Were Justice S.N. Phukan and his wife denied the traditional hospitality that the army, air force and navy are so reputed for? The judge who headed the Tehelka Commission and was taken on a five-day junket on a special VVIP air force plane, courtesy the Ministry of Defence, insists that he did not have such a good time. But Outlook has learnt that not only was the red carpet rolled out for the judge and his entourage, but free trips by road were organised for him and his wife to see the Ajanta and Ellora caves as well as a visit to the shrine of Sai Baba at Shirdi. On both occasions, the judge, his wife and members of the commission were provided taxis which they did not pay for. It is understood that the costs incurred during the two trips were shown as 'book adjustments' by the defence ministry. It is another matter that no weapon systems were studied either at Shirdi, Ajanta or Ellora.
Justice Phukan has also complained to the media that the VVIP plane given to him was 'useless' and did not have proper toilet facilities. Enquiries with the
IAF reveal that the IL-76 aircraft in which Justice Phukan flew back to Delhi from Mumbai costs Rs 18 lakh for every hour in the air. Which means for every four minutes that the judge and his entourage flew in the plane, it cost the taxpayer a neat Rs 1.5 lakh (see box). Had the judge, his wife and his eight-member team all flown executive class in a commercial airline, the Mumbai-Delhi fare for them would have been only Rs 1.20 lakh. Instead, it cost the defence ministry Rs 72 lakh to transport them on a special
Ostensibly, the entire trip was to inspect weapon systems. But with two days devoted to sight-seeing and the time spent in flying from Delhi to Pune and Mumbai to Delhi, the members of the commission had effectively just two days to 'inspect and familiarise' themselves with the 14 weapon systems they were investigating into. In the end, the junket cost the taxpayer nearly Rs 1 crore.
While Justice Phukan maintains that he had 'all his meals in the room', those travelling with him differ. A commission member who was on the trip told Outlook that "there was a cocktail and a dinner at Ahmednagar and another one at the western naval command, Mumbai". Interestingly, Justice Phukan, who had been insisting all along that "all our meals were in our room", later stated that "it could have also been in the dining room". The feedback Outlook has is that the trip had more to do with holidaying than anything else.
Official confirmation of the judge's trip came in a suo motu statement made by Union defence minister Pranab Mukherjee in Parliament. Following Outlook's exposé of the Justice Phukan junket, Pranab told the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday: "Normally for visits of a commission,
IAF aircraft are not provided." Later, the defence minister also told the House that "he would not think of using an
IAF plane to fly to a place where commercial flights were available." He also pointed out in his statement that even for "entitled personages, when the journey is not for defence purposes, the cost will be recovered according to scales prescribed from time to time". Phukan and his team were not even in the entitled category, as Pranab clarified.
Justice Phukan in his statements to the press after the Outlook exposé said that the secretary to the commission, S.K. Dasgupta, had made all the arrangements. The subtext was that the judge was not aware of the trip's details. But when Dasgupta sought permission to fly by service aircraft on December 19, 2003, this is what he wrote in his note to the defence ministry: "Pursuant to the submission made by the learned counsel for the Union of India, Honorable Chairman (Justice Phukan) has directed that equipment relating to the past defence transactions located at various places may be
inspected. Accordingly, Honorable Chairman along with team of counsel for the commission and officers of the commission shall visit Pune, Ahmednagar, Bangalore and Mumbai starting 22nd December 2003 to 27th December 2003." Clearly, the judge was not ignorant of the arrangements being made.
Interestingly, in the detailed itinerary drawn up by the commission there was no mention of the trips to Shirdi, Ajanta and Ellora. Meanwhile, arrangements for Justice Phukan's trip had already begun with air headquarters sending the file to then joint secretary (air), Arvind Joshi. It is learnt that Joshi processed the file and sought the clearance of the then defence minister, George Fernandes.
Between December 22 and December 27 (when they returned to Delhi), the commission had only two days to actually see seven weapon systems of the 14 they were investigating. On December 22, they landed in Pune, and on December 23 left for Ahmednagar by an Mi-17 helicopter. On December 24, the commission cancelled scheduled presentations to travel to Shirdi in a five-car convoy. The commission also spent the next day, December 25, visiting Ajanta and Ellora. On December 26, they flew by an Mi-17 helicopter to Mumbai where they were put up at the swank western naval command officer's mess.
Eyebrows were also raised about trips made by another member of the commission. Brojendra Prasad Katakey, then one of the senior counsel with the commission, travelled to London twice on government expense. First, he was sent to deliver the Tehelka tapes to London for verification. This was after Phukan reversed the ruling of his predecessor, Justice G. Venkataswamy, that the tapes were genuine. Katakey travelled to London again, this time carrying the equipment the Tehelka portal had used for recording the events that led to the inquiry. Katakey, who was later appointed an additional judge of the Gauhati High Court, was unavailable for comment.
Through all this, the role of former defence minister George Fernandes has also come up for scrutiny. It was he who cleared the trips undertaken by the judge and members of the commission. While Fernandes remained unavailable for comment despite repeated efforts, Justice Phukan maintains that his wife had to travel with him, as she was not keeping well. A stand that is at best surprising: if she was unwell, did it make sense to take her on a hectic trip that covered Pune, Ahmednagar, Shirdi, Ajanta and Ellora and finally Mumbai in five days? Only George Fernandes and Justice Phukan can answer that.
With the credibility of the report—clearing Fernandes of any misdeeds during Kargil—the commission had submitted to the
NDA government under question, there is a growing demand from Congress and Left MPs that it be ignored. As for the
NDA, it has decided to stay away from Parliament and maintain a stoic silence on the junket issue.
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