India, UK to cooperate in probing helicopter deal
India and Britain agreed Tuesday to work together to investigate any possible wrongdoing by a British company involved in a $750 million deal to sell helicopters to India's military that has been clouded by charges of kickbacks and bribes.
Visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain would respond to any request for information on the deal by the Italian firm Finmeccanica and its British subsidiary, AgustaWestland. Under the deal, the companies were to sell 12 helicopters to India.
"In Britain we have introduced anti-bribery legislation that is probably the strongest anywhere in the world. And we will root out any problems of bribery or corruption wherever they appear, and whenever they appear," Cameron told reporters.
The helicopter deal threatened to overshadow Cameron's visit, which he hopes will boost trade and investment in the areas of energy, infrastructure, insurance, banking and retail.
India placed the $750 million Finmeccanica contract on hold last week after the Italian defense group's chief executive was arrested in Milan on charges he paid bribes to obtain the contract. Giuseppe Orsi denies wrongdoing.
India's Defense Ministry last week ordered the CBI, India's equivalent of the United States' FBI, to investigate the deal and a team of officials was in Italy to get details of the contract. At a press conference Tuesday, Defense Minister A.K. Antony said the government would not go by media reports but would wait for evidence of any wrongdoing before acting to scrap the deal.
Responding to pressure from opposition parties, Antony said the government will place all facts before Parliament.
"The government has nothing to hide. We will find the truth and punish the guilty," he said.
India signed the contract with the company's helicopter division, AgustaWestland, in 2010. Three of the 12 helicopters were delivered in December.
Antony said that under the terms of the contract, if any person or the company is found to have bribed officials or made any kind of payoff, the agreement can be scrapped and the firm blacklisted.
"But we cannot act unless we have some evidence. If we get any evidence of wrongdoing, we will go to any extent to take action," Antony said.
India is expected to spend $80 billion over the next 10 years to upgrade its antiquated military. The country has become the world's top arms and defense equipment buyer in recent years as it tries to keep up with China's growing power in the region and with longtime rival and neighbor Pakistan.
Cameron was in India to strengthen economic ties. He said he was accompanied by Britain's largest trade delegation ever, and that his country was on track to double trade between the two countries to 23 billion pounds ($36 billion) by 2015.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the two countries explored British participation in an industrial corridor linking India's financial capital, Mumbai, with its information technology hub, Bangalore.
The corridor would "unleash" India's potential along the 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from Mumbai to Bangalore, transforming lives and putting British businesses in the lead to secure valuable commercial deals, Cameron said.
He announced a same-day British business visa service for Indian investors and said there was "no limit" to Indian student visas, as long as they had been accepted to a British school.
The British leader urged India to reduce regulations and red tape and adopt more flexible business practices to ease the entry of foreign companies to India.