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The curious case of Ramalingam and $5 bn US bonds

Last updated on: January 9, 2013 11:50 IST

The curious case of Ramalingam and $5 bn US bonds

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Gireesh Babu in Dharapuram


This town of about 70,000 people in the south-central region of Tamil Nadu, around 400 km from Chennai, has been getting many new visitors since December 31, led by the police and income tax (I-T) department, journalists following.

The attraction is a resident named T M Ramalingam, 46, found with what appear to be international bills of exchange worth $5 billion or Rs 27,000 crore.

A simple house in which Ramalingam stays, with a petrol pump on one side and a kernel processing unit on the other, stands apart, no other dwelling being nearby.

Outside it, this reporter discovered Ramalingam busy giving interviews to diverse reporters, local or come from Chennai. Business Standard was fourth or fifth in line for one.

On first look, it is anybody's guess whether he's capable of holding such a mammoth value of bills. An official from the I-T department reiterated today that it "looks like it could be a fraud".

The official added Ramalingam had earlier cheated two people, one from Singapore and other from Bangalore, showing similar fake documents; however no official complaint was made.

The department and the Central Bureau of Investigation questioned Ramalingam for close to 13 hours on Friday in Chennai and have again summoned him this week.

Ramalingam, however, doesn't seems fazed, sitting comfortably and enjoying giving a pose for photo shoots, with suggestions to the photographers and wanting to be sure his smile was captured.

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Image: Tamil Nadu businessman T M Ramalingam in the inset.
Photographs: Reuters

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While constantly avoiding questions related to the source of the bills, the inquiry, his family, income or source of money, he talks of his "dream project" of a $28-billion oil refinery in Ramnad district.

He says it could generate employment to 500,000 people. "We got papers which shows he applied for a licence. Which anybody could do for a few thousand rupees," said an official.

Ramalingam, who claims not to know English, has made about 20 trips to various countries - Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Ghana (the last one was entirely a pleasure trip with friends, he says). Most of the trips were in search of business ideas and partners, he says.

"At present, three countries have got technology for refineries – the US, Germany and Japan - and I have been in talks with people in these countries," claims Ramalingam, who has never travelled to these countries. He call himself chairman and managing director of Bharaneedhar's Refineries Pvt Ltd.

He has been giving business to local hotels, with visitors from India and abroad coming to see him for a few days, say people in the locality.

"We will do 50 per cent job work against orders and for the rest of the raw materials being supplied, we will give material charge, keeping the profit with us," he says of his business model. He even has plans ready for a shipyard, for the logistics of raw materials and finished products.

Born in June 1967 at Thondamuthur, near Pollachi, a nearby town, Ramalingam is a son of Mayilsamy Chettiyar and Thirumalai Amma.

He was named by Pollachi N Mahalingam, an industrialist-cum-politician, who was elected MLA three times, representing the Congress.

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Image: Ramalingam wants to build a $28-billion oil refinery in Ramnad district.
Photographs: Bret Hartman/Reuters

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Ramalingam says Mahalingam and Dhirubhai Ambani are his role models. He notes Ambani started his career from a petrol pump and his (Ramalingam's) interest in setting up a refinery came after looking at the petrol pump next to his house.

He also says he started trading at the age of seven, when he was studying in the second standard. From then, he was trading various agricultural products while going to school. He stopped his schooling after going to the 10th standard for 20 days.

In 1992, he got married and started visiting Dharapuram, staying in a rented house here from 1995, continuing his business. In 1998, he bought this home, which sits on 86 cents (a cent is 48.4 sq yds). He was silent about the years till 2005.

It was in 2007, when the central government came up with a Petroleum, Chemicals and Petrochemicals Investment Regions policy, he saw this as an opportunity, he says.

A friend gave him the idea and he collected information and expertise from the internet, friends and some retired government officials.

For the $28 billion proposal, Ramalingam is planning to invest most of it on his own and would look at fund raising through equity, not from the public, if the project could not be completed with his own investment.

Residing at Dharapuram for more than a decade, he has become rich in the last few years, says a native. For local residents, he has been a mystery and he continues to remain one.


Image: The 'bond billionaire' idolises Dhirubhai Ambani.
Photographs: Reuters

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