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Raje runs into rough weather

The Vasundhara Raje regime faces serious allegations by attempting to hurriedly push a deal to buy a luxury helicopter from a preferred company, merely 10 months before the assembly elections, reports Nagendar Sharma.
Hindustan Times | By Nagendar Sharma, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JAN 17, 2008 03:30 AM IST

The Vasundhara Raje regime in Rajasthan faces serious allegations of misuse of state resources by attempting to hurriedly push a deal to buy a luxury helicopter from a preferred company, merely 10 months before the assembly elections.

Italian company Augusta Westland is finalising the deal.

The 17-seater luxury AW 139 chopper will cost the state, that recently shed the bimaru tag, an estimated Rs 60 crore.

The chopper, the first of its kind in the country, would cost Rajasthan nearly Rs 12 crore more than it would to Andhra Pradesh, which has been waiting for the same helicopter for a year now and is aiming to clinch the deal at Rs 48 crore.

Rajasthan government’s unexplained decision to name the Augusta Westland company in its global tender, advertised in all major newspapers on November 4, inviting bids for the purchase of a helicopter, raises serious questions on the transparency of the deal.

The Rajasthan Civil Aviation Corporation’s advertisement said, “Tenders are invited for the purchase of Augusta Westland 139 helicopter – should be twin engine with 17 persons seating capacity.” It mentioned December 31, 2007 as the date by which it wanted the chopper delivered.

The state government has tried to wash its hands of the controversy. Parliamentary Affairs Minister and cabinet spokesman Rajinder Rathore said, “Such technical matters are handled by a high-powered expert committee and the department concerned.”

Sensing trouble, the state’s Civil Aviation Department says the tender has been cancelled.

“We decided not to open the tenders and to allow a fair chance to all competitors. Four major helicopter-manufacturing companies were allowed to make their presentations,” said Mira Mehrishi, Principal Secretary for the department.

The four companies, which have made their presentations before the government, include Augusta Westland. Other bidders are: Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Eurocopter and Bell.

The state government is also at a loss to explain its eagerness to get the helicopter delivery within two months.

“The lead time for an AW139 from the contract signature is about 24 months. However, an authorised distributor can offer shorter delivery time,” Augusta Westland Communications department told HT in an e-mail reply from London.

The company’s authorised maintenance agent in India, OSS Air Management Private Limited, put the waiting period for the delivery around a year.

The opposition Congress has questioned the deal. Its state unit president CP Joshi said, “The government had chosen a particular company with dubious credentials bypassing proper procedures for purchase. In the garb of getting the delivery early, money has changed hands.”

The state government has dismissed all allegations, saying the purchase has been approved by the board of State Civil Aviation Corporation Limited.

Meanwhile, the Andhra government says its deal with Augusta Westland is independent of any other state’s deal. “The company has a contract with us which they are bound to honour. We placed the order in April 2007 and hope to get the delivery on payment of Rs 48 crore,” the state’s special secretary for investments and infrastructure, Brahmanand Reddy said.

The Rajasthan government has refused to be drawn into any comparison with Andhra. “There has been a cost escalation since the time they had placed the order. Given the volatility of the international currency exchange market, purchasing costs vary from time to time,” Mehrishi said.

If this deal comes through, it would be the third flying machine to be purchased by the Vasundhara regime in as many years.

It bought a six-seater chopper in 2005 and a smaller aircraft the following year at a cost of Rs 21 core and Rs 26 crore respectively.

Both aircraft ran into trouble shortly after their purchase due to bad maintenance.

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