The Delhi High Court Friday refused to pass any order on a plea seeking an enquiry into the purchase of 111 aircraft for the Air India fleet at a cost of Rs.67,000 crore, saying that parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was already looking into it.
The court, however, asked the PAC to consider certain aspects while dealing with the issue.
A division bench of Acting Chief Justice A.K. Sikri and Justice Rajiv Sahai Endlaw said: “A responsible committee like PAC is looking into the matter and we are not giving any direction at this stage but expect the PAC to look into the matter from all angles.”
“We hope and expect that having regard to the importance and sensitivity of the matter PAC shall try to complete its task with alacrity and should submit its report at the earliest,” the bench said while accepting the central government’s contention that the PAC would submit a report soon after examining the matter.
The court was hearing the public interest litigation (PIL) filed by advocate Prashant Bhushan seeking direction to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) to probe the Rs.67,000 crore purchase order by the national carrier.
The court asked the PAC to look into the feasibility for the government and National Aviation Company of India Ltd (NACIL) to cancel purchase order of aircraft for which payments have not been made and aircraft have not yet been delivered.
The bench also asked the parliamentary panel to look into the aspects as to whether it was commercially viable decision to order purchase of so many aircraft and then lease a large number of aircraft, and whether a probe by a special investigation team (SIT) or the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) could be initiated if any case of “imprudence or gross negligence” was made out.
It also asked the PAC to examine whether loss of market share by giving up profit making routes to the private airlines was “deliberate” and the role of senior officers of civil aviation ministry and top management of NACIL.
The bench also directed the government to take a call in six months on the feasibility of “cancelling the routes by lateral lease agreements as per the recommendation of PAC”.
“On the feasibility of setting up a regulator for civil aviation section as recommended by the parliamentary committee and also on the feasibility of appointment of only professionals and experts as chief managing director and directors on the boards of NACIL as recommended by the PAC,” said the court.
Prashant Bhushan through the PIL had requested the court “to direct the CVC to conduct a thorough inquiry into aircraft acquisition deals of Air India and its loss of market-share by giving up profitable routes and timings, and the role played by the civil aviation ministry”.
“If the CVC finds a prima facie case, it can then get the matter investigated through the CBI as per law,” the petition further said.
Bhushan told the bench that material was available for ordering criminal investigation into the deal that caused a huge loss to the exchequer.
Referring to the report, Bhushan informed the bench that the deal was a “recipe for disaster” as, on the one hand, the aircraft were sought to be purchased and on the other the national carrier proposed to get aircraft on lease.
This became “more glaring” in the backdrop that the most of the profit-making routes were given to private companies without getting anything in return, he said.
The PIL alleged that the ministry through its decisions and actions drove the Air India and the erstwhile Indian Airlines into heavy losses.
“The government went in for a huge fleet expansion programme in which purchase orders for 111 aircraft were given. This unnecessary expansion was without any proper study and without any transparency. The purchase orders of the aircraft were given costing a whopping Rs.67,000 crore,” it was contended.