AirAsia chief, others booked by CBI for graft

AirAsia chief, others booked by CBI for graft

AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes. Reuters file photo

Accusing no-frills carrier AirAsia (India) of attempting to illegally change rules to enable it to fly international from “day one”, the CBI has booked Group CEO Tony Fernandes and controversial aviation consultant Deepak Talwar among others.

AirAsia Group is accused of transferring Rs 12.28 crore to a Singapore company and another Rs 50 lakh in cash to a person for bribing officials to facilitate the removal of rules that did not allow new airlines to start international operations. Investigators conducted searches in six locations in Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai on Tuesday.

Besides Fernandes and Talwar, the FIR registered on Monday also named AirAsia (India) Director R Venkataramanan, AirAsia (Berhad) Deputy CEO Bo Lingam, HNR Trading Pte Ltd Director Rajender Dubey and Travel/Total Food Services Chairman Sunil Kapur and unknown officials of Ministry of Civil Aviation and now-defunct Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB).

AirAsia (India) denied any wrongdoing and said it had in November 2016 initiated criminal civil proceedings against its former CEO for such irregularities. “We hope to bring early resolution to all such issues,” AirAsia (India) Director Shuva Mandal said in a statement.

The joint venture between Tata Sons and Malaysia-based AirAsia Group, AirAsia India is "indirectly controlled" by the foreign entity in violation of rules, the FIR stated, adding that a brand licence agreement between the partners “indirectly” made it a subsidiary of the Malaysian company rather than a joint venture. Indian partners “consciously ensured violating” the norms.

Fernandes wanted the airline to be able to fly internationally “from day one” and that Venkataramanan lobby for government approvals for removing the 5/20 Rule (completion of five years of domestic operations and a fleet of 20 aircraft for starting international services), the FIR said.

Dubey is claimed to have acted as a liaison agent facilitating meetings with government officials and there were attempts to change the 5/20 Rule during the fag end of UPA-II. 

A Cabinet note was moved on February 27, 2014, and the Ministry of Civil Aviation gave further clarification on March 5. However, the Election Commission declared the Lok Sabha elections on the same day following which no progress could be made.

The FIR claimed Venkataramanan was involved in lobbying to get approvals, "some of them through non-transparent means, including the FIPB clearance, NOC and the attempt for removal/modification of 5/20 Rule”. Fernandes also roped in Kapur as a lobbyist to whom on-board catering contract was given as a "quid pro quo without any negotiation".

The FIR also said in 2015-16, AirAsia India remitted Rs 12.28 crore to Dubey's firm for a "sham contract on the basis of a bogus agreement on plain papers", which was "utilised for paying a bribe" to officials through Talwar and Kapur. "Talwar, in his presentation, mentioned about the strategy to engage officials" for which a payment of Rs 17,42,632 was made to him.

According to the FIR, Bo Lingam and Kapur had handed over a packet containing Rs 50 lakh to Sriram to facilitate the removal of 5/20 Rule during a meeting at a coffee shop in Four Season Hotel in Mumbai.

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