It takes at least Rs 1 lakh for a couple in New Delhi to fly to London and back in the economy class. But for the same amount, Manoj Malviya took his family to 28 destinations around the world in the past few years.
Malviya, a West Bengal-cadre 1986-batch IPS officer who was on deputation as additional commissioner with the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security, allegedly used his influence with domestic and international carriers as well as private firms in the aviation sector to go on junkets. He reportedly paid only Rs 1 lakh for trips that are estimated to have cost more than Rs 6 crore.
A Tehelka investigation into Jet Airways exposes how VIPs, politicians and civil aviation officials abuse and misuse power for free tickets worth crores of rupees
Malviyaâs misuse of power and position might kick up a righteous storm, but a TEHELKA investigation into freebies offered by Jet Airways reveals that he was just a small fry. For years, top officials of the civil aviation ministry and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) as well as VIPs and politicians have been abusing and misusing their power to enjoy favours from private airlines, the cost of which runs into crores of rupees.
And these favours logically make the officials of the regulatory bodies obliged to return favours to the airlines, for example, in matters such as the extension of Foreign Aircrew Temporary Authorisation.
Sometime early last year, the CBI began an investigation into the misuse of free tickets in which civil aviation authority officials have been reportedly exploiting a loophole in the rules.
The Aeronautical Information Circular AIC 02/1978 stipulates that every operator or owner of an aircraft registered in India shall make available, free of charge, a seat on the aircraft to an officer of the civil aviation department authorised by the director general to undertake certain job functions. However, the norm was amended in 2012, which gave the authorisation right to other officers as well. The amendment was probably done in hindsight after the Central Vigilance Commission began a probe into the free tickets misuse.
Malviya, who is currently serving as ADGP (forest) in West Bengal, is among those facing a CBI probe.
Internal communications of Jet Airways accessed by TEHELKA reveal the names of civil aviation officials and bureaucrats as well as politicians and other VIPs and the number of times they and their family members enjoyed favours from the airline.
The most prominent name on the list is Robert Vadra. The millionaire businessman and husband of Priyanka Gandhi had been upgraded from economy to first class upon requests from his office at least eight times on the New Delhi-London-New Delhi sector. The latest instance being in October this year.
While a return ticket in the economy class on the New Delhi-London sector costs Rs 78,090, the first class fare is Rs 3,09,560. In a clear case of abuse of power, Vadra and his associate, Manoj Arora, received free upgrades to first class on numerous occasions.
The internal communication of Jet Airways shows the influence and clout Vadra enjoys in the airline, cutting across the administrative hierarchy.
While a private airline has the discretion to upgrade any person to a higher class, these favours for Vadra, being who he is in the political set-up and his scope of influence, are not mere goodwill gestures. The alacrity with which Jet Airways staff go about issuing first class tickets for Vadra and the way his associate calls up the Jet office, including top officials, show there is something more than what meets the eye.
Private airline companies have to keep civil aviation officials in good humour for many reasons. The extension of the Foreign Aircrew Temporary Authorisation (FATA) is one among them.
An email exchange between Vinod Sareen, vice-president, corporate communications, and Jennifer DâSilva, chief executive assistant to Jet Airways chairman Naresh Goyal, shows that Vadra always buys an economy class ticket and gets upgraded to first class and is given Meet and Assist Services (MAAS) privilege every time he travels by the airline.
Sareen wrote: ââŚIn the past also, he (Vadra) has been buying ticket in economy and gets upgraded to First Class.â To which Jennifer replied: âThe working between the three of you is still very complex. Understand from Raj that this request for upgrade to F Class was sent out by Sivanandan and already handledâŚ.Why do they (Robert Vadraâs office) talk to different people in our setup?âŚâ AK Sivanandan is the vice-president, public relations, at Jet Airways.
Vadra is rich enough to buy first class tickets to London. So, why is his office making requests to Jet Airways for upgrades, and more importantly, why is Jet Airways obliged to upgrade him to first class every time he flies?
In his defence, Vadra can innocently claim that he is a private citizen but civil aviation officials are prohibited from accepting any favours from private airlines.
But that has not stopped top officials from enjoying privileges from Jet Airways. The officials include EK Bharat Bhushan, IAS, former chief, DGCA; KN Srivastava, former secretary, civil aviation ministry; Lalit Gupta, joint director general of the DGCA; and VP Agrawal, former chairman of the Airports Authority of India (AAI).
As part of its investigation, the CBI had sent a mail to Jet Airways on 10 June 2013 with reference to case No. PE 6(A)/2012-DLI, asking if government officials had availed free tickets on the request of the DGCA between 2009 and 2012. Sivanandan replied to the letter on 20 June 2013, informing the cbi that the airlines had not issued any free tickets to any government officials.
But emails accessed by TEHELKA prove otherwise. In one email, Jennifer asks Ragini Chopra (a senior official in corporate communications) and Sareen: âWhat about the requests Vinod is making for Govt officials????âyou two pls handle the problems then…â
It is commonsense that the officials who want free tickets will never send any âofficialâ request for the same. However, it is clear from Jenniferâs mail that Jet has been issuing free tickets to government officials on a regular basis. Jennifer and Gaurang Shetty, senior vice-president, commercial, are authorised to sign travel authority requests (TAR).
