In an unprecedented disciplinary action,four of the biggest names in the space community,including former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) G Madhavan Nair,have been barred from occupying any government position current or in future for their role in the Antrix-Devas deal,in which a private company was accused to have been wrongfully allotted S-band frequencies for radio waves.
A Bhaskarnarayana,former scientific secretary in ISRO; K R Sridharmurthi,former managing director of Antrix which is the marketing arm of ISRO; and K N Shankara,former director in ISROs satellite centre,are the others who have been penalised,according to an order issued by the Department of Space on January 13,2012.
Nair,during whose tenure the contract was signed,is the recipient of the Padma Vibhushan. He is the chairman of the board of governors of IIT Patna.
The order,a copy of which is with The Indian Express, is signed by Sandhya Venugopal Sharma,director,Department of Space. While it does not specify the allegations against these scientists,the order says that the decision comes after the government carefully considered the report of the high-powered review committee set up on February 10,2011 and that of another team set up on May 31,2011.
The order,sent to all Secretaries of the Government of India and Chief Secretaries of state governments and Union Territories,says that these former Officers of the Department of Space shall be excluded from re-employment,committee roles or any other important role under the government.
Further,the order states that these former officers shall be divested of any current assignment/consultancy with the government with immediate effect. Ministries and departments concerned have been asked to communicate necessary action taken towards the same to the Department of Space.
The deal involved a contract that Antrix Corporation whose mandate is to market technologies developed by ISRO had signed with Bangalore-based Devas Multimedia in 2005. The multi-million dollar deal gave Devas bulk lease 90 per cent of transponders on two yet-to-be-launched satellites for supporting a range of satellite-based applications for mobile devices through S-band frequencies. For this,the company was given access to 70 MHz of the 150 MHz spectrum that ISRO owns in the S-band.
The Cabinet approved the building of these two satellites GSAT-6 for Rs 269 crore and GSAT-6A for Rs 147 crore in 2009. The cost of the launch of satellites was to be Rs 350 crore. Interestingly,the Cabinet was not informed that these two satellites were meant to be used by Devas,a fact admitted by ISRO.
Ideally,that should have been explicitly mentioned but it was not done, ISRO chief K Radhakrishnan had told reporters last year when the matter had broken out.
Following allegations that the contract was awarded to the company without competitive bidding,ISRO had set up a committee to review the contract in November 2009,soon after Radhakrishnan had taken over as ISRO chairman from Madhavan Nair.
On the recommendations of that committee,the deal had been scrapped. Devas has gone to court against that decision and the matter is pending in court.
While deciding to scrap the deal,ISRO was also guided by the fact that strategic and societal needs of the S-band spectrum had changed radically from 2005 when the contract was signed,and therefore,it was not imprudent to hand over such a large band of spectrum to a private company.
Former head of NASSCOM Kiran Karnik,who had served as an independent member on Devas Board,had, however,strongly defended the contract. In a letter to the Prime Minister,he had lamented the fact that the government had not done enough either to defend the agreement or the reputation of ISRO.
In terms of processes,as far as I know,this agreement went meticulously through every step… If cabinet approval was not sought for the deal,the question is whether it was at all required and whether past transponder deals with private parties has gone through any such specific Cabinet approvals, Karnik had asked.
After the controversy broke out,Karnik resigned from the Devas Board. He had told The Indian Express that he did not have the time or the energy to spend on offering explanations,particularly to the media.