As CBI grills Michel, IAF in a fix over Agusta choppers

Three AW101 VVIP choppers have been mothballed for last four years

India had signed the deal to ferry VVIP helicopters for Rs 3,600 crore in 2010 | Reuters India had signed the deal to ferry VVIP helicopters for Rs 3,600 crore in 2010 | Reuters

Investigating agencies may be excited about bringing alleged middleman of AgustaWestland chopper scam Christian Michel to India after a long legal and diplomatic battle. But the Indian Air Force headquarters has a different worry. Three AW101 VVIP choppers, which were delivered to the IAF as part of 12 chopper deal with Anglo-Italian firm AgustaWestland, have been occupying a valuable space at the Palam technical airport for the last four years. The IAF had no option but to mothball them till the government takes any decision on the issue. Moreover, the original equipment manufacturer had also refused to provide any support to the IAF on the issue, as the matter has been entangled in legal battle.

"Yes. All three choppers are parked at the IAF's station in Delhi. It is upto the company to decide on the issue. The matter is under arbitration between the company and the Indian government. But the MoD has already recovered the bank guarantees of over Rs 2,000 crore given by the firm for violating the integrity clause," said an official, privy to the development.

India had signed the deal to ferry VVIP helicopters for Rs 3,600 crore in 2010. But after bribery allegations, on January 2014, the then defence minister A.K. Antony scrapped the contract.

IAF headquarters’ Communication Squadron, which looks after the transport of VVIPs, including the president, prime minister and the vice president, was to get these 12 choppers to replace its ageing fleet of Mi8 choppers.

The three choppers were delivered to the IAF between December 2012 and January 2013. But, the IAF has never used any of these choppers to ferry VVIPs. The air force had even trained some of its pilots on these choppers in the United Kingdom as part of the contract clause, in anticipation of using these choppers. A seven-member crew, including a pilot and technical staff, were earlier given task to look after these choppers. But since these choppers were mothballed, the crew members have been sent back to their respective units.

The IAF is now using the fleet of Mi-17 V-5 to ferry VVIP dignitaries.

The extradition of Christian Michel is seen as a big success for the Indian investigating agencies as his disclosure might reveal names of senior officers and other influential people to whom alleged kickbacks were paid to swing the deal in favour of AgustaWestland. A Delhi court on Wednesday allowed five-day custodial interrogation of Michel by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

The CBI and the Enforcement Directorate have conducted separate probes into the scam and filed charge-sheet against several private individuals and former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi.

However, early this year, an Italian court acquitted former Finmeccanica president Giuseppe Orsi and AgustaWestland CEO Bruno Spagnolini on charges of illegal payment of 560 million Euros in the deal to sell 12 AW101 helicopters to the IAF. In September, the Italian court in its 322- page judgment stated that "there is, conclusively, no evidence of the corrective agreement stipulated according to the imputation, with the foreign public official, just as it requires the incriminating law.” The court also said that, as per the evidence submitted, the allegation that the operational ceiling limit for flying the helicopter was changed on illegal payment to the then IAF chief was not chronologically possible.