Sheela Rathod was the first to consume a bottle of weedicide in their home. An hour later, as she was being rushed to a government hospital, her husband Mohan, consumed the second bottle.
In a span of two hours on December 19, 2015, the husband and wife farmers of 4 acres in their mid-40s lay alongside battling for their lives in the Yavatmal hospital, their two shaken teenage-sons by their side. On December 22, Sheela lost the battle for life. Two days later, Mohan died.
“They were conscious all the time but the poison had spread in the body and could not be removed,” says their elder son, Santosh, wearing a cap to hide his tonsured head. The after-death rituals over, he is slowly coming to terms with the hollowness that, he says, suddenly surrounds him and his brother. Their immediate tension however is ‘debt’. “What do we do of the loans our parents took?” The list of debtors is long and includes of both formal (such as bank) and informal (money lenders) sources, he says.
It’s barely a fortnight since the two died, but Deonala, a village about 40 km from Yavatmal in Vidarbha’s cotton belt, is on the edge. Two others had committed suicide in October. They had mounting loans, and like that of the Rathods, rain-fed fields with failed crops: no soybean; no cotton; no lentils. For several years now, they say, they have not seen a good agriculture season that brought good monetary returns.
Almost every family in the village of 1500 people is reeling under debts that they can’t repay. Bad crops apart, there’s no work to be found. No cash in hands to meet exigencies. No source of money in sight. Most have no idea of how to sustain the next six-eight months until the next monsoon arrives and first shoots of a new crop show up. Deonala is staring at a long summer ahead, they know.
This is but a representational example of an unfolding new crisis that government and policy makers call scarcity – of water, crop, food and cash – that’s going to test both, the people and the government.
For, this might turn out to be the toughest drought in the recent history for the peasant-farmers of not just Vidarbha, but many other regions – Marathwada, Bundelkhand, north-Karnataka, Telangana, parts of Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, western-central Odisha, stretches of Indo-Gangetic plains, and even Haryana. For some regions, this is an annual aberration. For others, it’s a continuation of drought.
More than 100,000 villages and several small towns are in acute crisis if one adds the tally of blocks and tehsils declared scarcity-hit by ten states after the revised or second crop assessment in November.
The severity is invisible at this stage; it’s the peak of winter and on fields in some parts the winter crop is yet to be harvested. In many parts, like Marathwada, Bundelkhand, or north-Karnataka, drinking water scarcity looms as artificial storages and the rivers run dry. And farm suicides are back with a vengeance in the areas under scarcity: local language newspapers are reporting three to four suicides every day.
About 300 km from Deonala, in village Dadham of Akola district, 15-year-old school boy Vishal Khule killed himself on the morning of November 22, a few days after Diwali, in his small home, while his mother cooked chapatis. When he collapsed, his parents noticed a white liquid oozing out of his mouth, and the emptied can of “poison” lying by his side. Vishal was a 9th class student of Maharanapratap Vidyalaya in Akola town. He would commute to his school and also help his 2-acre father Vishwanath on the farm when he was back. His elder brother Vaibhav, 18, has dropped out and works as a daily-wager wherever he finds work. In Diwali, Vishal worked with his brother, but could not earn enough to buy new clothes and some school books, his father said. The Khules belong to an Andh tribal community. The village has marginal farmers, who double up as farm labourers to make a living. But with their own fields lying empty and drought wrecking the farms of big farm owners, there’s no farm employment.
“This is the worst year and a continuation of drought for last three seasons,” Akola district collector, G Sreekanth, said. “We began preparing for the coming summer in September, last, even when monsoon was to officially end.” The administration sensed the impending crisis when rains failed completely.
Akola, like many districts in Maharashtra, received only 60 per cent of its average annual rainfall of 692 mm. “That’s around 500 mm rains, which may not sound all that bad, but we got 400 mm of that in two days, on August 4 and 5,” he said. After August 5, Akola recorded 41-day gap in rains – a very long dry spell, he said. “Every crop has failed: soybeans, cotton and tur (lentils),” he said. “People don’t have money in their hand and there’s going to be shortage of water,” he said.
It was the crop failure and lack of money that drove Bhimsagar Sonone, 39, and his wife Vrushali, 35, to attempt committing suicide on November 12, a day after Diwali, in a fit of rage, in their home in Pardi, about 80 km from Dadham in Akola district, but they miraculously survived.
Like the Rathods did, they too consumed a bottle full of weedicide, meant for the crop of green gram on their two-acre farm. They were saved because they got medical aid in time.
“It was wrong of us to have done that,” they said at their Pardi home, still visibly depressed. The couple has three children, a daughter and twin-sons. A day after Diwali, the two fought with each other, just as any couple would. The reason for conflagration though, was there was no dime to buy new clothes and get their children some Diwali crackers, Vrushali said as she cried. The anger over distress spilled over. Farming in rain-fed conditions has become a never-ending drought, Bhimsagar says, nailing one of India’s biggest structural problems of poverty and growth bottlenecks. “Without water you can’t farm.”
They narrate the story that the Rathods would have, if they were alive: The farm yielded nothing; loans mounted; cash flow choked; tension and desperation built up; household expenses became difficult to be met; and no sustained work could be found. He had mortgaged all of Vrushali’s gold ornaments.
Back in Deonala, Sheela’s death has added to the burden of the 19 women of her age, members of a self-help-group. For, after her death, the remaining must repay her equated weekly installments of loans they took from different non-banking financial institutions that seem to have mushroomed in this part.
“Do something, these loans are giving us blood pressure,” pleads Pramila Rathod, a neighbor and one of the senior members of the group. “I am working overtime to mop up funds to repay the debts.”
