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‘Skyfall’ chopper crores safe, says Antony

New Delhi, Feb. 13: Defence minister A.K. Antony today said India would recover the amount it has paid in the euro 560-million (Rs 3,550 crore) deal for 12 “Skyfall” helicopters for VVIPs if a CBI inquiry found that bribes were paid.

Italian investigators estimated that the “windfall from skyfall” — bribes for the contract for the helicopters that featured in the latest James Bond movie — totalled more than Rs 350 crore.

Even after taking delivery of three of the 12 helicopters, an “Integrity Pact” that is part of the contract can be invoked, he said.

The minister was speaking at a hurriedly-called media conference following the arrest of the Italian firm’s chief and the allegation that a former Indian Air Force chief was paid a bribe.

But in its last statement, the Italian company Finmeccanica said it was going ahead with the deliveries of the helicopters and as far as it was concerned the contract was being executed according to schedule.

“Everything depends on the report of the CBI. We are examining everything seriously but even if the Indian government has paid (for the helicopters), we can get back the entire money paid to the vendor,” Antony said.

The defence minister also said the negotiations “for the VVIP helicopters go back more than 10 years”, embroiling the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government in the issue. The first UPA government came to power in 2004. But BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad said he smelt a “Bofors II” in the making, stoking memories of a kickbacks scandal over howitzers against Rajiv Gandhi in the late 1980s.

There was no official announcement of the suspension of the deal signed with Finmeccanica in February 2010 for the AgustaWestland 101 helicopters (featured in the latest James Bond movie Skyfall). But an official in the defence ministry said “it is a given that there will be no further movement”.

The Indian government is understood to have paid about 35 per cent of the value of the contract (euro 560 million or Rs 3,550 crore approximately).

Putting the deal on hold would effectively mean that India will not take delivery of the remaining helicopters pending the CBI report. Three helicopters made at AgustaWestland’s Yeovil facility in south-west England were delivered to the IAF station in Chandigarh in December where they were re-assembled.

Three more are to be delivered by June and six by December this year. Ten of the helicopters are in “VVIP configuration” — plush and secure offices-in-the-sky with self-defence mechanisms — to transport the President, Prime Minister and other dignitaries.

“Now, two inquiries are going on — one in Italy and one in India by the CBI (to which I referred the matter yesterday). I am not a judge. We have asked the CBI to give an early preliminary report. I assure you the moment we get a report from the CBI we will take action,” said Antony, when asked what the government had done since the first investigations began in Italy in February last year.

“Immediately we had written to the Indian embassy in Italy and (later) also to the Indian embassy in the UK. But we did not get adequate information to proceed,” Antony said.

“From day one, we have been trying to find out the truth and we conveyed that to them,” he said. “So far we have not received any details.”

The minister said that an Integrity Pact signed into the contract could be invoked to force the vendor Finmeccanica (the holding firm of AgustaWestland) to repay the costs. “I can assure you that we will not lose a single paisa,” he claimed.

The Indian defence ministry ordered the CBI probe nearly a year after the investigations in Italy and only after the arrest of the Finmeccanica chief, Giuseppe Orsi, and the house-arrest of AgustaWestland chief Bruno Spagnolini.

An investigation by a court in the north Italian town of Busto Arsizio found prima facie evidence that bribes were paid to the former head of the Indian Air Force, Air Chief Marshal (retired) S.P. Tyagi, through his cousins and other associates, a charge that Tyagi has staunchly denied. Antony said he has not come across evidence and that is why the CBI has been asked for a report.

Asked if the VVIP copter deal was tainted because it was seen as a purchase by powerful people for powerful people, Antony said his determination to clampdown on corruption in defence deals was demonstrated by last year’s decision to “blacklist six firms, four of which are very powerful”.