Ex-defence secy played key role in AgustaWestland deal: CBI

CBI last week sought sanction to prosecute Sharma, Kunte and three other IAF officers, while Gujral was named an accused in its first charge sheet in the case in September 2017.

Former defence secretary Shashi Kant Sharma

Former defence secretary Shashi Kant Sharma was party to several key discussions that led to the February 2010 award of a controversial Rs 3,727 crore contract to AgustaWestland for 12 VVIP helicopters, according to Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) sleuths handling the case, and investigation documents that will form the basis of a supplementary charge sheet in the case.

Sharma was part of contract process in different capacities from March 2005, when the Indian Air Force (IAF) agreed to reduce the flying altitude of the helicopters from 6,000 metres to 4,500 metres, until the eventual decision to award the contract to AugustaWestland five years later, according to documents prepared by CBI.

The agency has contended that Sharma, as Joint Secretary (Air) in the defence ministry at the time, attended a crucial meeting on March 7, 2005 chaired by then deputy chief of air staff JS Gujral and attended by senior officials from the ministry and IAF including (now retired) wing commander SA Kunte, who was project officer for procuring the choppers for VVIPs such as the President, vice-president, Prime Minister and the other dignitaries.

CBI last week sought sanction to prosecute Sharma, Kunte and three other IAF officers, while Gujral was named an accused in its first charge sheet in the case in September 2017.

According to investigators, it was in the March 2005 meeting that the previous operational requirement (OR) of 6,000 metres flying altitude was reduced to 4,500 metres, and the cabin height of the helicopter was fixed at 180cm. It has been alleged that these changes in the OR made the AgustaWestland AW-101 helicopters eligible for the contract.

Sharma later served as defence secretary between 2011 and 2013 and as Comptroller and Auditor General of India between 2013 and 2017.

Sharma has denied all the allegations against him. “I had a long unblemished service record of over forty years and nobody can blame me for any malafide action or decision. I strongly and firmly deny any such frivolous allegation,” he told HT last week.

According to CBI, when the defence procurement procedure (DPP) 2005 – a process that governs any defence purchase including helicopters for VVIPs – came into effect from July 2005, Sharma sought the Special Protection Group’s comments on the latest ORs.

He was also part of the meeting in October 2005 in which SPG raised the requirement of helicopters from an original eight to 12 choppers, a demand endorsed by the IAF instantly, the investigation documents contend.

By October 2005, the entire procurement cost of 12 VVIP choppers was assessed to be Rs 792.82 crores, CBI adds. The agency’s case documents suggest that after the defence ministry approved the proposal on February 22, 2006, a request for proposal (RFP) was drafted, which was examined by air force officers over the next few months, and later approved by Sharma, who had become director general (acquisition) in the ministry by then, on September 21, 2006.

The documents show Sharma played a role in approving the technical evaluation committee (TEC) report in which deviations from the original proposal were factored in, and then in countering a finance ministry observation in 2009 that the cost for the choppers – negotiated at Rs 3,727 crore – was “abnormally high”.

After getting the finance ministry approval, the final contract was signed with AgustaWestland in February 2010.

“All this shows that SK Sharma played a key role in the whole deal from its initiation till it was signed,” said a CBI officer on condition of anonymity.

The contract – alleged violations and kickbacks in the deal became one of the biggest controversies during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime – was eventually cancelled on January 1, 2014.

Source: https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/ex-defence-secy-played-key-role-in-agustawestland-deal-cbi/story-Zp4hn8f1Is82pCJaRvFGmN.html