India’s reasons for agreeing to a cost escalation by the Russian side for refurbished aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov should not be made public in national and diplomatic interest, the Defence Ministry has said in the Delhi High Court, challenging an order of the Central Information Commission. Challenging the order of the CIC, which had asked the government to give the reasons why it had agreed to the hike, the defence ministry through a writ petition claimed the Inter Governmental Agreement between India and Russia bars the disclosure of such details and would come under the RTI Act’s exemption clause of Section 8(1)(a).
“…the IGA in clause 9 specifically states the sides …not to disclose the contents of the present agreement as well as all the correspondence and information related to its implementation without mutual consent…,” it said. The ministry said any further information related to payments made by India or acceptance of upward revision in cost and time was not only bound by the clauses of the IGA but would also constitute a breach of parliamentary privileges and be prejudicial to the interest of the country.
The deal for purchasing the ship, rechristened INS Vikramaditya, was signed in 2004 by the then NDA government at USD 974 million. The cost was raised to the final price of USD 2.35 billion in 2010. Information Commissioner Amitava Bhattacharya had conducted detailed hearings and heard all arguments before ordering the disclosure of information last year on a plea of activist Subhash Agrawal about cost escalation and others issues.
The court has now asked Agrawal to appear before it on the matter on April 5. The CIC had also directed the defence ministry to disclose reasons why the country chose a refurbished warship in place of purchasing a new one and the net final cost including the expenditure on the modifications, renovations and remodelling done on the now 30-year-old ship and dates of payments made by India.
The ministry said if the details were disclosed, “cardinal relation of India and Russia” will be affected due to the violation of the agreement which will be detrimental to the relationship with a foreign state and be “prejudicial to the interest of the state”. “The Information Commissioner failed to consider that no information bound by the IGA can be disclosed without the prior approval of the government of Russia,” the ministry said.
It said bringing to the public domain the details of the fittings, fixtures and ammunition that were used for repair, re-equipping, renovation of the warship and thereby disclosing the capability of the ship would be “prejudicial to national security and expose war preparedness of the country”. It said certain aspects of action taken on a CAG report on the subject were deemed to be classified and their disclosure would constitute a breach of national security.
Information Commissioner Bhattacharya had noted that the Navy was trying to put the onus of the disclosure on the defence ministry whereas the ministry made it clear that the reply was to be furnished by the force. He had directed the Navy to disclose file notings, correspondence and documents related to the acceptance of cost-revisions demanded by the Russians.
The commission asked for the disclosure noting that there was a “larger public interest” in the information which was withheld by the ministry and the Navy on grounds of national security. Bhattacharya also directed the ministry to disclose the reasons why India chose to opt for a refurbished warship in place of a new one.
The case relates to an RTI application filed by activist Agrawal who had demanded a range of information on the acquisition of the 44,500-tonne aircraft carrier. The ship was originally commissioned by the erstwhile USSR on December 20, 1987, and was decommissioned in 1996. After being inducted into the Navy as Vikramaditya, the ship is now a floating 284- metre long airfield. It is a 20-storeyed steel mega-structure floating in the sea from keel to the highest point.
The ship can carry over 30 aircraft including state-of-the-art MiG 29K or Sea Harriers, Kamov 31, Kamov 28, Sea King, ALH—Dhruv and Chetak helicopters. With 22 decks and a capacity of 1,600 personal, the ship can sustain itself on sea for 45 days up to a range of over 13,000 km.