India PM defends government on coalfields

Protest against sale of coalfields in Delhi on Sunday 26 August 2012
Image caption The revelations about the sale of coalfields have caused anger among the opposition politicians and citizens alike

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has defended his government in parliament over the controversial sale of coalfields, amid chanting and loud protests from the opposition benches.

Mr Singh was barely audible over the din, but his office later tweeted extracts from his speech.

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has stalled parliament for a week now insisting that the PM resign.

A government report says India lost $33bn (£20bn) by misselling coalfields.

Although the report by the independent auditor has exonerated Manmohan Singh, the BJP is demanding his resignation since he was leading the coal ministry at the time of the sale.

"I seek the indulgence of the house to make a statement on issues regarding coal block [coalfield] allocations," Mr Singh read out from his statement in the Lok Sabha, the lower house, even as the opposition raised slogans demanding his resignation.

"I wish to say that any allegations of impropriety are without basis and unsupported by the facts.

"I want to assure members that as the minister in-charge, I take full responsibility for the decisions of the ministry," Mr Singh said.

The prime minister appealed to the opposition to "let the house function... let the country judge where the truth lies".

The prime minister has been waiting to make a statement in parliament since last week but has been unable to do so because of angry protests from the opposition.

'Greatest scandal'

Senior BJP leaders say, if needed, they will stretch their protest to cover the entire monsoon session, due to end on 8 September.

On Sunday, senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley said suggestions that the issue should be debated only in the parliament would "put a lid on one of the greatest scandals in Indian history".

"The prime minister's office is a sacred institution in Indian democracy. It has to be judged by standards much harsher than those which would apply to [former telecommunications] ministers like A Raja," Mr Jaitley wrote in an article released by his party.

Mr Raja quit last year after his ministry was accused of underselling telecoms licences, which auditors say cost the country about $40bn (£24.5bn).

Mr Raja has denied all the charges, but he was arrested and spent 15 month in jail before being released on bail in May.

The government auditors in their report last week said coalfields were allotted without auction from 2005 to 2009.

The government says coalfields were "allocated by the same procedure by previous governments" and that they just followed the same policy.

The sale of coalfields has been dubbed "Coalgate" by the opposition.

India is one of the largest producers of coal in the world.

The auditor's report on the sale of coal is the latest in a series of financial scandals to hit the Congress-led government and the revelations have caused anger among the opposition politicians and citizens alike.

On Sunday, police in the capital, Delhi, baton-charged hundreds of anti-corruption protesters angered by the sale of coalfields without open bidding.

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