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The full Ponty: A rivetting story of naked greed

November 26, 2012 17:40 IST
How did a smalltimer from the interiors of Uttar Pradesh come to head a multi-crore business empire with interests spanning liquor trade to paper mills and real estate? Sharat Pradhan unravels the Ponty Chadha saga that outdoes any Bollywood potboiler

Uttar Pradesh may have been notorious for its criminalisation of politics, its nexus between criminals and politicians an open secret, yet politicians maintained their liaisons with outlaws only on the sly.

But Gurdeep Singh Chadha -- better known as Ponty Chadha -- changed the rules of the game.

Brazen to the core, he built his empire on the strength of his open connections with corrupt politicians and bureaucrats of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand -- where his undue influence cut across political parties and dispensations.

His death in the most bizarre circumstances has left a void, not just for his family but for all unscrupulous politicians and bureaucrats who had a stake in the giant business empire of a man who was a master at multiplying money almost overnight.

At least a dozen prominent politicians of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, together with an equal number of Indian Administrative Service officers from the two states, were believed to have invested their ill-gotten wealth in Ponty's companies.

And their biggest worry now is to retrieve that money from a family that is still trying to come to grips with the tragedy of losing the pater familias, as well as his brother Hardeep, in an internecine battle.

If rules were framed, twisted or turned for the sake of Ponty Chadha, it was not without the patronage of successive chief ministers, ministers and top bureaucrats who danced to his tune in return for the obvious war-chest. No wonder, then, that it was Ponty who would hand-pick officials to man the ministries and departments that impacted his business interests: key ones like excise, mining, mother and child nutrition, sugar industries and infrastructure .

Uttarakhand Minority Commission chairman Sukhdev Singh Namdhari, who was the man  beside Ponty during the bloody gunbattle at the Delhi farmhouse where he and his brother met their end,  was known to have been appointed at the behest of Ponty by the Bharatiya Janata Party government headed by Ramesh Pokhriyal 'Nishank' -- completely ignoring his criminal antecedents.

Pokhriyal's successor Vijay Bahuguna (the current Congress chief minister) shut his eye to the truth and let Namdhari continue in the post. Only after the latter's true colours were exposed that Bahuguna tried to wash his hands of the controversy by divesting the man of the important charge.

Significantly, the Delhi police has discovered that it was Namdhari's bullet which killed Ponty's brother Hardeep.

Ponty's skills lay in monopolising every business where he smelt the potential for quick and manifold  returns. Thus, once he established his exclusive sway over the liquor trade across UP, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Haryana, he chose to enter a completely diverse business like supply of 'panjeeri' (ready-to-eat whole wheat food supplement) for distribution to poor children in government schools.

He found UP the ideal ground for his exploits, not merely because of the easy pliability of the bureaucracy but also because of the enormous potential given the state's size.

The 55-year-old Ponty, who had lost the use of one arm as also two fingers of his other arm in an accident years ago, never allowed his handicap to come in the way. Rather he displayed a rare business acumen for realising the financial potential of an innocuous item like 'panjeeri' that today touches a whopping figure of Rs 9000 crores  -- incredibly close to UP's  liquor trade worth about Rs 12,000 crores.

No change of guard at the top made a difference to Ponty's clout. If he could get the Rajnath Singh-headed BJP government in 2000-02 to do away with the traditional excise policy for liquor trade in UP, which he once again got re-drafted by Mulayam Singh Yadav in 2005, he could ensure continuity of the same policy even under a  poles-apart Mayawati regime. 

While he thrived under different political dispensations, his business grew by leaps and bounds under Mayawati, when he made inroads into new areas like sugar industries and infrastructure. In fact, Mayawati's policy to privatise sugar mills was alleged to have been tailor-made for Ponty. Less than two months after assuming office, the BSP government initiated a process of disinvesting 11 operating sugar mills of th eUP Sugar Corporation in the end of June 2007.

The Comptroller and Auditor General had highlighted a large number of anomalies and discrepancies in the whole disinvestment process of the state-owned sugar mills. These included the arbitrary fixation of expected price, undervaluation of land and buildings of the sugar mills by advisors, and non-inclusion of a performance guarantee clause in the sale deed or the agreement to sale to ensure that the units would be run only as sugar mill.

This resulted in a loss of Rs 539.92 crore to the UP Sugar Corporation, indicated the CAG report.

Wave Industries, owned by Ponty Chadha, was indicted by the CAG. The auditors, on examining the documents submitted by two bidders -- wave Industries and PBS Foods Pvt Ltd (both owned by Ponty) -- detected that the demand drafts submitted by them for purchasing tender forms contained the same date and consecutive serial numbers.

An upright UP bureaucrat, who had seen Ponty's modus operandi from close quarters during both the Mayawati and Mulayam regimes, recalls how policies were planned and framed at the behest of the liquor baron. "Ponty Chadha had emerged like a super government who could own anything that he could lay his hands on," he told on the condition of anonymity.

"The Mayawati government went to the extent of doling out huge chunks of prime land along National Highway 24 (between Delhi and Lucknow), where he carved out two prime Noida sectors under the banner of 'Wave City', from which he was reaping a rich harvest," the official added.

It came as no surprise to anyone when the present Akhilesh Yadav government decided to give away the contract for the supply of Rs 9000- crore worth of 'panjeeri' to none else than Ponty's company. The "deal" came to light after a writ petition was moved before the Lucknow bench of Allahabad high court, highlighting how the Samajwadi Party government had violated the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court for issuing contracts for supply of 'panjeeri'. 

The petitioner -- a company that was excluded from the bidding process -- accused the UP government of laying down "tailor-made" pre-conditions to suit Chadha's firms and to disqualify all other bidders.

'The eligibility criterion laid down by the UP government, to allow only UP-based companies with a minimum annual turnover of Rs 25 crores to participate in the tender process was evidently intended to favour a particular cartel of companies, that were already providing the food supplements since 2005,' the petitioner had pointed out.

The petitioner also termed these conditions as 'violative' of an earlier order of the Supreme Court, that preference be given to NGOs and women's self-help groups.

Ponty's meteoric rise had completely overshadowed his humble beginnings. His father Kulwant Singh started out by selling fried fish from a hand-cart parked outside a country-liquor shop in Peeru-Madara town between Ramnagar and Moradabad. From such humble beginnings Ponty went on to reach dizzying heights -- regardless of the means he chose to achieve his ends.

Way back in the 'eighties, a Garhwal-based forthright journalist, Umesh Dobhal, was brutally done to death for running a campaign against the clandestine sale of liquor in the then prohibition-bound UP hills. Ponty was accused of adulterating a popular ayurvedic tonic with alcohol to skirt the prohibition laws and make a quick buck.

Being a product of the unholy nexus between unscrupulous businessmen, dishonest  politicians and corrupt bureaucrats, Ponty got away with murder and continued to scale new heights.

Lately, with an obvious eye on gaining social respectability, he sought to make forays into the education sector by launching an impressive public school in Noida some three years ago. To top it all, he managed to rope in a retired top bureaucrat -- widely known for his integrity -- to head the institution's governing body, together with a legal luminary and a prominent media personality.

"We have never faced any interference in the running of the school, which is doing a highly commendable job by also providing free services to some 400 physically challenged children," asserted a top functionary of the institution on being asked if he knew the antecedents of the man whose organisation he had lent his credentials to.

Sure enough, Ponty knew how to extend his credibility while simultaneously expanding  his clout. However, it was his insatiable craving for wealth and more wealth that eventually brought about his nemesis.


Sharat Pradhan in Lucknow