BEML chief suspended for fair probe
NEW DELHI: The government on Monday suspended BEML chairman and managing director V R S Natarajan in what looks like a prelude to the defence PSU chief being formally prosecuted by CBI for alleged financial irregularities in the Tatra trucks, armoured recovery vehicles and other cases. "The defence ministry's decision to suspend Natarajan came after a recommendation by CBI last week that he should be kept away from the post to ensure fair investigation.
The charge of BEML has been given to its senior-most functional director P Dwarkanath," said an official. The CBI had sought the "dismissal" of Natarajan, who has been the chief of Bharat Earth Movers Ltd (BEML) for over a decade now, because he was allegedly "influencing witnesses" by "briefing and de-briefing" every BEML official being called for questioning by the investigating agency over the last few weeks, said sources.
Already armed with government sanction under Section 6A of the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, which is required to initiate a preliminary enquiry or chargesheet any officer above the rank of a joint secretary, the agency may now even arrest the suspended chief of the mini-ratna defence PSU. "There is prima facie evidence to show Natarajan had a role to play in the irregularities in the procurement of Tatra trucks for the Army. All the dealings during his long tenure will now be probed. He can be arrested if there is enough material evidence against him," said a source.
But an unfazed Natarajan told reporters in Bangalore that he would be proven innocent in all the allegations being hurled at him. "I respect the decision of the government. I will come out clean in the case," he said. Natarajan had come under the scanner after defence minister A K Antony on February 21 accorded sanction for the investigation into the functioning of BEML, following several allegations of financial irregularities and fudging of accounts in the defence PSU with an annual turnover of over Rs 3,700 crore, as was then reported by TOI.
The CBI is also conducting the "comprehensive inquiry" into the Rs 14-crore bribe offered to the previous Army chief Gen V K Singh allegedly by retired Defence Intelligence Agency chief Lt-Gen Tejinder Singh in September, 2010, to clear another tranche of 600 "sub-standard" and overpriced Tatra trucks supplied by BEML in collaboration with Tatra Sipox, UK. Over the last 26 years, the armed forces have inducted over 7,000 Tatra all-terrain trucks through a BEML tie-up first with Czech firm Omnipol and then Tatra Sipox, UK.
The CBI is also probing BEML's supply of armoured recovery vehicles (model WZT-3) in collaboration with Polish firm Bumar, and other equipment to the Army on virtually the same terms as the Tatra-Vectra trucks. Apart from selling the heavy-duty vehicles to the Army at rates double their market value, BEML is also facing the heat for deliberating going slow on indigenizing the specialized equipment and spare-parts despite technology transfers being included in the various contracts that were inked for both the Tatra trucks and the armoured recovery vehicles.
The CBI has established there was enough indigenous technical knowhow by 2002-03 to manufacture spare-parts for the Tatra trucks despite this being repeatedly contested by Natarajan during his questioning. "Our records show there was enough technical expertise to manufacture the spare-parts but most of them were being imported at high prices," said a source.
Besides, Natarajan inked a fresh contract in 2002 for the Tatra trucks despite the fact that the previous contract inked in 1997 was valid for 10 years. Now, the CBI is awaiting the inspection reports and other records of the Directorate General of Quality Assurance (DGQA) to ascertain whether there were adverse remarks on the quality of the Tatra trucks and the role played by BEML in the entire episode.
CPI (M) general secretary Prakash Karat said there was sufficient material available to show that the Tatra trucks deal was done in a fashion that it required investigation. "Natarajan as BEML chief has a role and responsibility. It is good that the defence ministry has decided to suspend him," he told reporters.