The copies of the e-tickets available with TEHELKA prove that Bhushan and nine others travelled from Amritsar to New Delhi on 21 March 2012 on free tickets (economy) and the mode of payment says âAccounts 9Wâ, which means the tickets were paid for by Jet Airways, including taxes.
It transpires that Bhushan and his family had gone to Amritsar to visit the Golden Temple and for their return trip to New Delhi, the CEO of Jet Airways approved free tickets (according to the details on the tickets).
Bhushan, who is the current chief secretary of Kerala, is said to have a âcleanâ image and was reportedly trying to clean up the civil aviation ministry. He was removed as the chief of the DGCA when Ajit Singh became the Union civil aviation minister.
As the head of the DGCA, whose primary duty is to see that the airlines abide by rules, Bhushanâs misuse of the free tickets policy for his family shows the ugly nexus involving the regulatory body and private airlines.
But former civil aviation secretary Srivastava is perhaps the one bureaucrat who has enjoyed freebies from Jet Airways the most. Srivastava and his family travelled across the world on free tickets.
On 10 January 2013, Sareen sent a mail to Jennifer.
A request has been received from Mr KN Srivastava for 04 tickets for his son and his family for the below sector.
Name: 1. Mr Nitish Srivastava
2. Mrs Mukta Srivastava
3. Mstr. Dhruv Srivastava
4. Mstr. Garv Srivastava
Sector: BLR-DEL/9W-814/10th Oct
On 9 February 2013, he sent another mail to Jennifer.
A request has come from KN Srivastava, Secy Civil Aviation, for tickets for himself and his wife. The details are as follows:
Name: Mr KN Srivastava
Mrs Sadhana Srivastava
Sector: DEL-VNS/04th Sep, 13/9W-2423
VNS-DEL/07th Sep 13/9W-2424
The e-ticket copies available with TEHELKA prove that both Srivastava and his wife Sadhana had travelled on 4 September from New Delhi to Varanasi on free tickets.
On 9 April 2013, Sadhana travelled to Singapore on a free Premiere Class ticket, and even the taxes amounting to Rs 2,155 were paid by Jet Airways.
The list of favours bestowed on Srivastava is a long one, and one wonders what favours this high-ranking civil aviation official must have returned to Jet Airways, or for that matter, other private airlines.
VP Agrawal, former chairman of the Airports Authority of India, is another top official who had sought favours from Jet Airways. In a mail on 11 July 2012, Sareen asked his team to arrange MAAS privilege and an upgrade to Premiere Class for Abhishek Agrawal on a New Delhi-Newark-New Delhi flight via Brussels. âAlso please note heâs s/o Mr VP Agrawal, chairman of A.A.I., Ministry of Civil Aviation, Govt. of India. And Mr Agrawal is very helpful for Jet Airways.â
Two days later, Sareen wrote another mail asking for similar privileges for Sugandh Agrawal on the same sector. âAlso pls note that sheâs daughter-in-law of Mr VP Agrawal, chairman of aai, Ministry of Civil Aviation, Govt. of India. And Mr Agrawal is very helpful for Jet Airways.â
Another mail accessed by TEHELKA shows that Sareen had written last year also for similar privileges when Agrawalâs daughter Charuvi Agarwal was travelling from New Delhi to Toronto.
One wonders how Agarwal was âhelpful for Jet Airwaysâ.
Another top official who âwas very helpfulâ to Jet Airways, according to Sareenâs mail, is Lalit Gupta, joint director of the DGCA. On more than one occasion when Gupta was travelling, a similar mail from Sareen had gone to his team to provide him with an upgrade and MAAS privilege.
It is not just politicians or civil aviation officials who have sought favours from Jet Airways. Mails accessed by TEHELKA show that Group Capt JS Mann, the former chief operations officer of the Indian Air Force Station in Srinagar, was also given a ticket favour by the airline.
Last month, Sareen wrote to Jennifer saying JS Mann had asked for FOC/rebated tickets to his family on the New Delhi-Srinagar sector. He wrote: âHe is very helpful to 9W at all the times and is very cooperative with us with regard to our daily flight operation ex-SXR. The upcoming winter schedule is also approved by him.â
According to sources, during its investigation in Malviyaâs case, the CBI had found out that Sareen had transferred Rs 2.5 lakh to Malviyaâs account. But since the agency had come under political pressure, the matter was hushed up, saying it was a loan repayment by Sareen.
The free tickets and upgrades given by private airlines to civil aviation officials and politicians run into crores of rupees. TEHELKAâs investigation into just one private airline has exposed the rot in the system. It exposes not only a sorry state of affairs but a dangerous nexus between the private airlines and top civil aviation officials, whose job is to ensure that the private carriers abide by all rules and regulations.
With Indiaâs Open Skies policy encouraging private airlines to operate in domestic and international sectors, corrupt officials, opportunistic politicians and middlemen with powerful connections are only too happy to enjoy free tickets and other freebies. In return, they ensure in different ways that the private airlines have a smooth sailing through the plethora of government rules and regulations.
Enjoying freebies is infectious and becomes a habit. Once you taste blood, there is no going back.