Sheela like these women juggled multiple loans that add up to between Rs 75,000 and Rs 1 lakh, to be repaid over two or three years, on a weekly basis. “Everything else stops,” Pramila says, “not the loan installment.” Together, each woman must pay Rs 4000 or more every week or so – Rs 15-16000 a month depending upon the number of loans each one of them has taken from the micro-finance companies.
When most cotton growers in rain-fed conditions don’t make even Rs 10,000 in profits from their farms, juggling multiple loans several times their frugal income is a sign of a vicious debt cycle they have landed themselves in – it’s a ground similar to the one that triggered a spike in farm suicides from 2005 to 2008.
Pramila shows us the pass-books for each of her loans: there’s Equitas; Vaya Finserv Private Ltd. (which formerly was called Outreach Financial Service India Pvt Ltd); there’s Jan-Laxmi finance and there are a couple others whose passbooks the women could not show us. The group has to split within themselves the installments of Sheela and when they are struggling to repay their own, it is a Himalayan burden.
Each of these loans comes at 20 per cent or more interest rate, much higher than the ones salaried class pays on buying consumer goods. Most of them have willingly and knowingly opted for multiple loans for the lack of options. Pramila explained it: “Our bank loans are unpaid; we have not been able to pay our bills for inputs to the dealers; private hand loans remain unpaid too, so who would lend us?”
Enter the companies, ready to dish out small cash to a group without any collateral, and the families, desperate for money, latch it up – without thinking of the consequences. The money goes into farming and when farming fails, the loans trigger a vicious repayment cycle for which you must borrow more.
Deonala’s women have much of their gold mortgaged with private lenders or jewelers; pawns they are unable to free. Cattle prices have tanked as buyers shrink and a cow-slaughter ban hits the beef business in the state. Government aid would be far too less and come mostly in band aids, the villagers rue.
Babusha, Mohan Rathod’s elder brother, has loans; so have two other brothers, Baliram and Raju. Their wives, members of self-help-groups, are indebted too – to the same micro-finance institutions.
An agent of one of these companies said on the condition of anonymity that his company has a deep penetration of micro-loan business in Vidarbha and it is expanding fast. The loans look small but they yield big returns. Since there are no collaterals, it’s the easiest route to cash, but also an equally difficult cycle to come out of. The lenders know most borrowers use it for agriculture purpose and when nationalized banks refuse to lend more to the defaulting account holders, they lend at a high risk.
A fiercely hectic repayment schedule, very high penalties on default, and a collective pressure builds up tension, says Pramila, extremely worried about her next repayment. “The day Sheela died we repaid her installment,” she says. “If her sons find some work and earn some money, it will be good for us.”
In their last moments, Mohan and Sheela kept telling their sons, that they were sorry for them; that they must look after each-other; and that they should move out of the village if they could.
In their two-room hut with a mud-littered front-yard that has a thatched shade, there now hang framed photos of Mohan and Sheela who tilled their lands laboriously and raised their sons frugally.
Where do Santosh and his younger brother Sandeep go from here? “We are finding it very difficult to get work outside,” Santosh said. There are hundreds like them wanting work. Both had dropped out of school after the ninth class. “We can’t farm this land,” he said as he took us around an arid, stony, land at the foothills of a small hillock, a few km of walk from their home. It’s a ten-acre stretch, of poor soils, that Mohan tilled with his three elder brothers. This year though, in addition to his share of four acres, he had leased ten acres from a tribal farmer and invested in cotton and lentils, hoping for a better return, his sons said.
Mohan expected at least 40 quintals of cotton from 14 acres; he got three. Lentils are fetching a good price in the markets, but Santosh rued the fact that the plants have no pods.
This field and stretches as long as one can see are a spectre of doom and gloom – a dry anaemic land with cotton and lentil plants that have fallen lifeless.
They may have got quick money from it, but killing a full-grown tiger in the forests of Melghat around January-February 2013 was a tedious, frightening and a very risky affair, going by the statement of a 30-year-old Madhusingh Pardhi, convicted along with three others by an Amravati court in the case.
“We were very frightened, when we heard the roar of a tiger,” Madhusingh says in his confession before the court. The tiger had perhaps fallen into their snare after several days of their attempts but “we were not sure”, he says in his statement recorded in Hindi. So he and four of his accomplices waited for hours before they were absolutely certain that the wild cat had indeed been trapped. Since the snare was tied to a tree by a chain, the tiger could not break free. “A tired wild cat sat down, its leg in the snare.”
“That’s when we went there and hit the tiger with a sword-stick just before the fall of dusk, after which it fell down and began to bleed; we then stabbed it with sharp weapons,” he says in his statement.
This was the first time he killed a tiger, for quick money. But the man who had trained him and placed the order wasn’t new in the trade. That man named Ranjit worked for a supplier in the dubious wildlife trade and was part of an old syndicate whose kingpin actually sat in New Delhi, investigators say.
As the Maharashtra forest officials and the CBI have discovered in the last three years, several wild cats in Vidarbha nay the central Indian tiger habitats were killed by the gangs of organized poachers before many of their members got arrested in the ongoing investigations into some cases of tiger poaching.
The gangs work in a pyramid-like structure and perhaps with much better application of their traditional wisdom about tiger behavior and habitat than the educated guardians of this majestic animal.
Most of the suspected tiger poachers arrested in separate cases are third or fourth generation poachers, just out of their teens – and very ferocious killers, according to forest officials probing the cases.
Investigations and independent studies into India’s multifarious tiger poaching gangs and their recent history reveal their modus operandi – from mutual bonhomie to territorial rights to switching locations to being ruthless in killing their targets, among other things.
