Clues by lobbyist point to UPA ministers: Enforcement Directorate
Investigative agencies are actively looking into the roles of some ministers of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in awarding favourable air traffic rights to some West Asian airlines in 2008-09 that damaged the interests of the state-run Air India, government officials said, echoing a statement issued by the Enforcement Directorate.
Agencies, including the Enforcement Directorate (ED), the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the income tax departments, are processing vital clues in this regard, provided by lobbyist Deepak Talwar, currently in judicial custody, the officials added, requesting anonymity. “It has been revealed that accused Deepak Talwar illegally engaged in liasoning/lobbying with politicians, ministers, other public servants and officials of Ministry of Civil Aviation for airlines such as Emirates, Air Arabia and Qatar Airways for securing undue benefits for them. He illegally managed to secure favourable traffic rights for these airlines during 2008-09 at the cost of National carrier, Air India,” ED said in a statement on Saturday.
Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Praful Patel was the civil aviation minister at the time in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Patel did not respond to HT’s phone call, SMS and WhatsApp message.
ED on Saturday filed a “prosecution complaint” before special judge Santosh Snehi Mann against Talwar for causing a huge loss to Air India by favouring the foreign airlines. The matter will be considered by the court on April 15.
The court on Saturday also extended Talwar’s judicial custody till the next hearing.
According to ED, the foreign carriers paid Rs 272 crore to Talwar in 2008-09 “in lieu of securing favourable traffic rights”. On Saturday, ED attached Holiday Inn, a hotel in Aerocity, New Delhi, in a money laundering case against Talwar. The “provisionally attached” property is valued at around Rs 120.20 crore, the agency said. The hotel is owned by Wave Hospitality, a company “beneficially” controlled by Talwar and his family, according to ED.
According to Registrar of Company filings, the company was incorporated in April 2009 with U55101DL2009PTC189886.
Talwar fled India in 2017 to avoid agencies, but he was deported by the immigration authority of Dubai on January 31, 2019, and was subsequently arrested by ED. Talwar is being investigated under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) by ED since August 2017 on the basis of a first information report (FIR) registered by CBI against officials of the civil aviation ministry, National Aviation Company of India (NACIL), Air India and unknown private persons, the statement said.
Reacting to Saturday’s development, Talwar’s counsel Tanveer Ahmed said: “The ED has said that due to my client’s action Air India has incurred huge losses. However, I would like to tell you that ED has till date not called a single person from the ministry of civil aviation, Directorate General of Civil Aviation [DGCA], or any other department for questioning. ED has also not made any query to the officials of Air Arabia, Qatar Airways and Emirates to ask whether they had given any money to Talwar. Then how can ED come to such a conclusion.”
“Today, even the court did not take cognisance of the complaint filed by ED and has kept it for April 15. It has also passed an order where it has said that the complaint would not be made public till the court has not perused it. The hotel in question is made of legitimate money and from Foreign Direct Investment [FDI] which has been duly cleared by the Reserve Bank of India. Hence, the conclusion of the agency are malafide and there is no verification of the allegations made,” he added.
The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, it its Report No 18 of 2011, “Performance Audit of Civil Aviation in India of Union Government, Ministry of Civil Aviation”, said that the ministry’s move of massive expansion of bilateral entitlements hampered the state-owned Air India.
“As an illustrative case of the liberalisation of bilateral entitlements, the sequence of events relating to the Dubai sector, covering the period from May 2007 to March 5, 2010, [when the seat capacity was increased from 18,400 seats/week to 54,200 seats/week and points of call in India were increased from 10 to 14] clearly demonstrates the one-sided nature of benefits to Emirates/ Dubai [through enhancement of entitlements and additional points of call in India],” the CAG report said, adding that the then government’s decision “evoked repeated protests from Air India”.
According to ED counsel Nitesh Rana, the investigation against Talwar and other people involved in the case is on and the agency will file a supplementary charge sheet later.
According to ED’s investigation, Talwar created a web of entities owned by him and his family members in India and international offshore havens, to launder the proceeds of crime, which is about Rs 272 crore, paid by foreign airlines.
“Part of these payments were made to a bank account in Bank of Singapore, belonging to a company M/s Asiafield Limited registered in the British Virgin Islands and beneficially owned by Deepak Talwar,” the agency said in its statement.
These proceeds of crime were layered through a series of international money transfers, to finally integrate in India in Wave Hospitality Pvt Ltd, a company beneficially owned and controlled by Talwar and his family members in the name of his son, Aditya Talwar. These proceeds of crime were then utilised in the construction of Hotel Holiday Inn in Aerocity, New Delhi, it said.