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Coffin Scandal

In the infamous Coffin deal, the Ministry of Defence had imported Aluminium Caskets and body bags from a US based funeral Service Company, Buritrol and Baiza to enable Indian Army to transport mortal remains of soldiers from battlegrounds to the places of their next of kin with exalted decorum and efficiency. But the suspected officials entered into a contract in during 1999-2000 with the US-based supplier to import 500 Aluminum Caskets and 3000 Body Bags at an exorbitant rate of $ 2500 (approximately Rs.1.20 lakh) per casket and $ 85 per body bag flouting the rules of established procedure of defence procurement. The total cost of the contract was $ 1505000. In December 1999, the firm requested for an amendment to the contract for increasing the weight of the casket from 18 kgs to 55 kgs. In March 2000, the firm supplied 150 caskets. Government released 90 percent payment amounting to US$ 337,500 equivalent to Rs. 1.47 crore.

The discovery of the Scam


On 11th December 2001, a report by The Comptroller and Auditor General (CGA) found irregularities in the procurement of the caskets The government had asked its embassy in Washington to give details of the procurement of these aluminum caskets, some 500 of which were bought at a unit price of $2,500, Fernandes told the Rajya Sabha. Fernandes, who had only in December rejected the same allegations when they first surfaced, was forced on the defensive by a belligerent opposition. The minister said he could order an investigation into the deal. Trouble erupted in the upper house at noon as the Question Hour ended, as angry opposition MPs raised the issue of the scandal over the deal. Congress party MP Suresh Pachouri waved a copy of a newspaper that published a report saying India paid double the right price for the coffins. While the Indian defence ministry paid $2,500 when it bought the casket 1999 during a border conflict with Pakistan-backed intruders, the U.S. defence procurers bought the same coffins for around $1,200 each. The price of raw aluminium and the retail prices of ready-to-use metal coffins are available on the Internet. The price of pure aluminium was $1,389 a tonne in 1999, that is, $1.37 a kg. For an aluminium casket weighing 18 kg the raw material cost (assuming that pure aluminium is used) would work out to $24.6 each. The actual price paid by the government for the aluminium casket was $2,500 each, which is about 102 times the raw material price. If the purchase officer concerned had been diligent he could have procured ready-to-use stainless steel caskets with velvet interiors at a price of $1,575 in the retail market in the United States. The report also rejected Fernandes' earlier claim that there was only one supplier of the caskets and that the prices were largely non-negotiable. Pachouri demanded to know whether the government had followed the correct procedure before placing the order and whether it had explored enough to find whether the price could be negotiated. Similar caskets and body bags were supplied to the U.N. mission in Somalia and to the U.S. Army at $ 172 and $ 27 respectively

The scrutiny of records by the CAG showed that some middlemen made huge profit by supplying the coffins at highly inflated rates. Of course, the supplier on his own could not have been able to palm off substandard "imported" coffins without the help of willing insiders who must have been bribed for clearing the deal. There is another aspect that needs to be explained. India is now counted among the fastest growing economies in the world. And yet it still does not have the wherewithal to produce body bags and aluminium coffins for meeting domestic needs! It is evident that all aspects of the coffin deal need be investigated by the vigilance and other concerned agencies. And the culprits should be awarded harshest possible punishment for their role in the despicable deal.

Accusations
The officers in charge refused to accept Indian makes of caskets, which were cheaper and more reliable. The suspected officers procured the stores, though of a general nature, from a single vendor without paying heed to the cost break-up The suspected officials also tried to modify the specifications to get the supply of sub-standard stores approved and also tried to make the Army utilize the defective caskets.

Action Taken
The CBI has registered a case in the coffin scam, during the tenure of Mr George Fernandes as Defence Minister ,against three senior Army officials and a US-based funeral service company for allegedly supplying poor quality aluminum caskets at exorbitant rates after the Kargil war. The agency filed a criminal case against the then military attache in the Indian Embassy in the US, retired Major-Gen Arun Roye, Director of Master General Ordnance (MGO) Col S K Malik, and Joint Director MGO Col Fateh Bahadur Singh and the American vendor Buritron and Baiza, the CBI said in a press statement. Seven years after the Kargil war, the Central Bureau of Investigation has finally nailed some senior army officers and the company that sent the coffin boxes for the dead soldiers at twice the market rate in what has come to be known as Coffin Scam. CBI has registered a criminal case against a recently retired Major General, who was the then Military Attach, Indian embassy in the USA; a Colonel ranking officer, who was the then Director, Master General Ordnance; another Colonel ranking officer, who was the then Joint Director, MGO; a private vendor of USA and others in the matter of procuring Aluminium Caskets and Body Bags for the Indian Army after conducting a preliminary enquiry into the deal, said a press release issued by the agency.