New Delhi, Aug. 10: The ministry of defence has staunchly refused to part with a report of the Central Vigilance Commission but the most sensitive of issues dogging George Fernandes — the charge that cash was made over the dead of Kargil in a deal to import coffins — has been noted by the Public Accounts Committee.
This week the defence ministry is likely to ask the forces to wipe the dust off the aluminium caskets it had bought to transport the army’s dead at the time of the Kargil war and begin using them. But even as the army waits to transport its dead with dignity, the defence minister continues to be boycotted by most members of the Opposition in official meetings.
The queries on the coffin deal were raised in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (and not the vigilance commission) that was placed in Parliament in early December 2001. The report wondered why the aluminium caskets were contracted for around $2,000 apiece when they were available in transactions elsewhere for $172 each.
Defence ministry sources say the official stand of the government is unchanged — they have always maintained that there was nothing unsavoury about a deal made in an emergency. But even ministry officials are surprised that the defence of the ministry on the coffin deal should be made by persons outside it.
The Public Accounts Committee report has taken exception to the defence ministry releasing documents on the deal to R.V. Pandit. In January last year, Pandit, a publisher who described himself as one of the highest tax-payers in the country and a friend of many politicians, published the booklet, The Whole Truth with all the Documents about the Aluminium Caskets Bought by the Defence Minister in 1999-2000.
On January 24, Pandit displayed four caskets he had brought from the defence ministry at a press conference and, surprisingly, also released a letter from the then chief of army staff, General (now retired) S. Padmanabhan. The letter was sent by the general to the defence minister on January 21.
“The book puts the entire procurement in the correct perspective. The chronology and facts have been lucidly brought out for all to see that there was no malafide intent. An unnecessary controversy will hopefully now be put to rest,” he wrote to Fernandes.
More than a year and a half later, the “scam” over the bodies of Kargil’s dead has not yet been “put to rest”. At the time Pandit released the booklet, publicised the general’s letter and displayed the caskets, defence ministry officials expressed surprise that the information should have been made available to Pandit bypassing the ministry’s own directorate of public relations. They saw it for what it was — a whitewashing exercise.
The CAG report — which the accounts committee notes — actually points to several other irregularities in the procurements made in the name of emergency supplies for the Kargil war, but it is the coffin deal that stinks even now because it is an emotive and political issue. Among other things, the CAG report pointed out that supplies worth Rs 2,150 crore were received after the war ended in July 1999. Moreover, supplies worth Rs 1,606 crore were contracted after cessation of hostilities.