New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday asked the Centre for pricing details of the 36 Rafale fighter jets India is buying from France in a sealed envelope within 10 days but agreed that “strategic and confidential” information need not be disclosed.
A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, gave some more leeway to the government which has been arguing that pricing details are so sensitive that they have not even been shared with Parliament.
The Centre must bring details of the decision-making process of the deal into the public domain, except those that are confidential and have strategic importance, the court said.
The bench said the information must be shared by the government within 10 days and the petitioners could respond to it in the next seven days. It posted the matter for the next hearing on November 14.
“If pricing is something exclusive and you are not sharing it with us, please file an affidavit and say so,” the bench told Attorney General KK Venugopal in its oral observations.
It was hearing four petitions, including one by advocate Prashant Bhushan and former ministers Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha who are seeking a court monitored CBI investigation in the procurement of the fighter jets.
“That will have to wait,” the CJI said, adding, “Let CBI put its house in order first.”
The attorney general had expressed reservations about disclosing the details of pricing of the jets and said its cost was not even disclosed in Parliament.
He also said the documents placed by the Centre before the court are covered by the Official Secrets Act.
The bench, also comprising Justices UU Lalit and KM Joseph, said the “core of information” that can be brought in the public domain should be shared with the “petitioner and petitioners in person”.
In its order, the bench observed that none of the petitioners have questioned the suitability of the Rafale jets, their equipment and their utility to the Indian Air Force.
“What has been questioned is the bonafide of the decision making process and the price/cost at which the same is to be procured,” the bench said.
The bench also noted that following its October 10 order the government has placed before it a note giving details of the steps taken in the decision making process leading to the procurement of 36 Rafale fighter jets.
At this stage, the bench said, the court did not want to record any finding or view on the documents placed before it.
It also observed that information regarding induction of the Indian offset partner be given to the court and the petitioners.
When a counsel appearing for AAP Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh told the bench he has also filed a petition in this matter, the court asked, “What is his interest? We don’t have to entertain so many petitions.”
Shourie was present in the court during the hearing.
Rafale deal is a defence agreement signed between the governments of India and France to purchase of 36 Rafale fighter aircrafts in fly-away condition as a part of upgrading process of Indian Air Force equipment.
Rafale fighter aircraft is a twin-engine Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) is manufactured by French aerospace company Dassault Aviation.
Indian Air Force had advanced a proposal to buy 126 fighter aircraft in August 2007 and floated a tender and an invitation was sent to various aviation companies to participate for the bidding process.
The petition said that in 2012, the deal for 126 Rafale fighter aircraft was proposed, and out of the total of 126 number, 18 Rafale fighter aircraft were to be delivered by Dassault Aviation company in fly-away condition, the rest 108 Rafale fighter aircraft were to be manufactured in India at the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) which is an Indian public sector aerospace and defence unit, under a transfer of technology agreement.
That the deal was nearly finalised by 2014 by the then UPA government, it said.
“In April 2015, Narendra Modi made a state visit to France and during a state event the Prime Minister in Paris made an announcement to purchase 36 Rafale fighter aircrafts in fly-away condition and immediately within few days after the big announcement of procuring of 36 Rafale aircrafts. On 13 th April 2015, the then defence minister made an announcement that the Rafale deal is effectively dead and that India officially withdrew the 126- aircraft MMECA tender on 30 July 2015,” it alleged.
The plea said the MoD had withdrawn the 2007 tender which was for procurement of 126 Rafale fighter aircrafts, the deal announced for procurement of 36 Rafale fighter aircraft was all together a fresh procurement.
The plea has also sought a direction to the Centre put on record the agreement signed between India and France on September 23, 2016.