Sunday, December 6, 2015

Shantanu Guha Ray - Hushed silence over Delhi ATM heist points to larger story

The last word has not been said in the recent case of a runaway driver of an armoured cash carrier in Delhi that has got the city’s political and corporate circles talking in hushed tones. The focus – it is needless to explain – revolves around the generation old business of hawala that lies in the core of India’s thriving cash economy.

There are, of course, some fireflies on the social media who are asking some very, very pertinent questions. How come Rs 22.5 crore was found in a van that had a voucher of Rs 10 crore. Worse, how come the cash was kept lose in trunks? And how come no one knew when, where and for whom the extra cash was loaded?

The Axis Bank, which was at the center of a sting operation in 2013 that showed its officers openly turning black cash into white by opening multiple accounts in the name of fake holders, have played it very safe. It said it was moving Rs 38 crores for its ATMs across Delhi and had asked four vans owned by the SIS Group to equally distribute the booty. Each van, armed with a guard and gun, was to carry approximately Rs 10 crore each. But the driver of the arrested van, who sped away leaving the guard behind, told cops the heisted van was carrying Rs 12.5 crores of extra cash that belonged to some unknown persons.

The police press note did not trigger much suspicion, further trolls on the social media raised major doubts about the consignment and its delivery point. Suspicions also went high because the cash was in box with standard locks, and not sealed locks as mentioned in the RBI rule book. It was relatively easy for the driver to open up one of the boxes and spent Rs 30,000 on liquor and tips to waiters at a seedy bar close to one of the national highways.

Antennas went high after veteran political commentator Mohan Guruswamy wrote on his Facebook wall that he was sanguine that the cash belong to a politician or a political party. He even described the company, SIS – Security and Intelligence Services – as being Patna-based and owned by Buxar born BJP Rajya Sabha MP, RK Sinha, a former journalist who covered the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Interestingly, BJP routinely uses SIS to handle its cash transportation across India.

But the party did not comment, the Delhi Police remained silent on the issue, so did the Enforcement Directorate – which tracks hawala – and the Income Tax Department. By Delhi standards, Rs 12 crore could be loose cash for Diwali card parties but what alarmed many was that a van hired by a popular bank was used for such purposes.

Transportation of cash – it is common knowledge – is a major task for political parties, especially at a time when elections cost thousands of crores, some argued over coffee and conversations at Delhi’s favourite hotspot, the Khan Market. In short, they said there would be no answers forthcoming in this case, and that it will die its own death.

But the incident was indeed an alarm, especially at a time when revenue intelligence agencies closely watched hundreds of vehicles carrying cash for ATMs across Bihar to stop rampant use of black money during Assembly elections. The move followed because cash vans are exempted from checks as it is the responsibility of banks to do the necessary. But despite such hawk-eye presence of the Central agencies in Bihar, an estimated Rs 35 crore in cash, including Rs 19 crore under a special hawala operation, was seized by Election Commission in the run up to the Bihar polls.

The Bihar cash recovery operation happened after the ED – in April this year – cracked a biggie, catching hawala operators who – fearing their cash would be robbed in the land route – using an ingenious route of railway consignments to intended customers. As a result, they were booking rail wagons in bulk to send and receive huge amounts of cash hidden in parcels.

But the Bihar incident, and now another one in the Indian Capital, proves nothing has changed in India which, as per the Washington-based think tank, Global Financial Integrity, ranks next to Russia and China (in that order) with an estimated $94 billion illicit wealth outflows in 2012. Early this year, a pink daily reported how SD Shibulal, CEO of Infosys owned 700 apartments worth $100 million in Seattle. But no one asked him how he owned all those apartments.

Raymond Baker, author of Dirty Money and How to Renew the Free Market, writes that, since 1970, at least $5 trillion has moved out of poorer countries to the banking systems of the West. And a portion of this black money comes back to India — election time. And the entire process is unofficial but all political parties are very quiet about it.

If its troubled cash, no one talks in India.

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