Allahabad Bank, Case 1: A. Sharma, Chief Manager; R. M. Ahuja, Senior Manager, South Delhi

cobrapost - May 8, 2013

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Allahabad Bank, Case 1: A. Sharma, Chief Manager; R. M. Ahuja, Senior Manager, South Delhi

Here is how some select senior officers of Allahabad Bank have been enhancing the branch’s business for nearly two decades. The most well-known instruments to convert black money into white – ‘benami’ accounts, multiple lockers in other names to park cash and, finally routing to insurance and other tax-free instruments – are old methods, adapted today to hoodwink systemic checks.

Up the stairs into the bank, the Cobrapost journalist enters this branch of Allahabad Bank, decorated with New Year balloons and possibly, new banking resolutions. The reporter meets an elderly official near the front desk and proposes to invest Rs. 40–50 lakh for long term, with no TDS.

The banker we have met is none other than Senior Bank Manager R. M. Ahuja: “Nahi wo toh aaj kal aap plan bhi karoge … toh bhi tax katega (Even if you plan it, tax will be deducted).”
His suggestions come in instalments. Instead of getting to the point Ahuja recommends investing in a savings account and then changes his mind and instructs us to invest in recurring deposits and insurance.

Khanna, another senior bank officer, resonates Ahuja at every step. The third person to come to Ahuja’s desk is none other than Chief Manager A. Sharma, who clearly states the banker’s ‘dilemma’: “Pehle kahte ki jisko TDS katata hai unke naam do … ab jinka bhi tax katta hai, TDS kate ya na kate … unka naam mangne lag gaye department … pehle to hum log kaafi manage karte the (Earlier they [the Income Tax Department] used to ask for the names of people whose TDS is deducted … nowadays, they have started asking names of all who are taxable, no matter if there is TDS or not … earlier we could manage a lot).”

It is all getting a bit confusing with four of us using our brain to convert black money into white. Someone suggests FDs and savings, other suggests recurring deposit. But the amount is huge to be invested in these accounts.

Ahuja shows his experience: “Aur … jis bhi account mein ek saal mein 10 lakh se jyada cash jama hoyega, uski information lag jati hai … system utha leta hoom kuch nahin karte (And information on whichever account has cash deposits of more than Rs. 10 lakh a year, goes to them … we don’t do anything, the system picks it up).”
He quickly picks up: “Cash hai aapka (Do you have cash)?”
What if we do more accounts, say five–six, including, say, in the name of the minister’s driver?
Says Ahuja: “Haan … humein koi fark nahin parega (Yes … it will make no difference to us).”
Sharma suggests: “Ek ek financial year mein (In each financial year…).”
Ahuja chips in: “March se pehle kara lo aap … kuch baaki April ke baad kara lo (Do it before March, and the rest after April).”

We say we will promptly open accounts and put in some money. Ahuja tells us to put that money in the savings account. The money then can be slowly routed to insurance policies. There is help at that stage as well, from Ahuja. “Woh insurance wala bhi apna aisa hai … humara LIC ka saath tie-up hai … private company mein aap jana to woh wala bhi sab kara dete (The insurance thing is like … we have a tie-up with LIC … if you go to a private company you get invest that [big money] as well).”
We say no, thank you, to private walas. We will stay with the government.
Sharma standing at the table amid the ‘adda’ puts in his bit: “Aap ek kaam karo … aap LIC ki jo karna na, wo cash kar dena … wo le lete (Do one thing … buy the LIC policy in cash … they accept it).”

The atmosphere is casual. Though we are talking way beyond legal realms, about laundering black money, such banter seems acceptable in the midst.

We insert information that Rs. 5–7 crore more is coming in March first week. So preparations have to be made now, accounts have to be opened.

Ahuja needs just ID and address proof for that. We say the minister’s wife and others have passport and driver’s licence?
“Bus khol denge, koi problem nahin hai (We will open [the accounts], no problem),” says Ahuja.

We decide that accounts would be opened. He says, conspiratorially, “No problem … us time kuch bhi … uske baad aage divert bhi kar denge ( anything at that time … after that we will divert [the funds] also).”

Khanna says: “Jo jo benefit aapko lage wo kara denge (Whatever benefits you need, we will get it done).”

We decide to move the discussion to more serious levels. We disclose, sotto voce, that this should not be disclosed. Rs. 4–5 crore in cash is kept at home, and the tension is pushing the minister’s blood pressure up.

