New Delhi: Expressing doubts whether the allocation of coal blocks by the central government was in accordance with statutory provisions, the Supreme Court on Thursday questioned the government's powers to do so.
The apex court bench of Justice RM Lodha and Justice J Chelameswar observed that the manner in which coal blocks were allocated "might be extra-legal".
It sought a response from the government on its powers to allocate coal blocks while hearing two petitions seeking cancellation of the blocks distribution process which drew adverse comment from the government auditor.
The judges also wanted to know whether the screening committee which cleared the allocation of coal blocks had the powers to do so.
The court said that the "grant of mining leases must be by the state (government). When you allocate the (coal blocks), the owner has no right but to enter into mining lease with the company (allocated coal blocks)".
The judges said that the allocation of coal blocks was not under the statutory process and the state (governments) should have been the executing authority. "You are pre-empting the entire exercise."
"What empowers the central government to allocate the coal blocks bypassing/not fulfilling statutory process provided under the Mines and Minerals (Regulation and Development) Act 1957?" asked the court.
Holding that "only regulatory power lies with the centre", Justice Lodha observed: "Even if you (the centre) assume bonafide, the exercise (of the same) is doubtful."
Attorney General GE Vahanvati told the court that the central government answers all the questions raised by the court.
Petitioner NGO Common Cause's counsel Prashant Bhushan told the court that the coal ministry filed a bulky 11-volume response in which the affidavit alone was of more than 225 pages.
He told the court that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) too had filed a response on its investigation into the coal scam.
Bhushan told the court that the CBI had filed three preliminary inquiries based on three complaints related to the issue.
One complaint filed by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Prakash Javadekar alleged wrongdoings by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in the allocation of coal blocks since 2004, Bhushan said.
Another complaint by Congress MP Sandeep Dikshit sought investigations into the allocation of coal blocks from 1993 onwards, suggesting wrongdoings during the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance regime.
Seeking the cancellation of allocation of all the coal blocks, Bhushan urged the court to set up a special investigating team to probe the scandal.
The judges asked Additional Solicitor General Harin Raval to file a progress report on the CBI's investigations.
The court would next hear the case March 12.