bigwigs, including Congress Member of Parliament (MP) and Jindal Steel and Power Chairman Naveen Jindal, former MP Vijay Darda and Jharkhand Ispat Chairman R S Rungta.
This time, however, the political storm raised over irregularities in allocations is refusing to die with Parakh asking for the Prime Minister, too, to be named in the FIR. His argument rests on the fact that Singh headed the coal ministry at the time the block was allocated in November 2005.
While the outcome of the case in the court will be watched carefully, there is a vast body of public opinion that vouches for Parakh's credentials. "He was known as an extremely honest officer," a senior IAS officer who has worked with Parakh told Business Standard on condition of anonymity. Another retired bureaucrat who has closely watched Parakh's work in the past says, "He was, beyond doubt, an extremely upright and honest officer. In fact, he was the first person to have taken a bold stand in favour of auctioning of coal reserves and doing away with the Screening Committee for allocation." Parakh did not respond to a text message left on his mobile phone seeking comments.
Parakh was born in Jodhpur. He graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Roorkee and also studied at the University of Bath in the UK. He worked as a mining geologist in National Mineral Development Corporation and Hindustan Copper before joining IAS in 1969. He was allotted the Andhra Pradesh cadre where he once was the chief commissioner of land administration. He also handled the department of civil supplies and tax administration at Hyderabad. He moved to the Union ministry of petroleum and natural gas as director in 1983 and later returned to his state to serve in the industries department. Parakh took charge of the coal ministry as secretary in March 2004- a post he held for nearly 21 months until his retirement in December 2005.
The Comptroller and Auditor General of India, in its report on coal allocation, had said Parakh recommended doing away with the opaque system of allocating blocks through the Screening Committee route. The CAG called him a "whistleblower", saying Parakh highlighted the difference in the cost of coal procured through linkage and those that were mined captively. Today, CAG's whistleblower has become CBI's conspirator.