The Supreme Court on Wednesday asked the Centre for pricing details of the 36 Rafale fighter jets India is buying from France in a sealed cover within 10 days but agreed that “strategic and confidential” information need not be disclosed.
In its order, a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, gave some more leeway to the government which has been arguing that pricing details are so sensitive that they have not even been shared with Parliament.
The Centre must bring details of the decision making process of the deal into the public domain, except those that are confidential and have strategic importance, the court said.
The bench said the information must be shared by the government within 10 days and the petitioners could respond to it in the next seven days. It posted the matter for the next hearing on November 14.
“If pricing is something exclusive and you are not sharing it with us, please file an affidavit and say so,” the bench told Attorney General K K Venugopal in its oral observations. It was hearing four petitions, including one by advocate Prashant Bhushan and former ministers Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha who are seeking a court monitored CBI investigation in the procurement of the fighter jets.
“That you will have to wait,” the CJI said, adding, “Let CBI put its house in order first.”
The attorney general had expressed reservations about disclosing the details of pricing of the jets and said its cost was not even disclosed in Parliament.
He also said the documents placed by the Centre before the court are covered by the Official Secrets Act.
The bench, also comprising Justices U U Lalit and K M Joseph, said the “core of information” that can be brought in the public domain should be shared with the “petitioner and petitioners in person”.
In its order, the bench observed that none of the petitioners have questioned the suitability of the Rafale jets, their equipment and their utility to the Indian Air Force.
“What has been questioned is the bonafide of the decision making process and the price/cost at which the same is to be procured,” the bench said.
The bench also noted that following its October 10 order the government has placed before it a note giving details of the steps taken in the decision making process leading to the procurement of 36 Rafale fighter jets.
At this stage, the bench said, the court did not want to record any finding or view on the documents placed before it.
It also observed that information regarding induction of the Indian offset partner be given to the court and the petitioners.
When a counsel appearing for AAP Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh told the bench he has also filed a petition in this matter, the court asked, “What is his interest? We don’t have to entertain so many petitions.”
Shourie was present in the court during the hearing.
India signed an agreement with France for the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter aircraft in a fly-away condition as part of the upgrading process of the Indian Air Force equipment. The Rafale fighter is a twin-engine Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) manufactured by French aerospace company Dassault Aviation.
Indian Air Force had advanced a proposal to buy 126 fighter aircraft in August 2007 and floated a tender. Following this, an invitation was sent to various aviation companies to participate in the bidding process.