Dirty dealing: The Air India aircraft purchase could also unravel-Supreme Court issues notices to Centre
A petition refers to several of Praful Patel’s decisions, including ‘massive’ purchase of 111 aircraft for the national airline costing about Rs70,000 crore, taking a large number of planes on lease, giving up profit-making routes and timings in favour of private airlines and the merger of Air India and Indian Airlines
The Supreme Court of India Friday issued notices to the Centre and Air India on a plea seeking a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) or a Special Investigation Team (SIT) into a raft of alleged irregularities at Air India during Praful Patel's tenure as civil aviation minister, allegedly to benefit private airlines.
A bench comprising justices HL Dattu and CK Prasad sought a response from the government and Air India on a petition filed by Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) a non-governmental organisation (NGO). The NGO has alleged that these decisions and irregularities had caused huge loss to Air India. Specifically, CPIL's petition refers to the 'massive' purchase of 111 aircraft for the national airline at a cost of over Rs70,000 crore, leasing a large number of planes, giving up several profit-making routes and timings to private airlines and the disastrous merger of Air India and Indian Airlines.
The NGO approached the apex court after the Delhi High Court refused to pass any order on CPIL's petition saying that the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament is already looking into it.
"A responsible committee like PAC is looking into the matter and we are not giving any direction at this stage but expect for PAC to look into the matter from all angles..." the high court had said.
In its petition before the apex court, the NGO has alleged that the actions and decisions of the then civil aviation minister "ruined our national carriers, cost the national exchequer tens of thousands of crore and the only beneficiary of the above decisions were foreign aircraft manufacturers, private and foreign airlines".
"Thus the above actions were clearly made on extraneous considerations and resulted in pecuniary benefits to private companies, which is an offence under the Prevention of Corruption Act".
The NGO has also referred to a CAG report which had stated that the decisions of the ministry do not "withstand audit scrutiny" and that the entire exercise was "a recipe for disaster ab initio" and "should have raised alarm signals in the government".
Following the SC notices, there is renewed hope that the findings of the CAG report as well as the alarm that had been sounded by Sunil Arora, former chairman and managing director (CMD) of Indian Airlines will finally see light of day. It is believed that Mr Arora, who is credited with turning around Indian Airlines during his tenure of 2002 to 2005 and making it profitable, was hounded out because he would not fall in line with Mr Patel's machinations.
Mr Arora had then written a detailed letter to the cabinet secretary BK Chaturvedi on 2 June 2005, documenting all that was wrong in the decisions which escalated the losses dramatically. Interestingly, existence of such a document came to light with the release of Delhi lobbyist Niira Radia's taped conversations with Mr Arora.
Right to Information (RTI) activists who had written to the government seeking this document may like to know that the letter was denied to them because it was not written on 28 May 2005 as is wrongly believed but on 2 June 2005. We learn that Mr Arora wrote a second letter to the cabinet secretary on 10th June in which he documented his meeting with Mr Chaturvedi and elaborated on why it as wrong to force Indian Airlines to give up its bilaterals.
While Praful Patel has got away with causing grave losses to the national carriers and a plan is afoot to bail them out through a massive infusion of funds by the exchequer, Sunil Arora continues to be punished for his remarkable work in having restored IA to its glory days for a brief period and for daring to speak against the minister. In August, the appointment's committee had approved the appointment of this Rajasthan cadre IAS officer as Development Commissioner (Handlooms) under the ministry of textiles, but it was promptly cancelled with the state claiming that it was unwilling to let him go to the Centre.