The mysterious case of missing liquor on Air India One

Vigilance report shows how some highly paid AI officials pilfered bottles and passed the buck

sweta-ranjan

Sweta Ranjan | May 16, 2011



Way back in 2006, prime minister Manmohan Singh’s security was breached when six liquor bottles went missing from Air India One in Hanover. The PM was on his way to Germany, when it was found that the seal of one of the cabinets on the special aircraft was broken and four bottles of Johnnie Walker BL, one bottle of Chivas Regal, one bottle of XO Brandy were flinched.

Air India's vigilance department investigated the pilferage and submitted a report to the chairman and managing director in July 2006. The report never made it to headlines but Governance Now has accessed it. While it does not pinpoint one culprit, it presents explanations, some straightforward and some ridiculous, put forward by various officials, of Air India as well as Indian Foreign Service (IFS). In fixing the blame, the report focuses on the careless attitude – and this is talking of the PM’s flight.

This is how the story unfurls in the vigilance report:

Asked about the “unusually high consumption of liquor” on his deck, N Daruwalla, the flight purser of the upper deck, said he had to “give a whole bottle of liquor to people on board and he had given among others one bottle of Black Label to Capt NK Beri”.

During interrogation, T M Pawar, DGM security, said: “The flight purser informed this (pilferage) to IFS Mr M Chikliwala who in turn informed the commander of the flight, Capt Jagmohan Singh, who further informed SPG officials.”

Pawar said an SPG official identified only as Mr Kumar had spoken to him about the incident. The report reads, “So Mr Pawar felt that since the SPG was already aware of the incident and since he was told that Capt Jagmohan Singh had also informed SPG officials, he did not find it necessary to proceed further in this matter.”

The bottles were recovered after three days from another cabinet of the aircraft.

For investigations when the baggage of AI officials and crew was checked under X-ray scanning, it was found that 14 people were carrying 29 bottles of whisky. The report notes: “While a number of crew had only one bottle each which they accepted in their statement, a few had two bottles each. Of the one bottle category, some accepted that they were liquor bottles for personal consumption, other said that they were either vinegar or olive oil each.”

Of the people with two bottles, some had refused categorically that they did not have the same, while others admitted that these were liquor bottles which they had bought in Germany.

The report further reads: “Only one person, namely the IFS Mr Arun Kumar, had three bottles in his hold baggage and he categorically stated they were mineral water bottles… since he bought the bottles in Germany he did not want to throw them (away).”

The luggage of four persons contained two bottles each: Capt Rajiv Gupta, first officer, S Bhavasar, AFP, R Bhatia, AFP, and R Saxena, AFP. These people said they had either carried fewer bottles or said these were not liquor bottles.

In case of Arun Kapoor, who carried three bottles and claimed them to be water bottles, the investigators felt that the image of plastic bottles is very different and distinct from full-size liquor bottles. Hence his arguments were not found to be tenable and against him appropriate action for major penalty was recommended.

However, the baggage of two persons, Capt. Beri and Air Hostess Ms Neema Thapa, contained five bottles each.

The report says that in his statement, Capt Beri said there were indeed five liquor bottles in his baggage and that he had carried them from India for personal consumption and for the purposes to “entertain people for PR (public relations) purposes to entertain VVIPs”.

About Thapa who worked in H-5 D-Zone (press) sector where the consumption of liquor is comparatively high, the report says, “She categorically denied that there were five bottles but said that there were three empty souvenir bottles which she bought in Berlin. These were of the size of big whisky bottles.”

Contrary to Thapa’s defence, five bottles were clearly observed in the x-ray scan. A suitable action for major penalty was recommended against her.

All the engineering staff (except two) were also interrogated. They were called because they along with the SPG were the only ones who had the access to the aircraft after the departure of all the crew at Hannover airport and before the take-off. When the engineers were questioned, “they did agree that they were not frisked when they went out”.

V Polkondwar, superintendent engineer, admitted to having taken outside the aircraft three bottles – but of mineral water – concealed in a pillow cover, says the report.

For Daruwalla and Chikliwala, the report recommended an appreciation letter to send out a message that they did the right thing instead of covering up the incident.

Since the pilferage seemed to have taken place after the departure of the cabin crew and before their arrival, the suspicion fell on engineering staff. “…..Hence it is recommended that henceforth, Air India security will ensure along with other security agencies that engineering staff and every other staff are frisked every time not  only while going in but also while going out. Since the suspicion is strong because of the easy availability of the common key for all the bar carts, it is recommended… Overhaul the system and introduce, if necessary, imported number locks so that such universality of keys leading to theft etc may be avoided in future. Since the needle of suspicion with preponderance of probability points towards V Polkondwar, superintendent engineer, suitable departmental action is recommended,” the report notes.

The needle of suspicion turned mainly towards Capt Beri, who is currently as the officer on special duty to Arvind Jadhav, CMD, Air India.

The report says, “Unlike the cabin crew, Capt Beri does not have the access to the bar carts directly. In his statement he has mentioned that he had taken the bottles from India… Flight purser Daruwalla clearly stated that he had given one bottle to Capt. Beri and three to others on the recommendation of Capt Beri... Since he is a senior officer, suitable action for major penalty may be considered, for possessing liquor bottles sourced from the VVIP flights”.

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