“Tiger poaching in India has always been a specialized job mostly led by family groups and individuals with traditional expertise,” says a comprehensive study published last August by executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) Belinda Wright, ecologist Koustubh Sharma, WPSI’s central India coordinator Nitin Desai and colleagues. The study published in the journal ‘Biological Conservation’ says the poachers prefer to operate in specific tiger habitats, mainly because of their familiarity with these areas and the trusted networks that individual poaching gangs have set up over several years. The illegal trafficking of tiger parts has two components, it says, that of poaching tigers and that of selling, buying and smuggling the parts out of the country to feed illegal global markets.
Forest officials in Nagpur engaged into the tiger poaching probe say the organized gangs deploy every tactic: from tracking tigers to chasing their targets long distances for days to monitoring the monitors (forest officials), to taking the wild cats off stealthily before one wonders where they’ve gone.
One of the arrested accused even told the investigators in the Melghat poaching case that they target the courting pairs during the mating season immediately post-monsoon when tigers are most vocal.
In other times, they target full grown males for their robust bones and skins.
Madhu Singh was the one who did the dirty job of killing a tiger on the field with his accomplices, but they were not the only ones doing that. Many others, who are now arrested in connection with the tiger poaching cases in Vidarbha, form part of the poachers’ gangs, who work separately in tiger habitats in the country yet completely linked with each-other, investigators say citing information that the accused have shared during their interrogation. They call their working area a ‘desh’ (or region), and each gang has an understanding that they would not violate each other’s areas of operation, investigations show.
“It looks like once a year, usually during the monsoon season, these gangs belonging to two nomadic tribe communities, one from Madhya Pradesh and the other from Haryana and Rajasthan, meet at an undisclosed location and divide the geographies among themselves,” Advocate Kartick Shukul, one of the prosecution lawyers, said. Each team roughly comprises 30 members, including women, he said, on the basis of the statements and information provided by some of the accused arrested in the cases.
The defence lawyers have argued that the prosecution has no evidence and that their allegations are concocted, but barring two persons, not a single person arrested in these cases has got a bail.
“The actual tiger poachers never had any direct links with international buyers,” Nitin Desai of the Wild-life Protection Society of India (WPSI) says. “The parts and skins always shift hands at several layers.”
Madhu or Chika-Mambru, or others belonged to the gang of Sarju Bagdi, a suspected poacher-trader who was trying to scale up to the level of another man called Suraj Pal alias Chacha. Now behind the bars, both Chacha and Sarju virtually ran the trade together in the post-Sansar Chand era; with former taking the contracts from abroad, and the latter placing the contracts in the field with his contacts.
Pal ran a grocery shop in New Delhi, but a CBI dossier on Sansar Chand around 2005 says he was a major player in the tiger parts and skin, though the agency did not have any evidence or case against him. It shows Chacha was allegedly active even then in tiger trade.
“Even after being active in this field for such a long time, he has never been arrested or involved in any case,” that dossier said of Chacha.
“His network with smugglers based in Majnu Ka Tila (a place in New Delhi) is possibly the biggest and strongest in this field. Even in terms of trading, he is supposed to be the best for supplies of Tiger skins.” Chacha’s main suppliers were poachers of the Bawaria community belonging to Rathdhana near Samalkha in Haryana’s Sonipat district. Of them was Sarju’s father.
In Dhakana case of Maharashtra, it came to be true. Sarju is from that place and has confessed that he would supply the wildlife items to Chacha. It was on Sarju’s statement that Chacha was finally arrested from his house in Delhi; the Delhi police, the wildlife crime control bureau and Maharashtra forest department recovered 18 kg tiger bones and over Rs 60 lakh in cash from him at the time of his arrest.
In his confession statement that is now before the local court, one of the main culprits in the ongoing tiger poaching cases, Sarju says his father worked for the notorious tiger poacher Sansar Chand.
Another accused, who’s now behind bars facing charges of killing a tiger in Dhakna area of the Malghat Tiger Reserve, Ranjit, says he has been coming on the trail of tigers for decades.
Sarju’s grand-father too hunted the wild animals, though there is no evidence or knowledge if the trade was that commercial then as it is today.
Suraj Pal alias Chacha began his career in poaching and trading in tiger skins and parts under Shabbir Hassan Qureshi, one of the biggest alleged tiger traders before the dawn of the new century. He died in 2012, after having given up on the trade sometime in early 2002. Shabbir’s reign, according to several experts of wildlife crime, preceded the emergence of Sansar Chand, but later both ran their networks parallel, at times even competing with each other in the same geographies for the same booty.
The recent history shows, Shabbir and Sansar Chand had their own network of poachers, mainly from the hunting communities. In South India, there was another player, who we are not naming, since he is now out of the trade since mid-2007. Shabbir got arrested around 1999 and confessed to killing virtually dozens of tigers all over India in the preceding decade. He came out of the custody and was re-arrested in Allahabad in December 2007 by the Uttar Pradesh Special Task Force probing another poaching crime and during his Narco-analysis test confessed to killing and selling something like 600 tigers, a figure that is still debatable. Shabbir died in 2012. After first arrest in 1999-2000, Sansar Chand emerged the biggest player and reigned supreme until his arrest in 2005, according to the CBI’s dossiers on him.
Suraj Pal, Chacha, was Sansar’s supplier. When Sansar Chand was arrested, Chacha was already on the radar of the CBI and other agencies. With Shabbir down, Sansar arrested, and other major players either old or maimed by the enforcement agencies, this tall and lanky man now in his mid-sixties and originally from Khaga in Fatehpur, became the numero uno in the tiger trade.
In mid-2014 Chacha was granted bail by an Additional Sessions Judge in Nagpur, but it was revoked by a Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court when the forest department went in appeal.
