State capture: Gupta ally was 'of deep assistance' in helping set up Estina dairy project
An ally of the Gupta family was a key part of a visit to India by state capture-implicated former Free State agriculture head Peter Thabethe in 2012..
Thabethe told the state capture commission on Friday that Ashok Narayan was invaluable in terms of translating presentations made by the Indian company.
He described to the inquiry his visit to India in 2012 in which he met bosses from a dairy company called Paras - an entity which would go on to partner with the Guptas in the controversial Vrede dairy farm project.
In his testimony, Thabethe said the goal in the province was to “procure and establish a dairy farm to set up milk procurement centres at which local farmers could sell and supply their milk and set up a production and processing facility where the milk could be processed, marketed and sold”.
On Thursday, during his first appearance at the commission, he described how his own desktop research led him to identify Paras as the ideal company to partner in the management of the project.
“Originally, when we were allocated a budget of R17m, it was to deal with the three areas to assist the smallholder farmers. Having learnt that the small dairies were not successful, as we proceeded, we then changed the idea of not only supporting the smallholder farmers to establish dairies, but we came with the idea to also do processing and procurement which meant that we looked for a bigger option,” he said.
After his research was conducted, he first began interacting with Paras in December 2011 - four months after his appointment as head of department. According to his testimony, Thabethe got contact numbers from the company's website and called their offices in New Delhi.
“What I wanted to do was to visit and go and see their operations. My contact was to find out if they would agree. They gave me the name of a person who could assist … I was able to talk to him (Paras director Gajinder Kumar) that day and he was very positive in his response. We spoke about quite a number of things,” he said.
On February 28 2012, then Free State premier Ace Magashule approved Thabethe's travel to India - and only a day later, Thabethe had his airline tickets and accommodation ready.
Asked how he was able to arrange the flight so quickly, Thabethe admitted that he had made the flight arrangements beforehand and reserved seats in anticipation of a successful application to the premier. He, along with Magashule's adviser and Gupta ally Narayan, arrived in India on March 1. They visited Paras offices the next day and left India on March 3.
Asked what they were able to achieve in just one day, Thabethe said they were able to confirm the existence of the company.
“The purpose of the mission was to confirm the existence of the company. We had a meeting with them, they took me through a company presentation, we visited the site and I confirmed the product they said they were processing,” he said.
He said Narayan proved valuable in translating Hindi into English.
“The language issue was very key. He (Narayan) was of very deep assistance, even when we were in the meeting. Some of the people doing the presentations did the presentation in their local language so he then translated it into English,” he said.
On Thabethe's return, he made a submission to the Free State executive council asking that they agree that the department “interact” with Paras.
His testimony is continuing.