Chhattisgarh entitled for choice of chopper : Supreme Court

In a relief to Raman Singh government in Chhattisgarh, the Supreme Court today said the state government was entitled to make a choice to purchase an AgustaWestland helicopter for VVIP use and there was no record to show that it could have been procured at a lesser price.

The top court also gave clean chit to Abhishak Singh, son of the Chief Minister, saying there was no material to prima facie hold that he was a beneficiary of the transaction and it was not necessary to go into the allegations of procedural irregularities.

“It cannot be disputed that the State Government was entitled to make a choice to purchase the helicopter in question. There is nothing on record to show that the helicopter could have been procured for a lesser price. No person claiming to give a better deal has come forward,” a bench of Justices Adarsh Goel and U U Lalit said.

It said that in the absence of clear evidence that loss was caused to the public exchequer by way of commission payment to a firm, Sharp Ocean Investments Limited, which was only a route to send the payment to the son of the Chief Minister, interference by the apex court was not called for.

The bench noted that there was a tripartite agreement of October 26, 2007 between Sharp Ocean Investments Limited, the State of Chhattisgarh and Agusta to the effect that Sharp Ocean Investments was entitled to retain payment made by it to Agusta to the extent of USD 100,000 and USD 1,473, 800 under the contract.

The CAG report does not attribute any extraneous consideration in the deal, it said.

With regard to the role of the Chief Minister’s son in the deal, the bench said, “there is no material to prima facie hold that beneficiary of transaction was Abhishak Singh. We do not consider it necessary to go into the allegation of mere procedural irregularities. We broadly find that no case is made out for interference by this court for issuing a direction as sought in the absence of allegation of extraneous consideration being substantiated”.

The bench took various correspondences and statements of senior helicopter engineer, chief pilot, Director Aviation, Chhattisgarh on record and said the letters stated that Agusta itself was not in a position to deliver the light twin-engine chopper before January 2010, but it could be done in August-September 2007, from the distributors M/s Sharp Ocean Investments Limited, Hong Kong, at a total amount of USD 6,315,000.

“Thus, for quick delivery, the State negotiated with M/s Sharp Ocean Investments Limited. Final payment made is of USD 6,570,000. Contention that the price of the helicopter was USD 5,246,000 as shown by the invoice of the AgustaWestland dated October 30, 2007 and thus, the remaining amount was by way of commission cannot be accepted in view of the contents of the Agreement dated October 9, 2007 and the correspondence,” it said.

The bench after perusing the records said “for earlier delivery, pre-sold helicopter could be purchased from its distributor at a higher price. Thus, it cannot be said that there was an excess payment for extraneous reason”.

The top court also rejected the comparison of price made with the chopper purchased by the neighbhouring state Jharkhand at USD 5.591 million in 2005 and said that both deals had taken place at different period of time, as the Chhattisgarh chopper deal took place in August 5, 2006.

While dealing with the objections raised by Chhattisgarh government that the petition was filed for political gains by Swaraj Abhiyan, a political party, should not be looked into, the bench relied on various verdicts of apex court and said the courts should refrain from interference with decisions of the executive without there being clear issue of genuine public interest.

“However, they do not create a jurisdictional bar, if conscience of the Court is pricked in a given case. A petition under Article 32, without clear element of public interest, cannot be entertained at the instance of a political rival merely on account of an alleged procedural irregularity in the decision making which can be challenged at appropriate forum by the aggrieved party,” it said.

The court’s verdict came on three petitions filed by Swaraj Abhiyan, T S Singhdeo, leader of the opposition of the Chhattisgarh Assembly, and a social activist, seeking investigation into the alleged irregularities in the purchase of the chopper by the state government in 2006-07 and into the alleged bank accounts in British Virgin Islands (UK) linked with the son of Chief Minister Raman Singh.

It was alleged that the chopper was purchased without following due process and caused loss to the public exchequer. It was also alleged that an account was opened by the son of the Chief Minister six months after the bulk payment was made by the state government for the purchase of chopper.

Swaraj Abhiyan had alleged that the database compiled by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) showed Abhishak Singh as the shareholder of Quest Heights Limited (incorporated in British Virgin Islands on July 3, 2008) and Sharecorp Limited.

It had said that even the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report stated that a loss of Rs 65 lakh was caused to the exchequer in the procurement of the helicopter.

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