The High Court acknowledged in its observation that Chacha, who seems to have international links in the trade, had paid Rs 20 lakh to Sarju and Naresh as an advance sum for buying tiger skins, nails, bones and other vital organs from poachers in Maharashtra and the latter had already made some deliveries.
With Sansar Chand and two other big traders dead and a couple of others like Chacha in jail, there’s a vacuum at the top of this murky trade – but experts like Desai warn: “Someone may already be ready to play the new don.”
Around mid-2013, a full-grown striped tigress, a regular visitor to the central lake of Pench Tiger Reserve on Madhya Pradesh-Maharashtra border about 120 km from Nagpur, went missing.
The forest staff wondered about its sudden disappearance but kept an inexplicable silence.
In early 2014, they finally got the answer from the kitty of a poachers’ gang arrested by the CBI on Indo-Nepal border. One DNA in the many tiger part samples seized from them matched with that of the T-13, the same wild cat that was never to be seen again in the Pench reserve, confirming the fears of officials: it had been allegedly killed, cut into pieces, and most probably sold off separately as ‘skin’ and ‘parts’.
It was a chance discovery, but not an isolated case of poaching from the protected tiger terrain. A string of cases – with one leading to another in central India mainly Vidarbha – is exposing an unabated, ugly, organized poaching racket that dents the country’s mammoth tiger conservation efforts.
Together, the magnitude of the cases is phenomenal: so far 19 primary offence reports (like FIRs) have been registered since the filing of the first case in March 2013; more than 50 alleged poachers arrested; about 80 are still wanted; four persons have been already convicted in the first case; and while officially less than ten tigers have been accounted for, the number of wild cats estimated killed and poached by the gangs in the last few years is feared many times more, the ongoing investigations are indicating.
“These are very important cases for us and something that’s unprecedented in a way,” the additional principle chief conservator of forests (APCCF), Maharashtra, Meyipokkim Aiyer, said. He is the head of a steering committee formed by the state forest department to monitor the cases.
Last year, the state government handed over the three main offences to the CBI. “The interlinked gangs operate in many states with a clinical detail of each tiger habitat and with links abroad, which is why we thought an agency like the CBI is best suited to deal with those,” Aiyer said. The state government has just approved a proposal that seeks to constitute a Special Investigation Team (SIT) comprising officials from several departments. To be headed by a senior CBI officer, it would rope in officials from forest, police and revenue departments in addition to the enforcement directorate. The SIT will take forward the investigations into the poaching cases, in what’s turning out one of the biggest investigations yet.
How it began:
It was a wintry day, December 3, 2012. Nitin Desai, a central India coordinator of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) and one of India’s foremost wildlife crime experts, recalls a text message beamed on his cell phone about a few suspected poachers camping near a place called Aamdi on a busy National Highway 7, about 60-70 km away north of Nagpur. He immediately passed that information to the forest officials and the Nagpur rural police. By the evening, a raid was conducted but the suspects fled the spot leaving behind some SIM cards. The information was correct, but the suspects got time to escape.
“In 2012-13, the poaching scene was very hot; we would receive information from everywhere that the gangs are on the prowl,” Desai recalls. The wait for a breakthrough ended only three months later.
March 3, 2013: The first tip off came from the Melghat Tiger Reserve, 250 km from Nagpur in Amravati district. Two local men were fighting over distribution of money made from tiger poaching. The WPSI’s local intelligence network alerted chief conservator of forest in Melghat, who in turn handed the task to a young Assistant Conservator of Forest (ACF), Vishal Mali, to work the tip off. The same evening, after having tracked their location, Mali and his team apprehended six men from the reserve’s core area – a core area is supposed to be an inviolate region with little or no human presence or interference.
Tucked away in the foothills of the Satpuda hills, village Sundban from where the suspects were caught was a ghetto of huts set up lately after felling and clearing patches of the forest, exposing the chinks in the monitoring of the massive reserve. The encroachments had sprung up in the tiger habitat.
The six suspects, mostly migrants belonging to a backward nomadic tribe, confessed to killing up a full grown tiger, as per the primary offence report (POR in wildlife crime parlance) registered the following day in Melghat. The scene of the crime was a beat called Dhakana, within the reserve; the wild cat had been killed, it’s skin traded, as per their confession statement, over a month before been arrested.
Among the forest officials in Vidarbha, it’s popular as the ‘Dhakana case’.
“All the suspects agreed to reconstruct the crime and hand over a snare used in trapping the tiger,” the principle investigator of this case, Mali, said. “They led us to the exact spot; narrated how they did it; and gave graphic details of the crime,” he said. The suspects had killed and sold the tiger’s skin, bones, nail and some vital organs to a trader. “We got highly decomposed meat, blood stains, and hair there.”
Investigators collected and sent 18 samples to the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, for DNA sampling etc. Among the samples were finger-nails of the accused.
“Only two samples tested positive but it was enough to establish the link between the arrested poachers and the tiger suspected to have been killed,” Mali said. The soil sample with blood stains confirmed it to be of a tiger; and the fingernail samples of the poachers arrested by them carried the same DNA as that of the tiger in the soil sample. “Since we did not have the carcass of the killed tiger as evidence,” he said, “the matched DNA sample was crucial supportive evidence in the case.”
The Dhakana probe revealed that a person from Punjab named Ranjit (now arrested) came to Melghat, placed the contract; local men killed a tiger, and handed the skin and parts to him in Madhya Pradesh.
Next: The officials had to do a manual check of the call detail records (CDR) of the suspects’ cell phones. They found that one of the six accused, Madhu Singh (convicted and sent to rigorous imprisonment for five years with three others in mid-2014 by an Amravati court) was in touch on his cell phone with some people all over India: from as far away as Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, to even Gujarat. Officials wondered what this man had got to do with people across India.
