The Antrix-Devas deals: What the Government must explain

| July 26, 2015 | 0 Comments

All of a sudden, G Madhavan Nair, a former Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and three of his retired colleagues learnt from the media about the ban on them from holding any position in any Government or Government-aided organisation. No charge-sheet was given nor any opportunity provided to them to defend themselves from whatever charges had been framed against them.

Apparently, there were two major charges: (a) an alleged financial loss to the Government on account of the deal between Antrix Corporation Ltd (the business arm of ISRO) and Devas Multimedia Private Ltd and (b) procedural lapses during the process of finalising and signing the deal.

BAN IN COUNTRY’S INTEREST?

This has serious implications both nationally and internationally. Therefore, we must ask the following questions: Has it all been fair? Are the reasons given and the steps taken by the government for the punishment meted out to the four space scientists sound? Has the government decision served the interests of the country?

To find answers to these questions, we must look at the growth of the Department of Space (DOS) and individuals who built it as well as the history of the case. Being a member of the first Advisory Committee for Space Sciences I have known the first five Chairmen of ISRO personally. The tradition of integrity, responsibility, excellence, transparency and commitment to the country that, for example Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan, U R Rao and Kasturirangan established, is not trivial, given the lack of it virtually everywhere else. It would have been, therefore, only fair if the government had exercised more restraint and care before announcing the ban on Nair and his colleagues through the media in January.

HISTORY OF THE DEAL

Let us look at the case. Discussions on the then novel multimedia project and the possibility of involvement of DOS/ISRO started in 2003 by Kasturirangan, the then Chairman of ISRO and at present a member of the Planning Commission, without any firm or irrevocable commitment on the part of DOS. These discussions led to the possibility of an appropriate deal being signed between Antrix and Devas.

After at least 18 meetings, a positive recommendation by a committee consisting of A N Shankara, a former Director of the Satellite Centre, one of the main constituent units of DOS, and a unanimous decision of the Antrix Board, the jinxed deal between Antrix and Devas was signed on January 28, 2005. And nearly five years passed without a murmur from any quarter!

In November 2009, Radhakrishnan took over from Nair — during whose tenure the deal was signed – as Chairman, ISRO, and Secretary, DOS. Almost immediately afterwards, in December 2009, a committee headed by B N Suresh, a former member of the Space Commission, was appointed to look into the deal and gave it a clean chit. An Additional Secretary, a civil servant in the Department of Space who was not an expert in the area, was then asked to report on the Antrix-Devas deal.

PROCEDURAL LAPSES

On the basis of his report in which he pointed out procedural lapses and a financial loss to the Government of India as a consequence of having the Antrix-Devas deal signed as well as the support provided to this conclusion independently by the Comptroller and Auditor-General, the deal was annulled by the Government in July 2010 – more than five years after it was signed.

The Government then appointed a high-powered review committee consisting of B K Chaturvedi, Member, Planning Commission, and Roddam Narasimha, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and a member of the Space Commission, on February 10, 2011. This committee pointed out several procedural lapses in the process of signing the Antrix-Devas agreement but did not find any financial irregularity or loss to the Government on account of the deal. It was clear from the report of the Chaturvedi-Narasimha committee that the CAG had confused space spectrum with terrestrial spectrum, the two of which have to be “considered and priced differently”.

CONCERNS OVER LOSS

DOS only receives transponder-using charges from the users; other charges such as spectrum charges would come within the purview of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the Department of Telecommunications. In this connection, it is worth quoting Section 3.5.8 of the Chaturvedi-Narasimha Committee: “It is thus clear that the nature of service planned under this agreement which envisaged telecom, telephony, internet, data transmission and video services, would need consideration by TRAI and subsequently by the government on the procedure for allocation regarding prices to be charged for the spectrum and the number of operators to be allocated to the spectrum, along with the block size etc. Devas would have to pay, apart from other charges to Antrix, additional amounts as decided by the DOT and the Ministry of I&B In view of the above position, the Committee considers that concerns regarding spectrum having been sold cheap under the agreement have no basis whatsoever.”

This view is also supported by the fact that there has been absolutely no evidence of any financial advantage to either Nair or any of his other three colleagues who have been indicted. It was something of a feat for the Chaturvedi-Narasimha’s committee to submit a detailed, well-argued, over 50-page report in 30 days.

PRATYUSH SINHA PANEL

Yet, in May 2011, another committee was appointed to look into the Antrix-Devas deal. This committee was chaired by Pratyush Sinha, a former Chief Vigilance Commissioner, and also had Radhakrishnan as a member. It was on the basis of the recommendations of this committee that the Government issued its orders indicting Nair and three of his former colleagues, including Dr Shankara, who had supported the deal. Shankara, a former Director of the Satellite Centre, was one of the key persons involved in the progress of our space programmes.

Following the government decision based on the Pratyush Sinha committee’s report, Roddam Narasimha, who has been a member of the Space Commission for some 20 years, resigned from the Commission. Like many of us, he also felt that Nair and his colleagues had been victimised for no fault of their own.

Past practices

As regards procedural lapses on the part of Nair, they were partly due to practices that had been followed till that time. Kiran Karnik, a former Chairman of Nasscom who was associated with DOS for a long period, has written a letter to the Prime Minister saying, “In terms of processes, as far as I know, this agreement went meticulously through every step: a technical assessment by Antrix/ISRO experts, approval by the Antrix board followed by Space Commission’s approval. “If Cabinet approval was not sought for the deal (as reported in the media), the question is whether it was at all required and whether past transponder deals with private parties had gone through any such specific Cabinet approvals. The method – of leasing transponders at a fixed price – was no different from that followed for many TV channels that had earlier sought capacity for broadcasting.

“There has never been a history of auctions by ISRO (nor, as far as I know, by any global space agency). Satellite spectrum has always been treated differently from that on the ground, and the comparison is not just a case of apples and oranges, but two altogether different species.”

The government has unnecessarily cast aspersions on the functioning of our finest and most successful government department. This does not augur well for the future of DOS, which we all had looked up to for decades – leave aside the future of the country. I believe the government and the ISRO management should come up with convincing answers about the questions being raised.

Pushpa M Bhargava

The Antrix-Devas deals: What the Government must explain. P.M. Bhargava. The Tribune, Op.Ed. Page, 15th May 2012.

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