On our way to his office, we request Ahuja, not to disclose this. The banker swears to secrecy: “Aap mere se kabhi phone pe bhi pooch lena … agar main aap ki awaz nahin pehchanoonga … main koi information kisi ko nahin doonga … aapke apne account ko bhi nahin doonga jab tak awaz nahin pehchanoonga (Even if you call me, I will not divulge any information if I fail to recognise your voice … I will not give information about your own account to you if I do not recognise your voice).”

We start getting close to Sharma. We tell him that we will introduce him to the minister in the evening if he has the time. Sharma takes us to his chamber.

We hurry to the chief manager’s chamber. There is another officer in his room, Narendra.
Sharma hands us his business card and says that Narendra will handle the details.
“Ye mere hi aadmi hain (He is my own man),” says Sharma.
We quickly tell the chief manager that we need a big locker, because Rs. 5–7 crore will come in from Greater Noida in the first week of March. Moving with the money will be a problem.
Sharma assues: “Kisi branch mein kara denge (I will get it for you in some branch).”
The chief manager points at Narendra and says: “Koi problem … suppose like … koi problem is here … agar main nahin hoon toh … you can contact Narendra (If you have any problem, suppose you have some problem … if I am not available … you can contact Narendra).”

Sharma has to leave. Before he goes we ask him if he can transfer money to England as the minister’s wife travels there often. She wishes to send Rs. 60–70 lakh there out of the crores which will be stashed in the locker. The manager thinks a bit, and he expresses his desire to talk about it later. “Baad mein baat karte (We will talk about this later).”

We ask quickly, can you do this form here itself?
“Wo toh inse hi ho jayega … yahan chal jayega (He can do that … it will go from here),”
Sharma confirms. The retired officer Khanna and Ahuja come in the chief’s chamber.

Ahuja relives some old memories: “Abhi to proof aur ye sab hone lag gaye hain … humare paas … humne … benami humne … kitne hi customers ka lakhon rupaya … aaj se bees saal pehle, jis samay lakh … aaj ka crore se bhi jyada hoga unke keemat … wo de jaate the … humne apne driver ke naam account khole … yun hi sign mar diye (Now they have started asking for proofs and all that … 20 years ago … we had many customers who will just give us lakhs of rupees … a lakh on those days is worth more than a crore today … we used benami accounts … in the name of our own drivers … we signed for them just like that).”
We realise how old this malaise has festered within the banking system.
The two operative images from those days emerge: “vishwas” (faith) and the “power” of the banker.

They aren’t happy with today’s system. Ahuja laments that in those good olden days we could account with a simple introduction, that’s all.

Since documentation is still not a problem with anyone of these hot shots, we ask them to open 8–10 accounts. “Haan haan, koi problem nahin (Yes, no problem),” say both. We just need the right ID proofs. We say we will put in Rs. 8–10 lakh in those accounts. This will take care of the Rs. 1–1.5 core lying at home. The rest we will take up after March which will be routed to insurance policies.

“Joint to nahin khulwana hai? Sub single single (Will these be joint accounts or individual accounts)?” asks Ahuja.

We say you do whatever is safest. If there is a problem about authority in ‘benami’ accounts then you can also open joint accounts for us. The money has to stay safe.

Another story from old times comes up from Ahuja: “Aap ko batayein … main naam nahin le raha hoon group ke … Lala ki saari jewellery, mere ko maloom hai kis employee ke naam pe locker tha … bare wale … chaar wale do locker the unke paas … woh unhone apne employee ke naam de rakha tha … wohi aata tha, usi ka naam pe locker tha … itna bharosa us employee ke upar … jo actual mein gahne ke malkin thi usko humne kabhi dekha nahin (I will tell you [how it was] … I will not name the group … I know the businessman had kept all his jewellery in the locker in his employee’s name … they had two big lockers … he had got it in the name of his employee … only he used to come … the locker was in his name only … he trusted the employee that much … I have never seen the real owner of the jewellery).”

If the locker is in the employee’s name, then will he have the keys?
The solution is at hand: “Jab kholo, usko saath le ke aao … khola, nikala, bus (When you want to open it, bring him along, open the locker, do your work and go).”
And what about the account?
Khanna says: “Account khologe aap … agar uske naam pe jama karna hai toh usko mat lao … aap khud jama kar do uske naam pe (If you want to deposit money in his name, don’t bring him, you deposit).”
“Usko pata nahin rahega (He will not be aware of this),” adds Ahuja.
“Cheque book issue kar denge … usmein sign kara denge … sub kara denge (We will issue cheque books, get them signed … will do it all).”
We are assured.

They, however, warn that other than the two of them, the chief manager and Narendra:
“Baaki ko pata nahin (The rest do not know).”

We say ok. Loaded with assurance, we shake hands and part.

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