Navy skydivers in freefall,probed for fraud

Written by Manu Pubby | New Delhi | Published:January 4, 2009 1:54 am

Two top officers of the Indian Navy’s Skydiving Team are being investigated for alleged embezzlement of funds worth almost Rs 1 crore. Lt Commanders N. Rajesh and Mahesh Birajdar—whose record breaking stunts had made them the blue-eyed boys of the Indian Navy—are in for more trouble: one of India’s top women skydivers has accused them of duping her of money.

The two senior-most members of the highflying team,which has carried out a series of national record-breaking jumps in the last three years,are facing a board of inquiry in Delhi for misusing adventure sports funds for personal use,including an extended vacation in Paris.

Of the two officers,Birajdar shot to fame last year when he carried out a ‘birdman’ jump over Kochi in a specially designed suit that helped him to literally fly across the city before gliding down in a parachute. Both also carried out a ‘record breaking’ freefall over the South Pole in 2006.

While the inquiry is on,insiders say the two officers are being investigated for almost Rs 1 crore in misappropriated funds during their several trips abroad for training and on various skydiving events in the last three years.

Among the charges is that they embezzled over Rs 40 lakh of government funds when the team visited Australia for a skydiving event. Another charge relates to an unauthorised stay in Paris during another event. The third charge is of duping Shital Mahajan,one of India’s most prominent women skydivers,of money she had collected to make a record breaking jump over the South Pole in 2006.

While the Navy has said that it has no comment to offer till the inquiry is over,Mahajan,who is currently based in Finland,spoke to The Sunday Express and said that she has submitted proof,including recorded phone conversations with the two officers,as evidence to the board of inquiry.

Mahajan,whose freefall over the South Pole in 2006 gave her an entry into the record books,had trained with the Indian Navy’s Skydiving Team to prepare for the event. However,the skydiver says the two officers took money from her on various pretexts—including a special freefalling course for the duo in USA—without giving her any accounts or bills.

Mahajan,who said she mortgaged her family house and raised funds from private sponsors for the South Pole jump,says that though the Navy agreed to help her train for the event,the two officers asked her to pay for their personal equipment such as special UV protected sun goggles,before the event.

The two officers allegedly used her funds to buy special cameras and lenses worth Rs 2 lakh but never handed over the equipment after the jump,she said. She also alleged that her parents were literally thrown out of the Varuna Naval officers Mess when they asked for an account of the expenses.

The 26-year-old skydiver,who has also written to President Pratibha Patil appealing for help,says that she didn’t lodge a formal complaint against the officers at that time because she didn’t want to “spoil the image of the Navy” but is now taking action after the Navy told her that the two officers are being investigated for fraud.

Mahajan,whose father is an employee at Tata Motors,says her family is still struggling to pay the loan they had taken against the family house to fund the record breaking jump.

The Navy however has not offered any comments on the inquiry and only said a board of inquiry had been constituted to look into the issue.

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