Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Air India Investigation: A Reckoning Six Years in the Making

Late last month, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filed three first information reports on the highly questionable financial decisions that had been taken by the previous UPA government a decade or more ago. These decisions primarily deal with the purchase of a large number of aircraft by Air India and Indian Airlines, leasing of aircraft and surrendering profit-making routes. A preliminary investigation has also been launched into the merger of the two carriers.

The aircraft were acquired in 2005, the merger was approved in 2006 and an incisive report by the comptroller and auditor general came out in 2011. Similar territory was traced by parliament’s public accounts committee (PAC) in a 2014 report. Ironically, the PAC was at that time led by the then opposition leader from the BJP, Murli Manohar Joshi. But the FIRs have been filed just now.

However, what largely helped prod the CBI along was a public interest litigation launched by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation, spearheaded by activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan, in 2011. The Supreme Court admitted the PIL in 2012 and in January this year the court asked the government to conclude the investigations by June in response to a plea by Bhushan that the PIL be kept alive.
A new government, that of the NDA, came to power in 2014 and since the whole issue puts the previous UPA government in the most unbecoming light, it would have been natural for the present government to do a quick investigation and come up with results. After all, the hard spadework for the investigation had already been done for it by none other than two of the country’s top most institutions, the CAG and PAC. But the FIRs have been registered only recently.

The person at the centre of the controversy is NCP leader Praful Patel, who was Union civil aviation minister at the time. If there is a reluctance to go ahead with investigations, which will eventually land at the door of Patel, then there is good reason for it. Patel, other than being a long-term president of the All Indian Football Federation, has cordial relations across the political spectrum. The launch event of his most recently published book was attended by, among others, filmmaker Karan Johar, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackrey, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, Amitabh Bachchan and Mukesh Ambani. This caused a Mumbai paper to say of the event, “It doesn’t get bigger than this.”
07/06/17 Subir Roy/The Wire
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