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'Waiting for report on Tehelka'

By Our Special Correspondent

MUMBAI, JUNE 22. The Defence Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, today indicated that the Government would wait for the report of the Justice S.N. Phukan Commission before taking any decision on the Tehelka matter.

Mr. Mukherjee was responding to a question at a press conference here on the Government's next move since the British experts had deposed before the commission that the tapes were "original" and not "overdubbed." He said the experts were going to be cross-examined tomorrow and the commission's term would expire by July-end. Also, with the change in the Government, the top law officers had changed, "so all these will take little more time." But he agreed that the Tehelka editor, Tarun Tejpal, was subjected to harassment.

Mr. Mukherjee said the Government had an "open mind" on the question of creating the office of Chief of Defence Staff to provide single-point military advice to the Government and bring about cohesiveness in the functioning of the higher command organisation of the services. There were various recommendations, including the one made by the Group of Ministers on the issue, and the Government had not yet sorted them out. Since the issue had not been clinched, "we are studying it."

Mr. Mukherjee said the Government would review the defence procurement and acquisition policy for it was anyway due for the review, but there would not be any deal-specific review. The procurement procedure would be made expeditious and as transparent as possible. The review would be made first at the official level and then at the ministerial level. If necessary, the advice of an expert group would be sought.

The policy thrust was towards equipping the armed forces with the latest available equipment, suited to the Indian conditions, procured at a good price. The procurement sources would be widened to a number of countries, taking into account their competence and capabilities.

Asked about any proposal to reduce the defence expenditure in response to the cut in the military spending by Pakistan, Mr. Mukherjee said that Pakistan did not include pension liabilities in its budget and had "a little bit of cosmetic arrangement." The Pakistani military outlay was much higher than India in terms of the GDP. In the past two years, there was no step up in the Indian defence budget.

He said the cross-border terrorism aided and abetted from across the border was the main issue but he did hope that it would be possible to improve the situation despite attacks such as the one made when the new government was taking over. The cross-border infiltration now was little less compared to the earlier year but it was too soon to say anything for the snow was now melting and the passes were opening.

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