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Before the criticism takes off

We must delay our judgement on the VVIP helicopter row until an Indian inquiry into the matter concludes. Subimal Bhattacharjee writes.

india Updated: Feb 14, 2013 22:31 IST

Since the arrest of Finmeccania CEO Giuseppe Orsi early this week, India's VVIP helicopter programme has come under a cloud. Investigations in Italy have materialised into allegations of corruption. The Indian programme mentioned in the report had sought the supply of 12 Augusta Westland AW 101 helicopters. According to evidence found, there were individuals receiving kickbacks in both Europe and India. That list even includes a former chief of the Indian Air Force (IAF). Though the allegations are serious - for the first time they implicate a former IAF chief - we should wait to draw our deductions until investigations in India have concluded. The Indian defence establishment is led by a clean and honest defence minister in the form of AK Antony, and he is duly supported by impeccable officers and supporting laws.

In the aftermath of the recent arrest, the defence minister immediately called on the CBI to investigate. Rather than burdening the CBI with overwhelming concerns, the political class must allow the enquiry to assess if Italy's investigation report has a direct link to the procurement of the said helicopters here in India. The specifications were decided in 2003, the trials were carried out in 2008 and the final contract was signed in 2010. Is it entirely possible that an IAF chief, otherwise known for his integrity, will suddenly collude and vitiate the stringent procurement process?

Defence acquisitions in India are governed by the Defence Procurement Procedures (DPP), first announced in 2002, revised subsequently every two years and now almost every year. Apart from laying step-by-step mechanisms for a particular acquisition cycle to proceed, there are multiple committees right up to the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) headed by the defence minister, which go into deciding a particular requirement. Besides this approach, once a request for proposal (RFP) is floated, it is never changed, even if it is found that the best product, system or a certain company has been missed. Though this practice is seen as a logical disadvantage - time between setting the groundwork for an RFP and its announcement is at least two years - the method of not changing RFP parameters ensures fair play.

Secondly, single vendor situations are not encouraged. Parameters are often broadened to include the maximum number. Trials then help evaluate eligibility and eventually the least value commercial bid (L1) is arrived at. Even though there have been many suggestions for making a system based on technical grading, an insistence on fairness has ensured that they do not materialise. Also, after a 2009 amendment, the DPP included the signing of an integrity pact for all contracts above R100 crore. This in turn meant that bidders would be unable to give bribes and that none would be accepted by the government.

Moreover, the interaction of defence vendors with service officers and ministry of defence officials has been formalised. There is a system of security checks in place and foreigners have to apply for security clearance a fortnight before. Email or telephonic conversations are not allowed post such meetings. Presentations, defence shows and conferences prove to be the only occasions for collective interactions and exchanges. Successive defence ministers have also strictly stayed away from meeting individual defence companies and so have service chiefs.

It is thus pertinent to allow investigations here in India to ascertain if there is any wrongdoing and if such findings corroborate the results of Italian investigations. Knowing the defence minister's strict adherence to honesty, fair play and procedures, it would be out of place to sensationalise the whole acquisition process so early in the investigation stage.

Subimal Bhattacharjee was, until recently, Country Head, India, for US defence major General Dynamics

The views expressed by the author are personal