A report prepared by the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), which was submitted in Parliament on Thursday, says that the decision by national carrier Air India to acquire 111 planes through debt was "a recipe for disaster" and should have raised alarms in government.
Terming the move for getting of a "large number" of planes as "risky", the CAG said the aircraft acquisition had "contributed predominantly" to the airline's massive debt liability of Rs 38,423 crore as on March 31 last year.
In its latest report tabled in Parliament today, the public audit body also called the merger of two erstwhile state-run carriers--Air India and Indian Airlines-- "ill-timed" and said that "the financial case for the merger was not adequately validated prior to the merger".
"The entire acquisition (for both Air India and Indian Airlines) was to be funded through debt (to be repaid through revenue generation), except for a relatively small equity infusion of Rs 325 crore for Indian Airlines.This was a recipe for disaster ab initio and should have raised alarm signals in Ministry of Civil Aviation, Public Investment Board and the Planning Commission", the report said.
Significantly, the CAG recommended, among other measures, "a total hands-off approach (by the government) with regard to the management of the airline".
The report dealt with several aspects of the ailing national carrier's losses, fleet acquisition, merger, huge debt burden, delay in joining the global airline grouping Star Alliance and its financial and operational performance.
Noting that the fleet acquisition process took an "unduly long time", the CAG said the initial proposal was made in December 1996 and its examination continued "in fits and starts" till January 2004 when a plan was made to buy 28 planes, which was revisited and later a decision taken to acquire 68 aircraft.
It said the revised plan saw "a dramatic increase" in the number of planes to be purchased and maintained that the sequence of events up to November 2004 clearly demonstrated that the pre-merger AI "hastily reworked" its earlier plan. "This increase in numbers does not withstand audit scrutiny, considering the market requirements obtaining then or forecast for the future, as also the commercial viability projected to justify the acquisition. The acquisition appears to be supply-driven", the report said.
Commenting on the "speed" at which the acquisition process for 68 aircraft proceeded, it said while the first plan took eight years to decide on 28 planes, "between August 2004 and December 2005, the proposals were formulated by AI, approved by the Board, examined and approved by the MoCA, the Planning Commission, the Department of Expenditure, Public Investment Board, empowered Group of Ministers and also the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs".
Observing that many assumptions for the revised plan were "flawed", the CAG said the negotiation process was "irregular and adversely affected the transparency of the process".
Maintaining that "no benchmarks" relating to comparable prices and commercial intelligence were set, it said, "Consequently, in the absence of such benchmarks, the effectiveness and efficacy of negotiations and the reasonableness of the price arrived at is difficult to ascertain".