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Skeletons in arms report

New Delhi, Aug. 14: The Central Vigilance Commission report that the defence ministry has refused to give a parliamentary committee examines transactions made by the services between 1989 and March 1999 following allegations that middlemen continued to be used.

In the wake of the Bofors scandal, the government had banned the use of agents and middlemen in buying military equipment. The ban was lifted after George Fernandes took the defence portfolio. Since then, use of agents for defence deals has been legalised.

The CVC report covers transactions during a period that saw three defence ministers under successive Congress, United Front and BJP-NDA governments — Sharad Pawar, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Fernandes. The decision to ask the CVC to study the deals was taken after a former naval officer, Rear Admiral S.V. Purohit, and an MP, Jayant Malhoutra, alleged the use of middlemen.

The allegations were made in 1998, a year before the Kargil war that peaked in June-July 1999. Admiral Purohit also filed a writ petition in court alleging malpractices in the purchase of spares for ships and submarines. The CVC submitted its final report in March 2001. While the CVC report does not directly deal with the emergency purchases that were ordered as supplies for the Kargil war, two of the transactions studied by it either reached maturity or were concluded around the time of the war or just afterwards.

Among these is the deal to buy 150 aluminium caskets to transport the army’s dead. The Comptroller and Auditor General found the deal highly questionable and noted that the caskets were bought at a price that was unjustified given that they could have been bought for $172 each. In a letter to .D. Tiwari, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, in January 2002, Fernandes wrote that India had bought the caskets for $2,500 each but the going price was $2,768.40 each.

The total outgo was worth Rs 1.80 crore at current price, by no means a big deal as defence purchases go, but that does not detract from its emotive and political value. The idea that money should be made over the bodies of the army’s dead in Kargil is grist for the political mill. The CAG report and the allegations compounded matters for defence minister Fernandes, whose party was already tainted by the Tehelka expose.

The deals examined in the 10-year period of transactions by the CVC — the report itself is highly confidential though there is some speculation that portions of it have been leaked selectively — have no doubt revealed irregularities. This was the period when the bottom had fallen out of the erstwhile Soviet military establishment — traditional suppliers to the Indian military — and the Indian army, navy and air force were finding spares, ammunition, parts and weaponry difficult to procure.

The aluminium casket deal, too, was initiated at this time when General Shankar Roy Chowdhary was the chief of army staff.

The army was faced with the pathetic job of transporting the mutilated bodies of its dead from counter-insurgency operations that did not afford it a modicum of dignity. An army contingent serving with the United Nations in Africa informed the service headquarters that the UN was using aluminium caskets to move the dead. Following this, the ministry made inquiries but the file was shelved for about two years before it was dusted out and moved in the wake of the Kargil war.

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