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George cleared VIP planes for Justice Phukan, says Pranab
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, May 4
Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee today said the Justice S.N. Phukan Commission, probing defence deals, had not only visited Pune and Ahmednagar but also Ajanta and Ellora in 2003, going against the prescribed rules for use of IAF’s VIP aircraft.

Responding to clarifications in the Rajya Sabha, after he made identical statements in the two Houses, Mr Mukherjee said he was not passing any value judgement about use of service aircraft for carrying the Commission. “It is not for me to sit on judgement but for people to see. I am duty-bound to give the factual position,” he said. Mr Mukherjee said some members had stated in the House that an investigating agency or commission does not take hospitality of persons whose role was being probed.

Describing reflections made on Justice Venkatswami, who was earlier probing the Tehelka expose, as “unfortunate,” the Minister said “we should be careful while making reflections.” He said Justice Venkatswami resigned from the Tehelka Commission of Inquiry immediately after the “unfortunate” reflections were made.

Mr Mukherjee said Justice Phukan Commission was not given an extension after it was found that it was taking “unusual time.” He said the entire Tehelka matter had been referred to the CBI.

Mr Mukherjee said report of a news magazine about the VIP aircraft having been used to carry Justice Phukan Commision was “factually correct.”

He said Commission, looking into 14 items related to the Ministry of Defence, had availed the facility on being allowed by the then Defence Minister.

He said the instructions regarding the use of the VIP aircraft by the Phukan Commission were issued by the Defence Ministry after a request in this regard was approved on December 22, 2003 by then Defence Minister George Fernandes.

In view of Justice Phukan’s visit to Pune, Ahmednagar, Mumbai and Bangalore along with eight other officials and members of the Commission, to inspect the items, the order was issued to Service Headquarters and officers concerned in the Ministry of Defence on December 16, 2003, Mr Mukherjee said.

A request was then made to Service Headquarters to prepare a detailed programme and to send it to the Ministry by December 19, 2003. Air Headquarters moved the Joint Secretary (G/Air) on December 17 to seek the approval of the then Defence Minister for providing the service aircraft.

Justice Phukan along with his wife and eight officers undertook the visit by the Service Aircraft (AVRO) to Pune and from there visited Ahmednagar by an IAF chopper. They also visited Ajanta and Ellora, he said. He said the Commission did not include experts in its visit to various places where defence equipment was to be inspected.

The journey from Pune to Mumbai was made by an IL-76 transport aircraft, Mr Mukherjee said. The Commission visited the Shirdi Shrine from Ahmednagar on December 24, 2003, by road, the Minister added.

He said the Commission had used the aircraft which the President, Prime Minister and Vice President were entitled to use. He said some other dignitaries, including the Defence Minister and Home Minister, were also entitled to use the VIP aircraft, if it was essential and if the plane was available.

“It is expected that except the President, the Vice-President and the Prime Minister, other users will use the commercial services on official duty, wherever possible,” he said.

Pointing out that entitled persons had to pay for the use if the journey was not for defence purposes, he said the Congress had paid Rs 5 crore for use of the VIP aircraft by the Prime Minister. He said it was to be examined who will pay for the use of aircraft for carrying Justice Phukan and officers of the commission.

“There are a lot of issues about which we are not very clear. It appears as if something was to be done in a hurry,” Mr Mukherjee said.

He said the Ministry of Personnel, which had appointed the Commission, was paying salaries while other expenses had to be borne by the Defence Ministry.

Earlier, Rajya Sabha members from the Congress and the Left parties demanded that the report of the Phukan Commission be rejected since it had lost credibility.

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