Of the 2000 numbers scanned by them manually and later electronically, investigators segregated some numbers to whom Madhu frequently called; they suspected them to be couriers or tiger part traders.
Case widens; hunt begins
Then the hunt for the suspects began which has not yet stopped.
June 6, 2013: Based on the call records being tracked, the Nagpur police and some independent wildlife investigators zeroed in on two numbers believed to be of suspects and got a tip-off that a consignment of tiger parts was to be handed over to a buyer from north India at a dhaba around the same spot where officials had missed the targets just seven months ago: along the National Highway 7.
It was the culmination of a very tedious operation, which relied heavily on the call details and location of cell phone in real time.
“That day we arrested two persons named Chika and Mambru, really young men who in the first looks appeared famished and from poor background,” an Assistant Conservator of Forest (ACF)-level officer in Nagpur recalls, asking not be named. “We thought this was it – the end of our investigations.” It wasn’t. It was the beginning. As Chika and Mambru spilled the beans, officials say, murky tales surfaced.
“The two were actually the bridge between buyers in north India and the gangs of field poachers who were scattered all over Vidarbha – someone in Melghat, others in Tadoba or in Umred; still others in Gondia-Bhandara, or on the other side of the border in Madhya Pradesh,” the ACF said.
They were not on their own, investigators say; the two worked for someone.
If you draw a circle with a radius of 300 km around Nagpur, you can see some pristine tiger habitats and corridors with bustling wild cat population within the protected areas and even more outside them.
In fact, as Desai explains: The huge expanse of central India forest landscape starting from Panna Tiger Reserve in the north to Nagarjun Sagar Tiger Reserve in the south and from Melghat Tiger Reserve in the west to Indravati Tiger Reserve in the east, the 15-odd tiger reserves in this region act as sources where some of the world’s last remaining wild tigers breed and roam freely and disperse into the territorial or unprotected areas. For the poaching gangs, it’s a region replete with big ticket targets and quick money.
Most of the central India forests are dry deciduous forests; tigers from these areas have historically been in greater demand for two reasons: one, they are easy to locate for poaching and two, their pelts (skins) are preferred by customers abroad, explains Desai, one of India’s frontline experts in wildlife crime.
Chika and Mambru’s arrest followed tip offs given by the accused in the Dhakana case. A Vodafone number of the north kept popping up in the CDRs of the suspects arrested in March 2013 and the two in June 2013. Who was this man? He was moving all over, another investigating officer said. In the month before Chika-Mambru’s arrest, that cell phone – which officials had strongly suspected to be of a big fish in the trade – showed up its location in Umred, 50 km south-east of Nagpur; days later it showed up in Mansar, 100 km north of Nagpur; and again a few days later, it was in Sonipat, Haryana.
With Dhakana investigations on and several phone numbers under the radar, Chika-Mambru disclosed to interrogators that they had taken off 11 tigers from March to June 2013 from all over central India.
The officials told a local court in Nagpur that after registering a primary offence report against them, the two led the Nagpur forest officials to a place called Ghatang in the Melghat tiger reserve, confessing that they had killed a tiger there. But having reached there officials realized the two had also killed a sloth bear, two leopards and a barking deer – evidence of which lay scattered over the spot, in addition to the one tiger they had said in their statement they had trapped and killed. Officials then registered another offence in Ghatang against the two, in addition to the one for the alleged killing of a tiger.
Ghatang is just outside the core of the Melghat tiger reserve. From the place they were arrested near Mansar, it would be roughly 250 km in the same line west-ward.
Post the 2012 monsoon, there were reports and intelligence inputs that the gangs of organized poachers were surreptitiously working in Vidarbha to kill tigers. A year later, the reports were coming true.
More shock was still in store. The officials collected samples of blood stains from soil and traps used in the crime and sent it to CCMB in Hyderabad. “The CCMB told us it was not one but four full grown tigers – the report confirmed the presence of four wild cats in the DNA of the samples,” the officer engaged with this particular case, which is now with the CBI, says. The CCMB report is evidence before the court against Chika-Mambru and the subsequently arrested persons in this and other connected cases.
Within a week of their arrest, Chika-Mambru had told officials they had actually taken off some 15 tigers from around Vidarbha within a span of three months.
“To us, that was sheer unnerving,” recalls Desai, who has closely tracked each of this case independently and as part of the WPSI mandate. “I have never seen so many tigers killed in such short span; when each tiger is like a percentage population in a country with less than 2000 remaining, this was sad news.”
Kingpin in custody; more arrests follow
By mid-2013, Maharashtra forest department was mighty nervous. What next? But officials like Mali, who were now part of an action team specifically tasked to crack the network, were determined.
The window would open with more arrests, but particularly of two men who are at the center of the tiger killings in the recent past: Suraj Bhan alias Sarju Bagdi and an alleged kingpin Suraj Pal, alias Chacha (68). Sarju was arrested along with his accomplice Naresh from Sonipat, Haryana, on September 8, 2013, and on his information, the same day, Chacha was rounded up from his New Delhi home.
“Surajpal has been in this business for more than 20 years; he is known to have contacts with about 50 to 60 families of Rathdhana in Sonipat and other villages, who kill animals for him,” the Delhi Additional Commissioner of Police (Crime Branch) Ravindra Yadav was quoted by the media as saying immediately after his arrest. Sarju was on his way to meet and deliver tiger skins and parts to Chacha, who ran a grocery store and small real estate business in the national capital as a front for his alleged illegal trade. All of them are now in Nagpur central prison, with courts rejecting their bails.
