The Indian Navy’s first ever order for Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), robotic machines that help in surveying the seabed, is under a cloud with two potential vendors alleging that the contract, worth Rs260 crore, was awarded to a Norwegian company by the defence ministry without calling for tenders.
The contract was awarded to Norway’s Kongsberg Maritime in February.
Hydroid Europe, a company based in the UK, in a letter dated 13 April, alleged that Central Vigilance Commission guidelines and procurement procedures laid out by the defence ministry have been “disregarded while placing the orders for the equipment fit of the above vessels.”
Similarly, another vendor, Bluefin Robotics Corp., a company based in the US, has conveyed its concerns to the defence ministry on due procedures not being followed before the contract was awarded.
“I sincerely hope that, as per the procurement policy of the Indian ministry of defence, all major manufacturers will be invited to participate in technical and commercial negotiations prior to the award of the contract,” said Bluefin’s letter, dated 24 April.
AUVs, also used by the oil and gas industry to compile maps of the seabed prior to developing subsea infrastructure, are employed by the defence ministry to also ensure that there are no concealed mines or other explosive devices. Also called Unmanned Underwater Vehicles, they are powered by batteries or fuel cells and can operate in waters as deep as 6,000m. They carry sensors to navigate autonomously and map features of the ocean.
According to procurement procedures, the defence ministry can only bypass the tender route to award a contract if the supplies have features that are common with an existing platform. In this case, it was the first time that the navy was contracting to purchase AUVs.
This contract was awarded by the Alcock Ashdown Shipyard on recommendation from the Dehradun-based National Hydrographic Office, the survey arm of the navy.
Neither the navy nor the defence ministry responded to multiple email queries sent by Mint over the last fortnight. A spokesperson for the navy confirmed receipt of Mint emails but maintained that he had not got any response from the officials concerned.
Similarly, Kongsberg Maritime did not respond to Mint’s query asking if the company had been awarded the contract without a tender. In an email response, Kongsberg Maritime’s spokesperson simply confirmed that the firm had indeed signed the contract with the shipyard. A posting on the company’s website in April (which has since been removed) said “it has signed a contract with the shipyard Alcock Ashdown Ltd of Gujarat, India, for advanced Autonomous Underwater Vehicles and subsea systems valued at approx MNOK 350.”
Officials at the Bhavnagar-based Alcock Ashdown Shipyard too declined to comment on the contract. The Gujarat government-owned shipyard is building six new survey vessels, on which the equipment supplied by Kongsberg will be installed.
Meanwhile, a right to information application sent to the naval wing of the defence ministry by a Delhi-based individual, Ashok Kumar Shukla, was rejected by the ministry, citing that the information sought was exempt from disclosure. The applicant sought to know the process through which many vendors were rejected by the ministry for supply of AUVs.