The Supreme Court on Wednesday asked the Centre to place before it in a sealed cover within 10 days the pricing details of 36 Rafale fighter jets India is buying from France.
A bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi also said that details, including the steps in the decision making process for the procurement of jets, which could “legitimately” be brought into public domain, be made available to the parties who have filed petitions before it in the matter.
After the court dictated the order, Attorney General K K Venugopal told the bench that pricing details of these jets were not even shared with Parliament.
The bench, which also comprised Justices U U Lalit and K M Joseph, told the Attorney General that if the pricing detail was “exclusive” and it could not be shared with the court then the Centre should file an affidavit in this regard and say so.
“If pricing is something exclusive and you are not sharing it with us, please file an affidavit and say so,” the bench told Venugopal in its oral observations.
The bench made it clear that at this stage, details which might be considered to be “strategic and confidential” by the government be placed before the court and might not be given to the advocates appearing for the petitioners.
The court noted in its order that pursuant to its October 10 direction, the government has placed before it in a sealed cover a note giving the “details of the steps in the decision making process leading to the award of 36 Rafale jet-fighters/fighter aircrafts”.
“At this stage, we would not like to record any finding or views with regard to the contents of the said report. Rather, we are of the opinion that such of the core information conveyed to the court in the aforesaid confidential report which can legitimately be brought into the public domain be made available to the counsels for the petitioners in all the cases, as well as, the petitioners-in-person,” the bench said.
It said further details that could legitimately come in public domain with regard to induction of Indian offset partner, if any, be also furnished to the petitioners.
“Such of the details in this regard which may be considered to be strategic and confidential may, at this stage, be placed before the court and may not be furnished to the counsels for the parties or the petitioners-in-person,” the court said.
“The court would also like to be apprised of the details with regard to the pricing/cost, particularly, the advantage thereof, if any, which again will be submitted to the court in a sealed cover,” the bench said in its order.
When Venugopal told the bench that report which the Centre has already placed before the court was covered under the Official Secrets Act and could not be shared, the bench made it clear that confidential and strategic information need not be shared.
The apex court also observed that in none of the public interest litigations (PILs) filed before it in the matter, the “suitability” of Rafale fighter jets and its “utility” to the Indian Air Force have been questioned.
“What has been questioned is the bona fides of the decision making process and the price/cost of the equipment at which the same is to be procured,” it said.
The bench said that necessary details be communicated to the advocates for the parties before it and the petitioners-in-person.
It also said that “the rest of the details in terms of the present order be submitted to the court in a sealed cover in the next ten days. The parties may file their response to the information that would be conveyed”.
The bench has posted the matter for further hearing on November 14.
During the brief hearing, advocate Prashant Bhushan, who along with former Union ministers Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha has filed a petition in the matter, said they were seeking a court-monitored CBI probe into the Rafale jets deal.
“That you will have to wait,” the CJI said, adding, “Let CBI put its house in order first.”
Shourie was present in the court during the hearing of the four PILs filed by lawyers M L Sharma and Vineet Dhanda, one by Sinha, Shourie and Bhushan and another by AAP leader Sanjay Singh.
Advocate Dheeraj Kumar Singh, appearing for AAP MP Sanjay Singh, said he has also filed a plea seeking setting up of an special investigation team under the court’s supervision to probe the Rafale deal.
“What is his (Sanjay Singh) interest? We do not have to entertain so many petitions,” the bench said and asked the counsel if the petitioner was aware of the pricing.
When the lawyer said Sanjay Singh knows the price, the bench said, “You keep it to yourself. You are one of the fortunate who know the price”.
Advocate M L Sharma, also a petitioner, said he has filed an application seeking hearing on his plea after upcoming assembly elections in five states — Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Mizoram and Telangana.
“Which elections?,” the bench asked, adding, “Business of this court cannot be stopped for elections”.
When Sharma again referred to the elections, the bench said, “How are you concerned with elections?”.
The bench then told Venugopal and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, “We are proposing to pass some order. Please listen to it very carefully”.
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.