Their arrest, Aiyer said, helped arrange the pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle.
One, the officials were able to establish a chain of tiger trade. Investigators learnt that the Vodafone cell number that had perplexed them was of Sarju, an alleged third-generation poacher and a member of a tribe from Haryana that’s known to be involved in wildlife poaching as a tradition. Sarju was allegedly a major supplier working for Chacha, once a key associate of notorious tiger poacher-trader Sansar Chand who died in 2012 after remaining in prison since been arrested in 2005. Field poachers of another tribe from Madhya Pradesh killed tigers; people like Chika-Mambru helped as couriers; Sarju bought the skin and parts and finally supplied it to Chacha. Who did Chacha sell it to? The CBI is now probing that.
Once Sarju fell in their custody the forest officials began to crack a network of organized poachers; with it surfaced also the fact that so many tigers were killed and poached from all over Vidarbha.
Since the first arrests in March 2013, forest officials and CBI teams have conducted over four dozen raids and nabbed the alleged culprits from all over India.
Ranjit (a Dhakana case accused and one of Chacha’s suppliers like Sarju), who had twice slipped out of the CBI hands previously, was arrested in Vizianagaram; Ajit, a younger brother of a notorious poacher-trader Keru (also wanted in these cases) was nailed in Tirupati; two brothers Yarlen and Barsul (now out on bail) were arrested in Jabalpur; Sarju, Naresh and Dalbir, the trio that is alleged to be working for Chacha, were picked up from Sonipath in Haryana; Chacha himself was arrested from New Delhi with cash and tiger parts in his custody. The raids continue. The latest to be arrested by the CBI was Raslal from Satara in western Maharashtra and another major player in the trade named Kuttu Chhiyalal Rajgond from Katni in Madhya Pradesh in March this year. On their information, the CBI also arrested two brothers, Baini and Jhallu, from a village in Rajnandgaon district of Chhattisgarh. Baini and Jhallu were wanted in connection with the killing of three tigers in Gondia-Bhandara forests and have known to have killed many tigers in and around the Kanha Tiger Reserve, over the last decade or so.
During his interrogation, Kuttu also confessed to killing three men and the CBI has now asked the MP police to register separate offences in those murders. He was wanted in the killing of two tigers in Khumari near the Mansinghdeo Wildlife Sanctuary near Nagpur and one in Gondia’s Tumsar forests.
As the arrested accused began to reveal their network and the names of the associates by the end of 2013 a full-blown racket of organized poachers of tiger and other wildlife began to surface. In 2013 itself the Maharashtra Forest Department formed an Action Team to lead the cases, but when their expanse grew out of bounds, the state government decided to hand over three main cases to the CBI in 2014.
With every arrest came the clue to their new associates and their old crimes, Aiyer said.
The poachers’ modus operandi is simple: they camp 20-25 km way from the forest, kill the animal, and hide the parts somewhere close to the forest area and then strike a deal with the buyers.
In one case, a poacher nabbed in 2013 in a town of Paratwada, close to Melghat, told the police that they would use train route to smuggle out tiger skins and body parts.
With huge pressure mounting on their network in Vidarbha, these gangs are now focusing on Karnataka and Goa, says an officer with the Melghat Cyber Cell, which came up in the aftermath of these cases as one of the institutional responses to the wildlife crime. It monitors the mobile data in connection with wildlife crime and is believed to be closely tracking movements of about a hundred active gangs.
Yet questions remain: While so many tigers were being killed and poached, what was India’s vast tiger conservation apparatus doing? If a tiger goes missing from your beat, it’s virtually impossible a forest guard or a ranger won’t know. Here, several tigers that were presumably monitored by authorities went missing from protected areas, but no one raised an alarm even within their institutional set up.
“The beauty of these intertwined cases is that it’s the poachers not the foresters who told us how many tigers they had killed and sold off,” Desai laments. “It’s a slap on our face – poachers killed these many wild cats while all of us, the so-called guardians, were sleeping or glossing over the gaps.”
“It’s as if India conserves tigers for poachers,” says Desai sarcastically. “We conserve, they kill.”
In April 2015, the Siddhi Vinayak Logistics Limited (SVLL), a Surat-based transport firm, entered the ‘Limca Book of Records’ as a company maintaining ‘largest’ fleet of heavy and medium commercial vehicles in India with ‘6,737 vehicles’ on the last count and a unique corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative that marked September 17 every year as the ‘Drivers Day’ – ‘Chalak Diwas’, in Hindi.
Around the same time, in the Bank of Maharashtra (BoM) board at its Pune headquarters and among 10-11 other public sector banks (PSBs) that had lent money to the company, panic had set in.
By March 2015 end, while it was trumpeting its success, the SVLL had become the single big-value defaulter of the BoM with unpaid dues standing at Rs 839 crore, loans that the bank was to discover later were granted from September 2012 to March 2014 against forged documents, zero collateral and in violation of rules.
Together, the SVLL had borrowed heavily for its expansion and defaulted on the loans of all PSBs running close to Rs 2000 crore. First a red-flagged-account, then an NPA, and lately a fraud: the SVLL story with the BoM and other PSBs shows that big loopholes exist in the banking sector.
The BoM’s single bad loan, the SVLL fraud, is multiple times its annual net profit of Rs 127 crore in 2014-15 fiscal – a somber state for a bank that has peasants and working classes as its main customers in Maharashtra. It’s perhaps the only PSB that came up in the 1940s from hard-earned money of the working classes and still has deep rural penetration. The reason for panic was obvious: SVLL was given loans in violation to rules.
