Deals and questions

Published : May 12, 2001 00:00 IST

A petition filed in the Delhi High Court by Rear Admiral (retired) Suhas Purohit throws new light on processes at play in the realm of defence procurement.

JUST days before he was due to retire from the Indian Navy, Rear Admiral Suhas Purohit filed a petition in the Delhi High Court, pleading for the initiation of contempt proceedings against Admiral Sushil Kumar, Chief of the Naval Staff, and Yogendra Narain, Secretary in the Ministry of Defence. The grounds cited are the wilful denial of the jurisdiction of the court and a deliberate effort to render a plea for relief infructuous. This comes in the context of an earlier petition by Purohit, seeking directions from the court that his long-delayed promotion to the rank of Vice-Admiral be granted.

A Naval Promotion Board meeting in October 1997 had cleared Purohit for appointment to the post of Controller of Logistics in the rank of Vice-Admiral. He was due to assume the rank on the retirement of the incumbent logistics chief in February 1998. But his promotion was held in abeyance. Purohit filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court in February 2000 seeking his promotion. In April last year the Defence Ministry gave an undertaking to the court that it would not appoint any officer to the post till a decision was taken on the writ petition.

After many unexplained delays and adjournments, the counter-affidavit of the Defence Ministry was filed in August last year. The substance of the Ministry's argument was that Purohit's case for a promotion could not be considered since he had been under a cloud of suspicion over a number of procurement deals contracted while he was Assistant Controller of Logistics. Allegations of serious malfeasance had been levelled in an anonymous complaint received by Naval Headquarters in July 1997, necessitating inquiries at various levels. These had only been completed by late-1999, and with a confidential report on the officer due to be filed in August 2000, it would be appropriate to consider his case at a Promotion Board meeting scheduled for September or October.

Outside the focus of judicial scrutiny, though, the naval command and the Defence Ministry were creating new grounds to disqualify Purohit. These new grounds, which were supposedly arrived at in August 2000, were only intimated to him and to the court in February this year. In the intervening period the High Court had held no fewer than five hearings on Purohit's petition. At none of these was it even hinted that the naval command had effectively shifted its stand. Once accused of high corruption and denied his promotion for being in league with a sinister cartel of arms dealers, Purohit was informed in February that he was not entitled to a promotion on account of the minor misdemeanour of not undergoing his statutory medical examination for a number of years.

PUROHIT points out in his contempt petition that in respect of missing his statutory medical examinations he is in the company of no fewer than 1,000 other officers of the Indian Navy. None of the others, presumably, has been marked out for special attention by the naval command.

Responding to the fifth of Purohit's statutory complaints in September 1999 with regard to the delay in granting him promotion, Vice-Admiral Arun Prakash, Chief of Personnel in Naval Headquarters, certainly seemed unaware of any serious lapse on his part. The Chief of Personnel's official communication in this connection was virtually a plea of helplessness. All "issues of relevance" raised by Purohit, he said, had been forwarded to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for clarification. Despite repeated reminders, though, "no written response had been received from MoD to date".

In public the MoD has taken the position that Purohit's promotion was not considered since he had colluded with defence contractors to cause enormous losses to the public exchequer in naval procurement decisions. In a briefing paper circulated to members of Parliament in April 1999, the then Defence Minister George Fernandes had drawn attention to certain damaging findings arrived at by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) after a process of "secret verifications". The paper said: "Requisitions/orders placed on suppliers in Russia by Naval Headquarters are conveyed in advance to the above-mentioned firms to enable these firms to manipulate their prices to the disadvantage of the Indian Navy... Sources have also informed that such advance information is passed on by Admiral Purohit from the fax machine installed at his residence or through an officer."

The former Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, has stated on record that Purohit is being denied his promotion because of pressure from a cartel of arms dealers. The substance of Purohit's original petition in the Delhi High Court makes out a similar case. He points out, for instance, that the Navy paid prices as different as Rs.35 and Rs. 17,305 for a diode crystal in purchases contracted within weeks of one another. Similarly, Rs.11,192 was paid for an electrical relay worth Rs.95. A balancing piston was purchased for Rs.1,475; soon thereafter, another of the kind was bought for Rs.46,750. Far from being in league with the defence contractors, the aggrieved officer has said, he has in fact been instrumental in limiting their influence over the Navy's procurement operations.

In an attempt at candour following the upheaval of the Tehelka tapes, the Navy conducted a media briefing early in April. The objective was to publicise the many genuine difficulties that the Navy faced in ensuring that procurement operations remained immune to the unsavoury influence of middlemen. This was part of a series of briefings undertaken by the defence services under the instructions of a new information consultant that the Ministry has engaged to deal with the aftermath of the Tehelka revelations.

The outcome has been an absolute vindication of the points made by Purohit, though presumably this will do little to resuscitate his career in the Navy. Vice-Admiral Arun Prakash revealed, for instance, that it was not uncommon for the same part to be procured at widely divergent prices - ranging between $30 and $6,000 in some instances. This was a necessary evil that the Navy had to contend with, since it had to deal with an opaque system of arms merchandising in the successor states to the Soviet Union. Since it was virtually impossible to find a way through the maze of defence agents, primarily in Russia and Ukraine, the Navy often had to settle for bad bargains. The alternative would be to pull naval vessels out of active duty for lack of supplies and spares. Contracting directly with the manufacturers was impossible in the circumstances prevailing in Russia, and neither was a deal at the governmental level feasible.

ASKED specifically about the points made in Purohit's petition, Vice-Admiral Arun Prakash was offhand in his dismissal: "The Navy hardly had the means to judge if spares offered were genuine and offered at the right prices." This must count as an astonishing abdication of responsibility by the senior command of the Indian Navy. A retired naval officer, Commodore A.K. Sawhney, described it as a "betrayal of the trust put in the Navy by the people and Parliament with regard to the assumption that reasonable care is exercised in spending public money." He also said that "it is an insult to the whole Navy, particularly the technical operators who know the value of the parts they use".

Purohit retired from the Navy on April 30, 2001 after 37 years in service. Two days later the Delhi High Court disposed of his contempt petition on the grounds that its subject matter was in any case part of the ongoing litigation on the officer's promotion. The court is scheduled to take up the matter around the middle of May.

The interests that have been instrumental in blocking Purohit's assumption of the pivotal office of naval logistics chief have had to fight an inordinately long holding operation. Once his promotion was denied in February 1998, Purohit would have retired just over a year later. But the intervening development of the Fifth Pay Commission Report extended his tenure by another two years. Promotion to the next higher rank would have meant still another year in service. That the authors of the anonymous complaint of 1997 managed to stonewall for quite so long is a dubious tribute to their influence and powers of endurance. But the ongoing litigation means that their victory celebrations may yet perhaps be premature.

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