Singh Orders New Inquiry into Antrix-Devas Multimedia Deal

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Credit: Agencia Brasil

Beset by allegations of corruption, cronyism and unaccountability, beleaguered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has ordered a second investigation into the controversial Antrix-Devas Multimedia spectrum deal that has convulsed Indian politics. The goal of this inquiry: to find someone to blame for this whole mess. Who? Anyone but the prime minister.

Press Trust of India reports:

[The] new inquiry by former Central Vigilance Commissioner Pratyush Sinha….has been set up in pursuance to the recommendations of the BK Chaturvedi committee that went into the technical, commercial, procedural and financial aspects of the agreement between ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix and Devas. The Sinha Committee has been asked to look into matters of individual culpability and fix responsibility, if any and submit a report by July end, the sources said.

For those of you just joining us, the controversy involves a 2005 deal in which ISRO would build two S-band satellites and lease them through its commercial arm, Antrix, to privately held Devas Multimedia. Critics say it was an insider deal involving former ISRO officials at Devas who received valuable multimedia broadband capacity at a ridiculously low price and with no competitive bidding. ISRO’s defenders say that it was a good deal that allowed the space agency to develop a new technology and that it complied with all regulations in place governing such agreements.

The contract was signed under then-ISRO and Antrix Chairman G. Madhavan Nair. The project remained in development until a review was launched in late 2009, shortly after Nair was succeeded by K. Radhakrishnan. Whether the inquiry was directly related to Nair’s departure is not clear, but his absence likely gave the deal’s critics room to maneuver.

The story eventually broke publicly. After much outrage, the government annulled the agreement earlier this year, nominally on the grounds that the valuable and scarce S-band capacity would be needed for government, military and emergency use. The government also appointed a two-member “committee” headed by BK Chaturvedi to investigate the matter. The group submitted a report to the prime minster in March that has not been made public.

The controversy has become a giant public embarrassment for ISRO, Antrix and the Singh government. Critics saw it as yet another example of rampant corruption and cronyism that infests the Singh administration. They also charged that there would be a massive loss to the treasury due to the lack of competitive bidding and the low price paid by Devas for this very valuable spectrum.

A big question over the past few months has been: What did the prime minster know and when did he know it? The official line coming out of ISRO and the administration is: nothing and never. Singh has declared his ignorance of the deal until recently; his critics say he seems to be perpetually perplexed as each new scandal breaks.

The story is that ISRO received approval from the Union Cabinet without telling it that the satellites would be 90 percent leased to a private company for 12 years. Now, this would have been an odd thing to do for several reasons, not least of which is that this would seem to be something the space agency would be required to disclose when asking for billions of rupees to build two very expensive satellites. NASA, for example, keeps the White House and Congress well informed on all of its various programs. Most other agencies operate the same way.

More practically, having an agreement like this would have certainly bode well for obtaining approval because (a) private interest shows that the technology is worth developing, and (b) the government would be getting a chunk of the investment back. Unless, of course, ISRO didn’t want anyone looking too closely at the deal for the reasons discussed above. Or people higher up are covering their asses.

Well, who knows what the truth is here. The Indian government is a rather murky operation that doesn’t seem to have accountability as one of its virtues. I would note that “the Sinha Committee has been asked to look into matters of individual culpability and fix responsibility, if any“. By this, I assume it’s possible the committee will find no one at fault. Given the controversy, however, someone’s head will have to roll. One thing seems certain: it will not be the head of Manmohan Singh.