The Truth is Out There

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A year after the $300 million Antrix-Devas agreement was spiked, there is dismay about how our scientists are being treated. Abhishek Bhalla and G Vishnu report

Devas had leased S-band spectrum from ISRO satellites
Devas had leased S-band spectrum from ISRO satellites, Photo: AFP

THREE COMMITTEES, a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report and four scientists barred from any government assignment — this is the status of the probe into the $300 million Antrix-Devas deal one year after it was annulled citing “strategic reasons”.

The agreement signed in 2005 was spiked by the government last February, despite the defence ministry, intelligence agencies and the PMO giving the necessary clearances for leasing out S-band spectrum. Rumour has it that the CAG report, which is yet to be made public, has pegged the presumptive loss at Rs 2 lakh crore.

In 2000, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) decided to open the space sector for private investment. It made a policy to boost satellite-based communication technology viable for commercial consumption. ISRO’s marketing arm Antrix signed an MoU in 2003 with US-based Forge Advisors to attract investment in digital multimedia services. Later, Forge Advisors established Devas Multimedia and hired many former ISRO officials. According to the deal, Antrix would provide 70 MHZ S-band spectrum for 12 years. This was done by leasing 90 percent of the transponders in GSAT-6 and GSAT-6A, which were to be launched by ISRO.

Even though Devas had paid an advance fee of Rs 60 crore to Antrix, the government annulled the deal after allegations that it was heavily skewed in Devas’ favour.

Last year, the government appointed three committees to look into the ‘shady’ deal. The BR Suresh panel is said to have given a clean chit to the scientists. The Chaturvedi-Narasimha panel does not speak of financial loss but says there were procedural deviations. The third report by a high-powered panel headed by former Central Vigilance Commissioner Pratyush Sinha is still shrouded in secrecy. It is based on this report that the government has taken action against the four scientists.

However, the government’s action has drawn flak. “The scientists have been treated badly. This will hurt the national space programme,” says Space Commission member Roddam Narasimha, who was part of the Chaturvedi-Narasimha panel. He feels the responsibility lies with the prime minister to clear the air. “The reports should be made public,” he says.

Whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was privy to the conditions of the deal is something that has been contested by many. The PMO’s stand is that the PM was not in the know. Even Madhavan Nair, former ISRO chief and one of the scientists punished by the government, asserts that the agreement does not come under the ambit of the government since it’s an internal matter of Antrix. Even ISRO has maintained that the PMO or the Cabinet was not aware of the deal till 2010.

Devas CEO Ramachandran Vishwanathan
Aborted project: Devas CEO Ramachandran Vishwanathan, Photo: Shaillendra Pandey

However, Devas CEO Ramchandaran Vishwanathan had said earlier that German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle discussed the deal when he met the PM in October 2010. He also spoke about US State Department officials raising the issue with the PMO. In an earlier interview with TEHELKA, Vishwanathan said that there were others players in the race to get S-band spectrum. “We understand that two other large industrial corporations had already explored options of such services with ISRO/Antrix,” he had said.

This raises a pertinent question on the ‘first-come first-served’ policy that may have given scope for a massive scam.

Former Antrix MD KR Sridhara Murthy, who is one of the barred scientists, refutes the argument. “In 2000, the SATCOM policy was brought about to increase commercial usage of multimedia technology,” he says.

CNR Rao, chairman of the Scientific Advisory Council to the PM, is aghast at the situation. “The government should not treat scientists like this. These are the minds that build the nation. There won’t be any scientists left if this is how we treat our technical intelligentsia,” he says. However, he ducks questions on the culpability of the scientists. “The government set up committee after committee. It shouldn’t jump to conclusions and bar the scientists from taking up official duties,” he adds.

Meanwhile, Nair says this is a witchhunt. “We don’t have a clear picture about the Sinha report but we are aware that the report has stated seven persons are under scrutiny — four scientists and three bureaucrats. But action has been taken only against the technical people,” he says.

‘I have asked for information through RTI. Once I get it, I will chalk out my plans,’ says Madhavan Nair

A mere glance at the scientists’ track record shows their illustrious career in building India’s space sector. It was under Nair’s leadership that India launched the Chandrayan project, the nation’s first unmanned mission to the moon. Bhaskar Narayana was the Scientific Secretary in the Department of Space for four years. He was responsible for building India’s communication satellite constellation. KN Shankara is a top specialist in the communication sector. Former Antrix MD Murthy is credited with catapulting ISRO from a company worth Rs 100 crore to Rs 1,000 crore.

The scientists are unsure if they should take legal action against the government. “I want to know the rationale behind the government’s action. I have asked for information through RTI. Once I get it, I will chalk out my plans,” says Nair.

ISRO chief Madhavan Nair
Aborted project: former ISRO chief Madhavan Nair Photo: Shailendra Pandey

As for the government and ISRO, everyone has maintained a tight lip. Repeated efforts to get a response from ISRO were in vain. However, V Narayanasamy, Minister of State, PMO, told TEHELKA that the government is willing to listen to the scientists’ grievances. “Action against them has been taken after the findings of the high-powered committee,” he says.

A Devas official adds, “We have no comment. The matter is sub judice since it is being taken up by the Supreme Court.”

TEHELKA HAS learnt that many former ISRO officials were working with Devas when the deal was struck. When TEHELKA asked Nair whether this could be called a conflict of interest, he replied, “The government took a policy decision in 2000 to encourage ISRO employees to start companies. It was decided that technical help will be provided by ISRO. If the employees started a company to boost satellite-based multimedia communication service, there’s nothing wrong in that.”

In a letter dated 6 July 2010, the Department of Telecom had opposed ISRO’s plans of leasing out S-band spectrum. The then telecom secretary PJ Thomas had argued that S-band spectrum was crucial for strategic purposes and could not be used for commercial purposes. This appears to be in contravention of the SATCOM policy, says a former ISRO scientist. “When the deal was signed, there was a need for private players to come in. The policy was adopted to encourage private investment. It was a conscious decision,” he says.

While Devas and Antrix battle it out in court, a similar fight between scientists and the government is looming large. However, the actual proportion of the scam, if there is one, will be clear only when the CAG report as well as the other reports are made public. But then, the number of committees and the possible contradictions in them leave many questions unanswered. The primary one is: Why has the government not considered legal action if there indeed was a suspected financial loss?

abhishek.bhalla@tehelka.com

G Vishnu is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
vishnu@tehelka.com

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