India has begun taking deliveries of the 12 helicopters worth `3,546 crore for flying the nation’s most important persons like the President, Prime Minister and other key dignitaries, from the British-Italian firm AgustaWestland, whose parent company Finmeccanica is under an official probe over allegations of corruption.
The deliveries have taken place within weeks after Defence Minister A K Antony informing Parliament that India has not ordered any investigation into the allegations of bribery and use of middlemen by the Italian firm for winning the contract.
Bribery and middlemen are a strict no-no in defence deals and companies indulging in it face the threat of blacklisting, cancellation of contracts and even a ban from future deals, apart from financial penalties.
The first two AW-101 helicopters, under the February 2010 deal with AgustaWestland, have been delivered a month ahead of its original schedule to the Indian Air Force (IAF) at its Palam air base here. The Base is home to the Communication Squadron tasked to fly the nation’s most important persons protected by the Special Protection Group. The third one is expected to arrive here before the New Year, while the rest will be delivered by July 2013.
Of the 12 helicopters, four are for carrying the VVIPs’ cargo and these are armed with self-defence suites to guard themselves against missiles and other threats. These helicopters are in addition to IAF’s fleet of `937-crore three Boeing Business Jets inducted in 2009 and `727-crore five mid-sized Embraer 135BJ Legacy jets, all for domestic travel.
For foreign voyages, the country’s important persons still use the Air India’s Boeing 787.
In February this year, reports emerged that Italian authorities had launched an administrative probe into allegations of financial malpractices by the United Kingdom-based AgustaWestland’s parent firm Italian major Finmeccanica. The probe was expanded by the Italian prosecutors to include the AgustaWestland contract for the 12 VVIPs helicopters for the IAF.
Soon after, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) sought information on the probe from the Indian embassy in Rome and London. Information was also sought, through the Ministry of External Affairs, from the Italian and British governments on the probe and clarification on the reports of use of middlemen and bribery in the deal. While only basic details of the Italian probe could be gathered from the foreign officials, response from AgustaWestland itself was ‘inconclusive’ and ‘do not bring out any concrete fact to draw a conclusion’.
“The MoD is constantly pursuing the matter and is committed to taking suitable penalty measures, if allegations proved right,” Antony had said.