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Assault rifles hit home

The Indian government is threatened with legal action by the Russians for buying AK-47s, intended for the modernisation of its forces, from a Bulgarian firm accused of arming terrorist groups, reports Aman Khanna

What is at stake is not just Rs 61.42 crore, peanuts in front of the mega scams that have plagued the arms industry in the past; on the line is the government’s inability to stem dubious deals. In a familiar display of unabashed impunity, the government bought weapons at a higher cost; chose manufacturers infamous for being self-professed gunrunners around the globe; disqualified the original designer of the weapon and violated international intellectual property rights; all in one go. They now run the risk of being dragged to court.

As disturbing as the case is, it highlights how the Government of India, a so-called peacenik at the helm of fighting terrorism, turned a blind eye when it came to acting on its own pledges. The question that arises is: how could the government ignore the moral implications of the deal?

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has opened itself to questions through an AK-47 purchase deal that was awarded to Kintex Share Holding Company, a Bulgarian firm condemned for its underground links. The stark fact is: the Bulgarian government has on record confessed the shady activities of Kintex. In 1992, a Bulgarian official was forced to admit that Kintex had illegally sold more than $15 million in weapons to Iraq
on the basis of false end- user certificates.

This story begins somewhere in 2002. The MHA, working on the recommendations of its police research arm, Bureau of Police Research and Develop- ment (BPR&D), sought about 64,000 ex-stock AK-47 assault rifles from an empanelled list of companies to give its forces an edge in counter-insurgency operations. The rifles are mainly meant for the modernisation of paramilitary forces such as ITBP, CRPF, CISF and BSF, besides the state forces.

Dated January 1, 2003, a copy of the invitation sent by the MHA lies with Tehelka. It reads: “Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India intend (sic) to procure Ak-47 Rifles immediately to the specification attached… The above information may kindly be sent immediately by fax.” As is the norm, the invitation also demanded details such as the total availability of ex-stock, year of manufacture, specifications and the details of past supplies.

In response to the call for restrictive tenders, three groups, namely Bulgaria-based M/s Kintex Share Holding Company, Russian Federal State Unitary Enterprise (FSUE) Rosoboronexport (a consortium of arms manufacturers in various republics in the Russian Federation), and another Romanian manufacturer, Romtehnica, participated in the proceedings.

Izhmash Open Joint Stock Company (a member of Rosoboronexport and the original equipment manufacturer of AK rifles) apparently emerged as L-1, that is the lowest bidder, in the financial bid assessments, priced as they were between $150 and $160 per piece of the assault rifle. M/s Kintex, it is worth noting, had priced their product between $190 and $200.

Later, a committee, consisting of members from the NSG, BSF, the procurement wing of the MHA and CRPF among others, was set up to scrutinise whether the rifles serviced by the companies satisfied the benchmarks set up by the government.

At this stage, FSUE Rosoboronexport was eliminated from the fray – without a trial, despite satisfying 15 out of 16 specifications. The only deviation found in the Izhmash’s rifle was the lengthened butt and bayonet. While the MHA had demanded a length of 680 mm in the case of the folded butt and a length of 900 mm in the case of the fixed butt, the Izhmash Corporation overshot the limit by 24 mm and 43 mm respectively. Seeing the evidence, their rifle was branded as a new generation weapon, belonging to the AK-103 series, untested by the Indian army, and, thus, thrown out of the race.

Meanwhile, the Bulgarian Kintex and Romanian Romtehnica advanced to the later stages. Their samples were sent to the BPR&D for testing where the Romanian rifle was found to be heating more than the Bulgarian version when fired. The question is – why was the Russian rifle not tested considering they are the original designers of the AK series? Izhmash, Tehelka has learnt, is now seeking legal advice and planning to take the MHA to court. It has not received a single reply from the ministry despite letters from high-ranking Russian officials.

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