Not only that, the BoM’s higher authorities in Pune neglected an alert sounded by its own branch manager in Surat in March 2014, cautioning the bank not to lend more money to SVLL since its credibility was in doubt, a set of confidential reports, bank’s internal communication, and other documents about this company that this writer is in possession of, show. What’s more, when all its efforts to persuade the firm to repay the money failed, a top source in the bank said, the BoM board comprising top officials wanted to quietly write off the SVLL’s unpaid dues as NPAs, but reported lack of consensus within and an RBI stricture prompted the management to suspend its three officials, tag the SVLL as a ‘willful’ high-value defaulter (its account had been branded NPA in December 2014) and lodge a CBI complaint given the quantum of money involved.
Around mid-August, the CBI raided several SVLL offices and BoM’s branches in Pune and Surat from where the loans were disbursed. No further detail is forthcoming from the agency on investigations.
Inside sources say the SVLL case is murkier than it seems.
In one of his letters to the bank explaining the delay in payments last year, one document reads, the firm’s founder director Roopchand Baid – apparently to flaunt his political connections – annexed a letter Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the firm lauding its driver’s day initiative (in September 2014); he even flaunts his picture with Modi on the company’s website, and in one of his communications around the same time to the bank explaining the delays in repayment of loans cites, as one of the reasons, his pre-occupation in Modi’s 3-D campaigning on the specialized vehicles during the 2014 general elections.
Growing NPAs, willful defaults and stressed assets:
As 2015 comes to end, the BoM like all other public sector banks (PSBs) of India forays into a new year with more such frauds coming to the fore.
The PSB’s bad debts crossed Rs 3 lakh crore by June 2015; up almost nine to ten times it was in 2008 at Rs 39,000 crore. Cumulatively, their stressed assets are hovering around Rs 7.7 lakh crore, a staggering 11 per cent of total advances of Rs 70,00,000 crore. If one adds that between 2001 and 2015, the PSBs wrote off nearly 2.5-3 lakh crore worth of NPAs of the handful of defaulters, according to the statements by the ministers in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha and a comprehensive booklet on NPAs published by the All India Bank Employees Association (AIBEA) last year, the story turns scandalous.
The RBI governor Raghuram Rajan is clearly worried. On December 23, he raised concern once again “over the rising stressed assets of big business groups and their impact on financial system.” Credit to top 100 large borrowers (in terms of funded amount outstanding) made up for 27.6 per cent of the credit to all the large borrowers and 17.8 per cent of the credit of all commercial banks, Rajan said in the latest financial stability report (FSR) in yet another indication of the banks’ precarious situation with regard to loan defaults.
Of the total NPAs today, there is no clarity on willful default cases, but in the last one year, the banks have filed cases in which the dues recoverable from the defaulters amount to over Rs 44,000 crore, going by the data on the suit-filed cases with the credit rating agencies like Crisil and the other official sources.
Other than this, the banks have sold their bad loans worth Rs 1.89 lakh crore to the asset restructuring companies (ARCs) for a mere Rs 62,551 crore, accruing a loss of over Rs 1.26 lakh crore.
As of June 2015, the BoM’s stressed assets (NPAs and red-flagged accounts) stood at Rs 13,636 crore – or 13.48 % of gross advances of Rs 101,210 by March 2015, the bank’s annual statement shows.
Of that, the gross NPAs stood at Rs 6402 crore, or 6.33 per cent of its total advances. Top 50 NPAs account for Rs 3104.75 crore (for comparison, it’s equivalent to the annual crop loan in the entire region of Vidarbha with 35 lakh farming families), and NPA amount involved in Rs 1 crore and above total Rs 5177.88 crore. The BoM had restructured bad loans totaling Rs 7234 crore by March 2013; they fall in stressed assets zone.
The government’s repeated answers to questions on NPAs in the Parliament cites recessionary trends as an important reason for the rising graph of stressed assets, but the suit-filed cases show a different story – one that needs a thorough inquiry. On December 10, in New Delhi, the former AAP founders Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav sought a comprehensive white paper from the central government and PSBs on all the stressed accounts, the NPAs written off by the banks so far, and a list of willful defaulters. They circulated a note explaining how the banks are dealing with stressed assets in three different heads: willful default; NPAs, and stressed assets that were restructured under the corporate debt restructuring (CDR) scheme but show no signs of repayment thereby again becoming as non-performing assets (NPAs) with higher outstanding dues.
The question is: what has happened of the Rs 10-11 lakh crore worth of money, either already written off, or converted into stressed assets? With that sort of money, India could build 2 lakh km of four-lane highways (at an official finance rate of Rs 5 crore/km); foot MGNREGA bills for at least two decades; give loan waivers to the country’s beleaguered peasantry; gift a toilet and a tank to every citizen to achieve the PM’s dream of ‘Swachh Bharat’, or build ten bullet trains like the one planned between Mumbai and Ahmedabad.
By the end of 2015 fiscal, the BoM had filed 541 cases of willful defaults running into recoverable dues of Rs 1427 crore, following the RBI’s mounting pressure on banks to crack down on high-value defaulters. The instances of fraud registered an increase by 309.12% from 348.8 crore in March 2014. In the 2014-15 fiscal, the bank reported 56 new cases of fraud. The SVLL’s loan default of Rs 839.1 crore is one of them.
On September 28, 2015, a forensic audit of the SVLL accounts and its group companies ordered by the bank’s board confirmed that the company had mis-utilized the funds. It bared the SVLL’s much-touted CSR scheme – also main focus of the bank’s complaint with the CBI. The initiative in fact was a ploy to transfer its corporate debt on to individual drivers with the alleged complicity of some top bank officials, according to BoM’s top source. So much so, that even the drivers were unaware of the loans taken in their names by SVLL until the bank, in desperate measure, last year sent notices to more than 2000 such individual drivers. This writer is in possession of a seven-page note meant for the Board’s audit committee that enumerates the forensic report’s gist. This note and other documents such as the bank’s inspection summary of the large borrower accounts and minutes of the joint lenders association (JLA) with regard to the SVLL credit exposure, one question goes unanswered: How could the BoM lend big loans to SVLL without basic checks (such as its credit worthiness), when it doesn’t grant such a leeway to ordinary citizens seeking small loans?
