NEW DELHI – India’s beleaguered government faced its latest corruption scandal Tuesday as parliament took up the issue of alleged malfeasance in the coal mining industry, with calls made for the prime minister’s resignation. After hooting, chanting and banging, and several attempt to launch a discussion in both houses, the legislative body adjourned for the day in disorder.
The ruckus followed the release of a government audit Friday that concluded that India's treasury lost more than $33 billion in sweetheart deals and underpricing between 2005 to 2009 when coal mining blocks of land were handed out without auctions. Tuesday was parliament’s first day in session since the report was released.
The scandal, dubbed “Coalgate” by the media, is particularly troublesome for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh because he oversaw India's coal portfolio between 2004 and 2007 in addition to his other responsibilities. Critics say Singh is honest but has allowed questionable dealings to take place on his watch.
The allegations are the latest in a string of corruption cases to tarnish the telecommunications, real estate, defense and sports industries. They coincide with a period of policy inertia, high inflation, slower economic growth and limited progress in carrying out reforms.
The prime minister’s office has denied any wrongdoing, as have power companies, who say any benefits were passed on to consumers in the form of lower prices.
The opposition sought Tuesday to capitalize on the latest setback. “People are shocked to see the way [the government] is looting the country," said Prakash Javadekar, leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
"It is the demand of the nation,” he said, that Singh resign.
But that seems unlikely in the near term given ongoing support within the ruling coalition for Singh’s Congress Party. And while each new scandal weakens the government, analysts said, there’s no obvious alternative.
The opposition has had its own share of corruption scandals, said Ram Puniyani, secretary with Mumbai’s Center for Society and Secularism, a civic group. “Corruption," Puniyani said, "is related to power.”
Salman Khurshid, India’s law minister, told reporters outside parliament Tuesday there’s been “ample transparency” in allocating coal mining land parcels, adding that the government should be given the benefit of the doubt. “We can't start every inquiry and every assessment with a presumption of lack of integrity,” he said.
-- Mark Magnier
Photo: Indian police prepare to remove a Greenpeace activist as he holds a banner near the area of government offices and the Indian parliament in New Delhi on Tuesday. Credit: Associated Press