PM sets up panel to review S-band deal

PM sets up panel to review S-band deal

His government brushed by financial scandals, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Thursday sought to take the sting out of allegations involving a controversial deal between Isro and a private firm, appointing a high-powered committee to review the contract.

But the move ran into criticism for its composition after one of the two members, former cabinet secretary and Planning Commission member B K Chaturvedi dismissed as “bunkum” suggestions that he would not be able to prepare and submit a fair report since he was the country’s topmost bureaucrat when the deal between Isro and Bangalore-based Devas Multimedia was signed.

The contract involved leasing S-band spectrum to Devas. Through the deal, Devas hoped to provide satellite broadband through platforms including mobile phones. It also allowed the firm to 70MHz of spectrum for Rs 1,000 crore by Isro’s commercial arm, Antrix.

The other member on the prime minister-appointed committee is noted aerospace expert Roddam Narsimha, who has been a long-time member of the Space Commission.
Chaturvedi was the cabinet secretary when the deal was signed in 2005 and this has triggered a controversy as the BJP called the setting up of a committee a cover up.

When this was pointed out, Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni told reporters that she was not in a position to comment but added that “he would know how and why it happened”.

The two-member panel has been asked to review the technical, commercial, procedural and financial aspects of the agreement and fix responsibility for lapses in the controversial deal between Antrix Corporation, Isro’s commercial arm, and Devas. The panel has been asked to submit its report within a month. The controversial deal also figured in Thursday’s Cabinet meeting in which ministers wanted to know the latest on the agreement, especially because it is being seen as yet another blot on the UPA government’s image which has taken a beating as critics have faulted the prime minister for failing to stop corruption.

The prime minister asked Isro chairman and Department of Space Secretary K Radhakrishnan to brief Cabinet minsters about the contract.

According to sources, the committee will review the adequacy of procedures and approval processes followed by Antrix, Isro and the Department of Space, and suggest improvements. It has also been asked to fix responsibility.

Reacting to the announcement of the committee, the BJP dismissed it as an attempt at “cover-up”. “It’s a cover-up and isn’t acceptable,” BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman said, referring to Chaturvedi being a committee member.

“If a decision has to be investigated, can it be done by the same person who was part of the decision making process? It defeats the whole purpose of the exercise,” Sitharaman said.

Taking on the BJP, the Congress asked it to stop “giving a running commentary” on the episode and creating negativism. “The Isro chairperson has clarified on the issue. Now the government has also constituted a probe committee. As long as that committee does not give its report, there should be a complete full stop on the running commentary involving the matter,” Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari said.

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