3rd CBI charge sheet in VVIP chopper case names ex-defence secy, 4 IAF officers

Ex-defence secretary Shashi Kant Sharma was joint secretary (air) in the ministry of defence when the contract for supplying 12 VVIP helicopters was under consideration
Retired IAS officer, Shashi Kant Sharma, who rose to become the country’s top auditor CAG after serving as India’s defence secretary, has been charge-sheeted by CBI under the anti-corruption law (HT File Photo/Arvind Yadav)
Retired IAS officer, Shashi Kant Sharma, who rose to become the country’s top auditor CAG after serving as India’s defence secretary, has been charge-sheeted by CBI under the anti-corruption law (HT File Photo/Arvind Yadav)
Updated on Mar 16, 2022 05:40 PM IST
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ByNeeraj Chauhan

NEW DELHI: The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has filed a charge sheet against former defence secretary Shashi Kant Sharma, then Air Vice Marshal Jasbir Singh Panesar and three senior retired Indian Air Force (IAF) officers in connection with alleged irregularities in 3,727-crore AgustaWestland chopper case, people aware of the matter said on Wednesday.

The people cited above said the charge sheet was filed after the government recently accorded sanction to prosecute the former defence secretary and four retired IAF officers - Panesar, deputy chief test pilot S A Kunte, wing commander Thomas Mathew and group captain N Santosh. CBI made the request for sanction in March 2020.

This is the third charge sheet filed in the VVIP chopper purchase case. The first was filed in September 2017 naming former IAF chief S P Tyagi and others.

The second charge sheet was filed in September 2020 and named British middleman Christian Michel and Rajiv Saxena, who allegedly played a key role in facilitating kickbacks for politicians, bureaucrats and Indian Air Force officers. According to CBI, Michel, who was extradited to India in December 2018 from Dubai, was allegedly paid Euro 42 million ( 295 crore) to bribe politicians, bureaucrats and defence ministry personnel for swinging the deal for 12 VVIP choppers in favour of the company.

A 1976 batch Bihar cadre IAS officer, Shashi Sharma was joint secretary (air) in the ministry of defence when the contract for supplying 12 VVIP helicopters was under consideration, the operational requirements (OR) for the deal were being finalised.

The contract was given to Anglo-Italian firm AgustaWestland in February 2010. It was eventually scrapped in 2014 after allegations of kickbacks surfaced, becoming one of the biggest controversies during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime.

Shashi Kant Sharma, meanwhile, became India’s defence secretary between July 2011 and May 2013, and then the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India till 2017.

According to CBI, the words “JS Air” – an apparent reference to the designation Joint Secretary (Air) -- appeared repeatedly in Italian court judgments as part of a note written by British middleman Christian Michel, who allegedly arranged kickbacks to politicians and officials in India.

CBI Investigations revealed that Sharma was part of all decisions taken right from March 2005, when the IAF agreed for the first time to reduce the service ceiling of VVIP helicopters from 6,000 to 4,500 metres, till February 2010, when the contract was awarded to AgustaWestland.

An official familiar with the probe said Sharma, as JS (Air) attended a crucial meeting on March 7, 2005 chaired by then deputy chief of air staff - J S Gujral and various senior officials from the ministry and IAF including (now retired) wing commander S A Kunte, who was project officer for procuring choppers for VVIPs.

At this meeting, the operational requirement of 6000 metres flying altitude was reduced to 4,500 meters on the ground that it had led to a single vendor situation. At the same meeting, according to a CBI probe document in the case seen by HT, the cabin height of the helicopter was fixed at 180 cms. It has been alleged that these changes in ORs made AgustaWestland AW-101 helicopters eligible for the contract. According to CBI, Gujral altered the specifications on the files to suit AgustaWestland which were approved by then IAF chief SP Tyagi.

Sharma didn’t respond to a request for his comment on the charge sheet. But in an email response to HT in 2020, Sharma denied the charges. “I had a long unblemished service record of over forty years and nobody can blame me for any malafide action or decision. I strongly and firmly deny any such frivolous allegation,” he said.

Panesar, Kunte, Mathew and Santosh could not be contacted for their comments.

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Friday, May 20, 2022