The AgustaWestland controversy seems to be showing no signs of dying down in Parliament, but barely 12 km away – in a nondescript hangar of Delhi’s Palam airbase – three new helicopters of the company stand grounded.
The helicopters, which were received by India before the Rs 3,727-crore contract was scrapped in January 2014, do not have the requisite political clearance to fly. While the first of these aircraft – costing Rs 300 crore each – joined the IAF fleet in December 2012, the third one was inducted in January 2013. None of them have been used for flying dignitaries yet.
India had signed a contract with UK-based AgustaWestland, a subsidiary of Italian defence conglomerate Finmeccanica, for 12 AW-101 VVIP helicopters in February 2010. The deal was put on hold in February 2013, after two top Italian executives were arrested on graft charges and subsequently terminated in January 2014. The firm allegedly paid middlemen more than Rs 375 crore.
The choppers were hit by a crisis of spares and after-sales support after the deal fell through. The Air Force currently flies VVIPS such as the President, Prime Minister and Vice President in modified Russian-origin Mi-17 helicopters.
The deal came back into the spotlight in early April, after an Italian court of appeals reversed a lower court’s verdict clearing AgustaWestland officials. The higher court in Milan found former Finmeccanica chairman Giuseppe Orsi and AgustaWestland ex-CEO Bruno Spagnolini guilty of corruption, and awarded them jail terms.
The developments in Italy led to political fireworks in Parliament, with both the NDA regime and erstwhile Congress-led UPA government attacking each other for omissions and commissions.
The Congress – in its defence – said the UPA government paid Rs 1,586 crore to the UK-based firm but recovered Rs 2,062 crore, besides the three impounded helicopters worth Rs 900 crore.