New Delhi: At a time when the ruling UPA is trying hard to drill home the message of austerity among its ministers, it seems the government may have to work even harder to convince the services to toe the line. In a stark example of the taxpayer`s money being splurged on personal travel, it has come the light that the Indian Air Force spent crores converting eight of its topline aircraft AN-32 -- meant to carry troops and transport arms and ammunition -- for VIP travel. While no VIP travelled in the aircraft, these were used by armed service officers, their wives and defence ministry officials.
Shockingly, these aircraft were converted for use by VIPs -- meaning the President, PM and Vice-President -- despite IAF already having a fleet for this purpose which was underutilized by as much as 63%. In five years between 2002 and 2007, IAF spent Rs 75 crore operating these modified AN-32s, mainly for personal purposes by Other Entitled Persons (OEPs).
These are the findings of the government`s official auditor, Comptroller and Auditor General. The Public Accounts Committee, which also looked into the issue and submitted its report to Parliament during the budget session, has asked IAF to immediately restore all the eight AN-32s for operational purposes and not divert any service aircraft for other use, sources said.
In its report, the PAC said it was ``surprised`` that these aircraft were used by the presidents of wives` associations of the armed forces, who clearly weren`t covered under the category of OEPs.
The committee has sought to know how much was spent on the travel of non-entitled persons in these aircraft. It has also recommended a ministerial probe into the matter and sought a report within three months on the steps taken to prevent such misuse in future.
The CAG audit had revealed that of the 104 AN-32 that the forces had, only 50% were fit for operational use. Yet, the top brass had allowed conversion and modification of its frontline aircraft. IAF had purchased 118 AN-32 between 1984 and 1991. Of these, 14 had crashed over the last few years during operations.
More than 50% of the fleet was grounded for lack of operational capability. Still, IAF modified six AN-32 during 2001-03 for `VIP use`. It had earlier modified two aircraft for VIP use between 1992 and 1999. The modification was not only irregular but lacked justification, the CAG report said.
According to rules, these VIP aircraft are to be used by the President, the Prime Minister and the Vice-President. Senior officers of the defence ministry or the services can use them if it is absolutely important.
The conversion was considered unjustified given the fact that IAF already had a fleet of more than 14 aircraft and half-a-dozen choppers for this purpose as part of its Communication Squadron meant only for VIP travel.
The Communication Squadron consists of two Boeings, seven Avros, four executive jets and six helicopters. Despite this huge fleet for three persons, the government acquired three Boeing Business jets at a cost of more than Rs 900 crore in 2008. These aircraft were meant to fly the PM and the President to far off locations and to be used for other domestic flights.
It was found during the audit examination that the existing fleet of the Communication Squadron was utilized by a mere 27% between 1999 and 2007.
A senior defence ministry official said, after the rap from the Public Accounts Committee, IAF has given an assurance that all the modified aircraft had been restored back to operational requirements.
Interestingly, in 2001 the then defence minister, George Fernandes, had asked the then defence secretary to constitute a high-level committee with representatives from armed forces to ``look at lavish lifestyle and misuse of service aircraft`` by IAF officers and their family members. The orders had come after repeated media reports that some of the senior IAF officials` wives had misused service aircraft to fetch lobsters and pastries from far off locations. However, no such committee was ever formed, a senior defence ministry official told TOI.