Coalgate: SC tells centre to be more cooperative with CBI

The Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the union government to "cooperate" with the Central Bureau of Investigation in its 'coalgate' investigation, and urgently make available any documents sought by the CBI.

The CBI was apparently unhappy that the coal ministry said it needs time to locate some files sought by the bureau in connection with its investigation of alleged irregularities in the allocation of coal mines to private companies.

The apex court also once again negated the government's insistence that senior officials cannot be interrogated without its sanction.  Where the Supreme Court monitors investigations, the government permission should not be needed, a three-judge bench led by Justice R M Lodha said.

The issue arose after the bench asked the CBI a pointed question on whether all government agencies were cooperating with it. CBI counsel Amarendra Sharan said that they were, but hedged his reply saying, "Some files had been sought, but have not yet come."

Attorney General G E Vahanvati rejected litigant Manohar Lal Sharma's allegation that the government had failed to comply with the court's earlier order to submit all files relating to the case.

"It's a work in progress ... we are trying to locate the files and give them," Vahanvati said.

The attorney general also angrily rebutted the suggestion that the government was not cooperating with the CBI. "The coal secretary has told me that whatever has been asked by the CBI has been given. If the CBI wants anything more, it should ask him," he said.

Nonetheless, Justice Lodha passed an order directing the authorities to cooperate with the CBI. "Any file sought by the CBI should be given without delay," he said.

Sharma, who has filed a public interest petition, specifically sought to know whether files relating to Jindal Steel had been handed over to the CBI, but the agency refused to make a statement on this.

The court's short order came after a day of inconclusive arguments on the issue of whether government sanction was a must for initiating an investigation against an officer above the rank of joint secretary.

Vahanvati strongly opposed any move by the court to bypass this statutory requirement, saying it was necessary to protect officers from mala fide harassment. But the bench rejected his argument, saying in a court monitored case, this was superfluous.

This prompted Vahanvati to raise the image of judicial officers being probed without the Chief Justice of India's nod in cases such as the provident fund scam. But the bench did not agree, insisting that court supervision was enough to prevent any sort of harassment.

Activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the NGO CPIL, which is the other petitioner, also insisted that no sanction was essential for a mere probe.