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    Posted on 14 December 2011
    OPINION  
    CORRUPTION
    Prem Shankar Jha

    The ship of democracy sails in greedy waters

    The slap on Sharad Pawar has deep roots in the association between dirty politicians and the underworld. Future reactions could get angrier

    Illustration: Sanjoy Naorem


    WHEN UNION minister Sharad Pawar was slapped by an obviously unbalanced youth, Anna Hazare passed an acerbic comment, “why just one slap?” As it always happens, he was roundly condemned by the establishment for making a remark in bad taste. But a more pertinent criticism would be that it personalised, and therefore trivialised, a conflict whose outcome would decide the future of India. Herein is a prolonged conflict between civil society and a criminalised government that has progressively disempowered the ordinary people of India. This form of government has also emptied the democracy of much of its content.

    If Anna’s reaction could be branded irresponsible, then society’s Pawar-sympathy is downright hypocritical. Especially, when it is well known within the circles in Mumbai and Maharashtra, that Pawar symbolises the epitome of cronyism that the Indian democracy has degenerated to. The two chargesheets filed by CBI in April against Raja and others in the 2G scam have exposed this network, built entirely on corruption, intimidation and patronage, where politicians like Pawar are deeply involved. The rot is not just on the surface but it runs deep and is spread from Dubai and Lichtenstein to Singapore, New Delhi to Mumbai to Chennai, from metropolis to village and tehsils, as also from cabinet ministers to criminal underdogs.

    Thus, it doesn’t come as surprise that the chargesheet filed by CBI draws close to a well written masala movie script. It has all the ingredients of a Bollywood gangster movie that stars not our regular film stars but the power-elite of the Indian state. The movie has an interesting beginning: the rise of two dynamic young CEOs aged 37 and 38, who head (in one case headed) the fastest growing real estate companies in Mumbai and Chennai, and owed their meteoric rise to a powerful political patronage. The CEOs represent DB Realty (based in Mumbai); the second is Greenhouse Promoters (based in Chennai).

    DB Realty has a humble beginning, which was created in 2006 by two Mumbai families – small time hotelier Usman Ebrahim Balwa and a real estate dealer Krishna Morari Goenka. In the next four years DB Realty grew at a pace never before witnessed even in Mumbai’s rambunctious real estate sector. By early 2011, DB had added 21 million square feet (msqf) of new residential and office space to the Mumbai market and had another 40 msqf under construction. Its managing director, Shahid Balwa, the younger son of Usman Balwa, had assets worth $1.06 billion and was listed by Forbes as the 66th richest man in India.

    How did a newcomer in the real estate business become one of the largest builders in Mumbai in as little as five years? Within the annals of the state secretariat it was common knowledge that the young Balwa enjoyed a close relationship with an influential politician and owed his company’s success to that liaison. According to the articles reported by Times of India, the files concerning DB Realty were processed and permissions granted within days.

    Who was DB Realty’s mysterious backer? Niira Radia, the lobbyist employed by Tatas, Unitech and scores of other companies, revealed during interrogation by the CBI: ‘As per the general perceptions in Mumbai and outside, DB Realty is controlled, directly or indirectly by Sharad Pawar and his family. This created a sensation in the media, but most people still did not know that DB Realty may also have been a conduit for investments by the notorious gangland don, Dawood Ibrahim.

    According to Zameeruddin Ansari, an associate of Dawood’s brother Anees Ibrahim, whom the Mumbai crime branch arrested in September 2004, Pramod Goenka’s real estate company was a conduit for the D-Company’s investments in Mumbai’s real estate market. This disclosure had come after a far more damning accusation made six months earlier, in October 2003, by a rival Mumbai builder Rajesh Patange who accused Krishna Murari of having placed the ‘contract on his life’ in a dying declaration after he had been shot by four hitmen in a typical Mumbai contract killing. But neither in 2003 nor in 2004 did the Mumbai police even interrogate, let alone charge him with either offence.

    More than often does a conversation stray toward Sharad Pawar and A Raja, and their powerful network of cronies and business deals meant only to fill their coffers, even if it meant a steady barter of India and its integrity

    The Maharashtra police also had evidence, gleaned from arrested gangsters, that Shahid Balwa’s father Usman Ebrahim Balwa was closely associated with another notorious underworld don, Chhota Shakeel. In all it, and central security agencies, sent seven reports to the state government between 2003 and 2008 against the Goenka and Balwa families, but no one paid attention. “We invest so much resources (in the collection of this information) because there are serious issues of national security” a Delhi-based official, probably an R&AW employee, lamented to the Times of India. “But governments just ignore them,” he went on to say.

