Revealing pricing details can give enemies an edge, Centre tells Supreme Court in Rafale case
The Centre defended the secrecy clause related to the pricing of the 36 Rafale fighter jets in the Supreme Court on Wednesday and said it cannot divulge details of the deal, stating that adversaries may get advantages if the entire details on the pricing is disclosed.
These matters are for the experts to deal with and “we have been saying that even Parliament has not been told about the complete cost of jets”, Attorney General K K Venugopal told the court.
Defending the secrecy clause, he said, “Our adversaries may get advantages if the entire details on the pricing is disclosed.”
The court reserved its order on pleas seeking court monitored probe in procurement of 36 Rafale fighter jets from France.
A bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and justices S K Kaul and K M Joseph concluded the arguments advanced by various parties which have also sought registration of FIR in connection with the alleged irregularities in the deal.
During the hearing, Venugopal said he would not be able to assist the court further on the pricing issue. “I decided not to peruse it myself as in a case of any leak, my office would be held responsible,” he said, according to PTI.
The bench said any discussion on pricing of the Rafale fighter jets can only take place if the facts on the deal are allowed to come in the public domain.
“The decision we need to take is whether to bring the fact on pricing in public domain or not,” the bench said.
The court also sought clarifications from a senior defence ministry official who was present.
Venugopal said the Air Force had been writing to the government that “it will be difficult for them to defend our country due to shortage of aircraft” and the country had fallen behind a lot.
He had earlier explained why the government had been reluctant to share the price of the fighter jets with the court and contested claims by the petitioners that the government had ever placed the pricing details of fully-loaded planes in public domain.
The attorney general, who had earlier refused to share the pricing details with the court, said the government had decided to place the entire price of the aircraft along with the weaponry “out of respect” for the top court. “It is not a matter where one could review it judicially, especially if they are based on rumours, media reports,” he said.
Petitioners in the Rafale deal case had earlier told the Supreme Court that the government had committed a ‘serious fraud’ in the purchase of the 36 jets from France.
“The documents given to me say negotiations started in May 2015 whereas the PM had declared in April that the deal is done,” ML Sharma, one of the petitioners in this case said as the Supreme Court began its hearing on the Centre’s report on pricing details.
Sharma added that the attorney general must give a detailed reply to his petition as he had not been given the complete papers. Another petitioner Vineet Dhanda wanted to know how the Prime Minister could make a statement even before the approval of Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).
Advocate Prashant Bhushan said there could not be any secrecy over pricing of the fighter jets when the government had disclosed the price in parliament on previous occasions. “It’s a bogus argument for govt to say they can’t disclose pricing. In new deal, Rafale jets cost 40 per cent more than earlier deal,” he said.
To make his point, Bhushan wanted to talk about pricing and referred to the agreement, which Attorney General KK Venugopal said is a secret agreement and can’t be read out in open court.
The documents, a report on the decision-making process adopted by the government, were provided this week to the petitioners on the Supreme Court’s orders.
At the last hearing, the top court had also ordered the Centre to provide the pricing details of the 36 jets.
This information is understood to have been placed before the court in sealed cover but it isn’t clear whether the price revealed is that of the basic cost of the aircraft without weapons and India-specific enhancements, or the cost of the fully loaded, made-for-India one.
At Wednesday’s hearing, the petitioners mostly focused on the contents of the government’s report and sought to punch holes in claims that the inter-governmental deal was above board.
Sanjay Singh, AAP’s Rajya Sabha MP, also a petitioner, countering government’s claim of secrecy said, “the government of India has disclosed the price not once but twice on the floor of Parliament.” Questioning the decision-making process he asked how could the government announce a new deal without cancelling the old deal.
The government had resisted attempts by the court asking for price details of the jets. Attorney general of India KK Venugopal even went to the extent of telling the court that the pricing details are protected under the Official Secrets Act, 1923. So far, the government has only shared price details of the basic model of Rs 670 crore with the Rajya Sabha.
The petitions have been filed by lawyers Vineet Dhanda and ML Sharma. Aam Aadmi Party’s Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh has also moved the top court against the Rafale deal; Sanjay Singh has sought a court order for the formation of a special team to probe the matter under the Supreme Court’s oversight.
Documents given by the government are silent on whether appropriate steps were taken before the deal was finalised, Singh to SC.
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s decision to enter a $8.7-billion government-to-government deal with France to buy 36 Rafale warplanes made by Dassault was announced in April 2015, with an agreement signed a little over a year later.
This replaced the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime decision to buy 126 Rafale aircraft, 108 of which were to be made in India by the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL).