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The great jute mill robbery
Vikas Dhoot |
May 30, 2005
How would you like to own 600 acres of land with a 33-acre golf course on the banks of the Hoogly river in Kolkata, with a few jute mills thrown in and a 25-cottah prime property in high-end Alipore?
In the market, this estate would cost about Rs 400 crore (Rs 4 billion), maybe more. But don't let that bother you. If you're really interested, you can get it for about a crore-and-a-half (Rs 15 million).
This is not just the usual Indian land scam. And it actually took place in West Bengal four years ago. The organisation that pulled off the swindle was none other than the local employer's provident fund organisation office (EPFO), which had stepped in to ensure that the 20,000-odd mill workers who had been denied their claims for over 20 years would get their dues.
Instead, in a brazen display of bureaucratic scheming, the provident fund authorities sold off all the mills with the land to a clutch of private firms, leaving the workers empty handed. None of Bengal's trade unions has protested against this swindle so far.
The matter came to light when the mills' holding company, Azmara PLC, complained to the Prime Minister's Office through British diplomatic channels. The government referred the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation. And the EPFO's head office in New Delhi ordered its own departmental inquiry.
Financial investigators R N Kaul & Associates were asked to carry out an independent probe as well.
Kaul's report -- a copy of which Businessworld obtained from EPFO sources -- brings out the full horror of the swindle.
'It appears that the regional PF commissioner, Kolkata, while ostensibly seeking to recover outstanding dues became an instrumentality in the hands of private persons who were acting with ulterior motives to acquire the mills,' says the report. It provides detailed evidence of how the sale was done by smartly sidestepping all the laws.
Oddly, the exhaustive report submitted by Kaul doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Repeated calls to Anirudh Rai, the acting Central Provident Fund Commissioner, to ascertain the report's status, went unreturned.
It is still unclear if the ministry of labour, under which the EPFO functions, has been presented a copy of the report -- and even if it has, whether any action has been taken so far.
So how was this swindle adroitly masterminded? For that, we need to go back in history.