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Grounded: Mukesh's birthday Airbus for Nita

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By SAMYABRATA RAY GOSWAMI AND PTI in Mumbai
  • Published 4.07.08
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Mumbai, July 4: Call it a coincidence: as the fortunes of his brother’s friend rise, a damper has landed from the sky on Mukesh Ambani.

Customs officials at Mumbai airport yesterday took away Mukesh’s birthday gift to wife Nita for alleged evasion of import duty. The Airbus 319 was one of two Reliance Industries-owned jets seized by the customs department’s air intelligence unit around 9pm.

“It has been alleged that the aircraft were imported for private use, in the guise of non-scheduled operator (passenger) permit,” a spokesperson of the Central Board of Excise and Customs said.

An aircraft imported for running chartered flights draws 10 per cent customs duty. For personal use, the duty is 18 per cent.

Reliance described the customs move as “routine” in a statement issued today.

The Mumbai air intelligence unit had acted on orders from the Delhi customs commissionerate, which is investigating duty evasions by non-scheduled flight operators across the country.

“This is the first of such seizures,” a top official in the Mumbai unit said.

The A319 Airbus Corporate Jet was registered as a chartered plane, sources said. The second jet, a Falcon 900EX, was registered as a vehicle for official use.

Costing around Rs 290 crore, the A319 was Mukesh’s gift to Nita on her 44th birthday last November.

The luxury jet has a sky bar with mood lighting and fancy showers in the master bathroom. It is also custom-fitted with a designer master bedroom, an office, entertainment cabins with game consoles, music systems, satellite television and wireless communication.

The jet was delivered by Airbus at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport and later brought to Mumbai.

“The commissioner of customs (preventive), Delhi, has issued a showcause notice to Reliance, demanding duty of Rs 57,42,63,453,” the spokesperson said.

The notice was served on June 26, a source said, adding that Reliance’s failure to respond to queries had led to the seizure and the questioning of a senior executive.

“The concerned authorities (customs department) as a matter of routine procedure have sent out notices to several non-scheduled operators,” said a statement from Sharmili Vashani, executive vice-president, RIL corporate communications.

“As a part of this routine procedure, two of Reliance Commercial Developers Pvt Ltd aircraft were detained and handed back to the company thereafter. Reliance is fully complying with all procedures as notified by the concerned authorities.”

The customs board spokesperson said the planes had been returned to Reliance “provisionally”.

“We do not have the infrastructure to keep them, so the planes have been handed over. But they cannot use the planes without permission of the Delhi customs department. There is a legal provision though that they get the plane back by paying the duty and the penalty, which is usually fixed around 10 to 15 per cent of the cost of the imported object,” the Mumbai customs official added.

Mukesh, among the world’s richest men, owns 10 planes and helicopters.

Although the Reliance statement described the matter as routine, top sources at RIL expressed surprise that Mukesh’s planes were the first targets of the customs department.

The seizure comes at a time Amar Singh of the Samajwadi Party, a close friend of Mukesh’s estranged brother Anil, is inching closer to the Congress.