NEW DELHI: After being at the receiving end for months in the ‘Coalgate’ case, the Centre on Wednesday changed the complexion of the controversy by telling the Supreme Court that coal block allocations meant mere identification of mine areas without conferring any right on private project proponents.

Arguing before a bench of Justices R M Lodha, Madan B Lokur and Kurian Joseph, attorney general GE Vahanvati said the PIL petitioners created an unsavoury and unnecessary controversy by alleging that coal block allocation letters by themselves amounted to distribution of largesse and frittering away of natural resources by the government.

Though the Centre was focusing on coal block allocations during a non-controversial period between 1993 and 2004, Vahanvati was at his assertive best when he said, “Allotment (of coal blocks) is nothing but identification. Allotment, at the highest, can be a letter of intent and confers no right on allottees to start mining. The letter is not a bankable document.

“Allotment, allocation or identification letter is only the first step towards obtaining mining lease and that by itself cannot be construed to be giving away of natural resources. It is only a step towards identification of coal blocks which is a duty cast on the Union government.”

At this, the bench said, “If this is the position, then what is the hue and cry all about? What is the debate all about?”

On a much stronger wicket by displaying clarity on facts, the AG said, “That is what we (the government) are wondering. We only did our job as a regulator. The concern of the government was only to identify the coal blocks. The whole exercise was to identify it. That is why there was neither any hue nor any cry till 2005, when new coal blocks were added to the kitty and there was a clamour for it.”

With this statement, the controversy over coal block allocations gets narrowed down to the period from 2005 to 2009, when there was competitive bidding and the screening committee allegedly gave a go-by to transparency in selection. The files, which have gone missing, pertain to this period.

The AG said under existing laws, the Centre had a regulatory role, which it discharged by identifying coal blocks for private parties for captive consumption. The screening committee evaluated requirement of coal by a private project and identified the coal block having the potential to meet it, he said.

The Centre’s statement took the wind out of arguments advanced by PIL petitioners — advocate M L Sharma and Prashant Bhushan, who appeared for NGO ‘Common Cause’ – both having conveyed that coal block allocations amounted to frittering away of natural resources without a transparent procedure.

Sharma argued that allocation of mines was the most important facet of the entire controversy as once the allocation took place, all other conditions fell in place and ultimately entitled the private party to extract coal from the blocks.

But Vahanvati insisted, “Identification has nothing to do with actual mining to be done by the private party. That is the reason why many, despite passage of years, have not yet started mining. They have to meet several other conditions — signing mining lease with the state where the mine is located, getting environment clearance and forest clearance. And the petitioners allege that the mines were handed over gratuitously.”