Photograph of Anil Chawla

Author - Anil Chawla

The Prime Minister acted in haste and cancelled all allotments of petrol pumps etc. made during the past two years. Was the Prime Minister justified in cancelling the allotments? Was any other course possible?

Dropping a hot potato is understandable. But what would one say of a person who drops a cold potato just because everyone shouts that the potato is hot. A few days ago, the Prime Minister of India did something similar. With an unusual display of promptness, he cancelled all allotments of petrol pumps, gas agencies, kerosene dealerships made during the past two years. Let us take a quick glance at the background of these allotments.

In 1995 Government of India had filed an affidavit before Supreme Court. The case related to allotment of petrol pumps etc. through minister's discretionary quota. Government's affidavit included the guidelines that were to be followed by public sector oil companies for allotment of retail outlets of petroleum. Supreme Court approved the guidelines that prescribed the appointment of a retired judge of High Court or equivalent as Chairman of Dealer Selection Board. Other two members of the Board were to be nominated by different oil companies. These members were to be changed on a regular basis (almost weekly). The Boards were constituted for different parts of the country only after the present Government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee came to power.

In legal terms, Dealer Selection Boards (DSB's)are semi-judicial bodies. There is a fundamental principle of constitutional governance that a decision of semi-judicial body can be revoked only by a judicial body and cannot be revoked or modified by an administrative authority. This becomes clear by an example. Suppose an Income Tax Officer passes an order against a nephew of the Prime Minister. The power to revoke or alter or defer the order lies with a Court and not with the Prime Minister. Absolute powers to modify orders of semi-judicial institutions are a characteristic of monarchy and fascist dictatorship. Such powers are not available to a Prime Minister in a constitutional democracy. The cancellation of allotments made by DSB's is hence outside the scope of constitutional authority of the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, this is exactly what the Prime Minister has done.

The Prime Minister has passed a judgement on the honesty, integrity and sincerity of Chairmen and Members of DSB's without even hearing them. The Prime Minister could have instead ordered for a review of the working of DSB's by a sitting or retired Supreme Court judge. This would have been in accordance with the principles of natural justice and of constitutional governance. Pronouncing learned judicial and technical officers as tainted just on the basis of accusations leveled by opposition is not a sign of democracy. It is a sign of weakness of the ruling party and of lawlessness. If this becomes a trend, the day is not far when the opposition members will make noises in the Parliament about some particular judge or income tax officer favouring RSS and BJP supporters; and the next day without conducting any enquiry or trial the Prime Minister will recommend to the President dismissal of the concerned judge or officer. In due course, it is not unlikely that the Prime Minister may decide to cut the whole process short by getting the parliament to pass a law delegating powers to Congress Members of Parliament. The law will enable them to directly dismiss any judge or officer accused of favouring second-class citizens of India (read RSS and BJP supporters).

Mrs. Gandhi could not pass such revolutionary laws even during the draconian Emergency. But the self-proclaimed "party with a difference" can do what no one else can do. They have more sycophants than even Mrs. Gandhi had. The Cabinet Minister for Petroleum, instead of advising the correct course, is justifying the blatantly wrong decision of the Prime Minister. He is talking of ensuring that none of the allottees is able to get any relief from a court of law. He wants to block the access to Courts. Unfortunately for him, High Courts in various states do not share his enthusiasm for sycophancy. (Delhi, Gujarat, Guwahati, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan High Courts have stayed the cancellation of allotments) But one must honour the men around Prime Minister for attempting to do something that even Indira Gandhi could never do.

These super-intelligent men, in spite of being blessed as they are, can only see as far as the main opposition party Congress wants them to. In the five decades following independence, Congress distributed to its supporters without any restrictions or procedures the largesse of petrol pumps, kerosene dealerships, gas agencies and such other avenues of making money. During the past four years of BJP-led-NDA rule neither Prime Minister nor any of his men nor BJP looked at this legacy of Congress rule that continues to date. They have acted only when opposition chose to make a noise. Even then they have cancelled only those allotments that were made after following a fair procedure prescribed under a law passed by Supreme Court. The Government has announced that these outlets (the cancelled ones) will now be auctioned. Instead of a knee-jerk reaction, the Government should have taken a policy decision to make a complete change in the policy of allotment of retail petroleum outlets.

Allotment of outlets, whether done in 1960 or in 1995 or in 2001, is a part of the so-called socialist system of governance in which Government distributes largesse to its favorites. This naturally breeds corruption. In today's environment of liberalization and economic reforms, when the buzzword is market driven economics, the concept of allotment of economic opportunities is outdated and must be rooted out completely. It makes sense to cancel all allotments made in the past fifty-five years and to adopt a policy of open auction.

Obviously, it is not advisable to disrupt petroleum supplies by abruptly canceling allotments of all petroleum outlets. A five-year programme may be made in this regard. During this period, all present allottes should be given suitable compensation and thereafter the responsibility of running the outlets should be handed over to persons who qualify on the basis of open auctions. Such a course does not amount to revoking a decision of a semi-judicial Board. This is a policy decision that the Government is fully empowered to make. This is similar to the situation that a Government cannot modify an assessment order issued by an Income Tax Officer but can make fundamental changes in Income Tax Rules.

The country needs fundamental changes and not knee-jerk reactions. Unfortunately for the country, the ruling party as well as the opposition has lost the vision necessary for fundamental changes. They are busy playing games of political one-upmanship. In their view democracy is nothing more than these dirty games. For them nothing is sacred, nothing matters except their own self-interest and self-image. Blinded by one's own self-centered mindset, is it any surprise that one loses the ability to make out whether the potato is hot or cold?


14 August 2002

Please write to me your comments about the above article.

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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