Names a London businessman who has majority stake in Tatra; sleuths conduct searches in Delhi, Noida & Bangalore
Nearly a week after Army Chief General V.K. Singh’s disclosure in an exclusive interview to The Hindu that he was offered a bribe by an equipment lobbyist, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on Friday registered a First Information Report (FIR) for alleged irregularities in supply of all-terrain Tatra trucks through public sector BEML to the Army.
The FIR names Ravi Rishi, a London-based businessman who owns the Vectra group and has a majority stake in the Tatra trucks, a Czech manufacturer. It also refers to unknown officials of BEML, Vectra and Army. The case has been registered under provisions of the Indian Penal Code relating to criminal conspiracy to cheat and under the Prevention of Corruption Act for allegedly indulging in corrupt practices.
Army Chief replies
Later in the day, CBI received a reply from the Army Chief wherein he has confirmed the offer of bribe made to him, a disclosure which he had made in his March 26 interview to The Hindu. CBI sources said the General has said that he would furnish more details soon. His reply also does not mention any bribe amount, the sources said.
Soon after formally registering the case, CBI officials carried out searches at four places in Delhi, Noida, and Bangalore, official sources said. The sources said the probe would look into purchases of Tatra trucks from 1997 onwards.
Mr. Rishi, a British national, who is here for the ongoing Defence Expo, was called by the CBI officials to the agency’s headquarters for questioning. Since 1986, Army has purchased some 7000 Tatra trucks to transport troops and artillery. In his interview to The Hindu, the Army Chief had alleged that the trucks were overpriced and substandard. The General alleged that the lobbyist had offered him the bribe of Rs. 14 crore to clear a tranche of 600 sub-standard vehicles for purchase.
'Probe ordered in 2009'
Top sources in the CBI told The Hindu that the agency had received the reference from Defence Ministry on March 26 itself regarding allegations made by the Army Chief which mainly contained the copy of report and the interview of the Army Chief published that day. The sources said the agency was not in possession of any audio tape, purported to contain conversation about offer of a bribe to the Army Chief.
Even as the CBI started searches, the Defence Ministry said that a day after receiving a letter from Union Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad on October 5, 2009, forwarding the complaint of Dr. D. Hanumanthappa, addressed to Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Defence Minister A. K. Antony had asked the Secretary (Defence Production) to look into various issues raised in the complaint.
It is learnt that the complaint had said that Vectra in London was serving as a middleman which was in violation of guidelines as the equipment for the Army is meant to be bought directly from the manufacturer and not through a middleman.
"Records show that the vigilance wings of Ministry of Defence and BEML were examining the matter and there are also correspondence between the CBI and Chief Vigilance Officer of BEML on these allegations,’’ the statement issued by Defence Ministry said.
Digging out its records, the Ministry claimed that the Defence Minister had accorded his sanction for a CBI investigation on February 21, 2012, much before the sensational revelation of the Army Chief made to this newspaper which also rocked Parliament with the opposition gunning for the UPA government.
BEML denies charge
K. V. Prasad adds:
Responding to alleged involvement of agents and lobbyists in placement of orders for the Tatra trucks, BEML chief V.R.S. Natarajan said that over the past 26 years, from 1986 onwards, BEML had assembled, manufactured, supplied 7,000 Tatra trucks.
"All of them have been done on single nomination basis, single inquiry basis. This type of equipment nobody in the world makes, because of its superior technological features. When I am the single vendor and there is no competition, there is no influence required,’’ he said.
Countering allegations about pricing of Tatra trucks, BEML chief said these trucks had "flexible axle" as compared to those with "fixed axle’’ and were technologically superior with features like air cooled engines.
He said that in recent field trials by Army fixed axle trucks which had missiles mounted on them had got stuck in the desert and the Army had to seek the services of Tatra trucks to pull them out. However, he did not name the manufacturer of ``fixed axle’’ trucks but indicated that Army had relaxed qualitative requirements in this case.