July 26, 2011


A countrywide undercover investigation by Cobrapost finds ICICI Bank committing gross violations of the Income Tax Act, FEMA, RBI regulations and the anti-Money Laundering Act. These activities render the vast assets it manages, the deposits it maintains, the profits it makes, and the spectacular growth it has registered, suspect.

It was an innocuous visit by a journalist to the bank. The proposition was not innocuous: A politician wants to invest a huge amount of money to make it “white.” Would ICICI Bank officials help?

A six-month long undercover investigation by Cobrapost, codenamed Operation Red Spider, found almost all officials of ICICI Bank bending over backwards to help sequester black money and make it white. Bankers in scores of ICICI branches, spread across the states of Rajasthan, Haryana, UT Chandigarh, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra were willing to help the Cobrapost reporter (posing as a relative of a fictitious politician) launder huge sums of ill-gotten money.

Living up to its Khayaal Aapka (We care for you) motto, almost all the officials of ICICI Bank, caught on camera, welcomed Associate Editor Syed Masroor Hasan. They suggested innumerable ways to convert black money into white: invest the black money in insurance, split the money in smaller chunks to avoid attention, open multiple accounts to make multiple invstments in different names, withdraw money after maturity and close the accounts. All this would serve the purpose of making the money legitimate without the Income Tax Department knowing.

The modus operandi the ICICI Bank officials suggested overall can be summarized as follows:
* Open an account to route the cash into the Bank’s menu of insurance products.
* Do it even without the mandatory PAN card.
* Split the money to invest in a diversified portfolio including gold.
* Invest in multiple instruments in the names of different individuals, not necessarily from among the family, to facilitate the investment of black money.
* Use dummy accounts to faceplate the conversion of black money.
* Get demand drafts made for the client either from their own bank or from other banks to facilitate investment without it showing up in the client’s account.
* Allot lockers for the safekeeping of the illegitimate cash.
* Personally come to the residence of the client to take the black money deal forward.
* Make a suitable profile for the client, such as showing him as an agriculturist or engaged in some businesses, so as to make the investment unquestionable.

  • Help the client to transfer black money abroad either through NRE (Non-Resident External)/NRO (Non-Resident Ordinary) accounts or through means other than regular banking procedures.
  • Helping such bankers and insurers are certain loopholes in the system, such as Section 10-10 (D) and the provision of scrutiny of investments up to a period of 7 years, which are being used to clean customers’ money. But the Anti-Money Laundering Act clearly stipulates that any dubious transactions should be reported to the regulatory authorities and their records preserved for a period of 10 years.

Such was their eagerness to help that one ICICI Bank official who fell hook line and sinker for the fictitious story sold to him by the Cobrapost reporter, went about looking for ‘Vandana’, the invented wife of the invented politician and for the ‘Peeli Kothi’ in Noida, their fictitious home. As one official claimed: “Aisa hai Hindustan mein aisa nahin hai ki koi vyavastha na ho (In Hindustan, there is nothing which cannot be arranged).” Said another official: “Nahin toh kuch na kuch jugaad karte hain aapke liye (Otherwise, we will make some jugaad for you).” When asked if he could do it using some dummy accounts, yet another official offered: “Theek hai ghumate hain … ghoomega idhar se hi ghoomega (Alright, I will manipulate. It will be manipulated from here only).”

Since the start of its operations in 1994, ICICI Bank has emerged as the second largest bank in India, after SBI, with 2900 branches, a presence in 19 countries, and interests in life and general insurance, securities, and venture and asset management, among others. According to the information available on its websites, managing assets worth Rs. 4736.47 billion, the bank earned a profit of Rs. 64.65 billion in the fiscal year ending March 2012, a 20.3 per cent jump over the precious fiscal. What ICICI Bank has achieved in 19 years is phenomenal growth.
However, the revelations made by bank officials during Operation Red Spider raise questions about the bank’s methods, the culpability of the top brass in money laundering, and the failure of the regulatory authorities to monitor their activities.

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