Resurrect zombies, kill will to work

The Supreme Court has erred in reopening a nearly two-decade old decision on privatisation of Ltd (HZL). Its reported order says there is sufficient material for registration of a full-fledged Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the sale of 26% government stake to Sterlite, a subsidiary of the Vedanta Group, in 2002. It faults the closure of CBI‘s preliminary enquiry into alleged irregularities in this transaction. There can be no end to the raking up of past cases of divestment. Only coercion, collusion and other mala fide should be penalised. If the government has followed the due process, set a reasonable floor price and invited competing bids, finding fault with the final outcome would only serve to halt all new privatisation.

The alleged irregularities in the HZL case include undervaluation of the shares: the sale value of the 26% government stake was Rs 445 crore, when its value was alleged to be Rs 30,000 crore. In 2003, Sterlite became the majority shareholder with a 64.9% stake in the company. Earlier, in another case, the special CBI court in Jodhpur had ordered reopening of the CBI probe into the disinvestment of an ITDC-owned hotel in Udaipur in 2002. Rightly, the Rajasthan High Court stayed the order. The UPA government that was in office over 2004-14 had no reason to dig up dirt on the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime, if dirt existed. If it did not try to do that, it must be for the very good reason that there was precious little to dig up.

Reopening probes will deter decision-making. Civil servants will worry about coming into the cross-hairs of investigative agencies even after retirement. Also consider that any loss in disinvestment would be offset by the economy-wide gains from privatisation.


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