    It remains to be seen how much of the above information is included in the CBI’s chargesheets against Shahid Balwa and Vinod Goenka, Krishna Murari’s other son and Balwa’s partner in DB Realty. But the media and the public can join the dots that connect the Balwas and the Goenkas with Sharad Pawar and Dawood Ibrahim; and Pawar to Dawood.

    GREENHOUSE PROMOTERS had a similar meteoric rise in Chennai, for similar reasons. Early in his career as a local lawyer in Perambalur, Tamil Nadu, A Raja once defended a young man who had a small business in Karur district, buying plots of land with margin payments and completing the payment when he sold the land to someone else. His name was Sadiq Batcha. Batcha had sought legal help when some of his deals went sour. This became the foundation of an extraordinarily lucrative partnership. When Raja later entered politics, he seems to have begun to feed Batcha with information about where the government intended to buy land for new projects in the area, for whenever the government announced a project in the neighbourhood of Perambalur, Raja’s constituency, the land had already been bought by Batcha and had to be acquired from him at a much higher price.

    In 2004, when Raja first became a union minister in the NDA government, Batcha set up a real estate firm, Greenhouse Promoters. His joint managing director in the company was Raja’s elder brother, Kalaiperumal. In the next few years the company grew at a dizzying pace, always buying land cheap and selling it to the government, or to major real estate companies, at much higher prices. Within a few years Greenhouse Promoters, which started with an equity capital of just Rs 1,00,000 reported a revenue of Rs 600 crore - sixty thousand times its equity base, and had offices in Bengaluru and Singapore! Raja’s wife, nephew and various other relatives have also been employees and directors of the company.

    The 2G scam has conjoined the fates of these two companies with that of one of India’s largest and most iconic companies, Anil Ambani’s Reliance Telecommunications. After an intense interrogation in February, and faced with a second summons from the CBI, Sadiq Batcha committed suicide on March 16 this year. The CBI was trying to track down where the presumed payments made to Raja that had been salted, and had come across evidence that suggested that it had been put into accounts in six countries. At the time of his death Greenhouse was describing itself as a company engaged in exports. According to some newspaper reports, the CBI had wanted to interrogate Batcha to learn the identities of four persons from the D-Company whom it suspected of having set up the Singapore account. Batcha’s suicide could not therefore have come at a more convenient time for all concerned.

    Much of what has appeared in the media is still conjecture. Ambani may not have known about DB Realty’s murky origins, and the charges that the CBI has hinted at are still to be proved in court. But in the court of public opinion not only these companies and their owners and managers, but the entire Indian state stands condemned. For, the 2G scam and its attendant disclosures has exposed a web of shady transactions and a systemic abuse of state power that stretches all the way from two of the central government’s most powerful ministers, to several of India’s most respected industrialists, managers, lobbyists and journalists, to a political party in Tamil Nadu with an otherwise enviable record for good governance, to hitmen in Mumbai’s underworld, and to two of its most detested gangster chiefs, one of whom is a self-proclaimed enemy of India and has actively aided terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

    The complete disappearance of moral values that this story reveals should be of immense concern to all Indians, because it directly threatens our future. But what is particularly troubling is the way these disclosures have reinforced the long-held suspicion that Bal Thackeray’s off-the-cuff allegation that Maharashtra Congress, headed by Sharad Pawar, had been the political patron and protector of Dawood Ibrahim in the 1980s and early 1990s. For, if DB Realty was only formed in 2006, who was the powerful patron, hinted at by the Mumbai police and central intelligence agencies, who shielded Krishna Murari Goenka from a charge of murder in 2003 and his son from interrogation for having business dealings with Dawood Ibrahim in 2005?

    If the allegations are true, Pawar, former chief minister of Maharashtra for more than a decade and also a powerful minister in the current Manmohan Singh cabinet, has felt no qualms in dealing with, and protecting Dawood Ibrahim. Ibrahim was the kingpin of the 1993 serial bomb blasts in Mumbai and carried out the bombings allegedly in collusion with the Pakistan ISI. Is there anything sacred left in the Indian state?

    Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.
    premjha@airtelmail.in


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    Posted on 14 December 2011
 

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