Forensic audit findings:
A forensic audit is an examination and evaluation of a firm's or individual's financial information for use as evidence in court, according to one definition, and can be conducted in order to prosecute a party for fraud, embezzlement or other financial claims. Accordingly, a chartered accountant firm tasked to carry out the SVLL’s forensic audit gave its final report on September 28, 2015, having given its initial tracking and interim draft report in May and June, 2015, respectively. The report mentions of severe lack of data and information from other banks and official sources to fully confirm and trace the company’s money trail.
That’s perhaps now for the CBI to investigate.
The forensic audit shows the money trail and explains how the SVLL – which claims to have a pan-India presence in the heavy transport segment – allegedly routed the funds through its sister firms, put as collateral the same vehicles against loans from different banks, and used new loans to pay off part old loans or as margin money to buy new trucks, but defaulted on its loan repayments.
In 2012-2013, the BoM had through its three different branches (one in Surat and two in Pune) released loans worth Rs 933.25 crore to the SVLL for six different purposes – 1) a loan of Rs 35 crore as working capital; 2) a loan of Rs 99.85 crore as the loans to SVLL drivers to buy old trucks under its ‘Chalak se Malak’ scheme; 3) Rs 70 crore as term loan for the purchase of new trucks; 4) a term loan of Rs 90 crore for purchase of new trucks; 5) Rs 239.44 crore as loans to SVLL drivers to buy old trucks under its ‘Chalak se Malak’ scheme; 6) and Rs 398.96 crore as loans to drivers to buy new trucks. Of that, the company repaid Rs 77.38 crore to the Model colony branch from the loan taken from the Deccan Gymkhana branch a little later, the report shows. The remaining loans with principle and interest overdue are outstanding dues on the SVLL accounts.
The SVLL is yet to respond to the queries mailed by this Reporter, but as per the bank documents, the firm in one of its replies to the BoM pegged its valuation at over Rs 6000 crore while assuring that it was trying to raise funds by a stake-sale or pledging its shares to raise corporate loans. The company urges the bank in one letter not to initiate any action that would damage its reputation and affect the livelihood of 9000 families.
Concurrently, even the other principle lenders such the Corporation Bank and Oriental Bank of Commerce began to get worried on the SVLL’s increasing NPAs and the company’s failure to stick to its promises.
It was during that 2012 fiscal that it transferred part of its debt burden on to the drivers under what it claimed was a CSR activity: a scheme christened ‘Chalak Se Malak’. The garb was generous. The company said it was making its drivers owners of vehicles, or equity shareholders. In reality, it was transferring its debts to the drivers and re-routing the individual loan money into its group accounts, with the banks completely unaware of such transactions. In doing so, it was converting high-interest commercial loans into low-interest small and mid-segment, cheating the bank by hypothecating same vehicles against different loans, and later defaulting on the payment of both, the term loans and the individual loans on old trucks, the forensic audit shows.
The same fiscal year, the SVLL shot into limelight by placing an order to Tata Motors of 1300 plus trucks, the value of this order was reported at that time to be around Rs 225 crore.
The company in its proposal to the BoM said it would sell its used trucks to the drivers as a reward of their loyalty under the CSR initiative at a mutually agreed price. The drivers would operate the vehicles as their own but continue to deploy them with the SVLL as sub-contractors. The SVLL would deduct the equated monthly instalments for loans from the bills payable to the drivers-cum-owners. Once the repayment was done, the truck would be transferred in the drivers’ name; until then it would be hypothecated to the BoM. But the proposal also mentioned that the loans availed by the SVLL from other lenders would continue.
The company had its accounts mainly in the Corporation Bank and the Oriental Bank in Surat, according to the bank’s recent internal investigations. What it did in this case was to convert its corporate loans into the individual loans, and non-priority portfolio into priority one. The BoM’s Pune branches played a major role. The officials formulated a pattern on the lines of the scheme for financing Small Road Transport Operator (SRTOs) and issued loans at concessions, such as a concession of 0.5 per cent in the processing fee, deviation in age limit of the truck to be considered on a case-to-case basis. The bank officials assured its management that all advances would be classified under priority sector (about Rs 100 crore) and around 20 per cent of the advances may be classified under weaker sector with an assured repayment through SVLL linkage. But nothing as such happened. In 2015, bank officials were struggling to get the money back from SVLL.
The forensic audit found the SVLL did not transfer the trucks in the drivers’ names and that a vast majority of the vehicles were already hypothecated to its other lenders, a fact that BoM’s Surat branch manager had in his March 2014 communication to his head office mentioned while red-flagging the SVLL proposals.
The bank’s zonal authorities apparently did not take consent from their head office while sanctioning the SVLL loans, a gross violation of the bank’s credit policy and RBI guidelines. It was on this account that the BoM finally suspended its three officials when the alleged default came out of the closet.
In the case registered against the SVLL, its directors and BoM officials, the CBI says the BoM was induced into sanctioning and disbursing 2804 vehicle loans to the said firm and its drivers under the ‘Chalak se Malak’ scheme on the basis of false assurances and tampered/forged vehicle registration documents, to avail the credit facility aggregating to Rs 651.17 crore in the form of loans; term loans of Rs 160 crore; and cash credit limit of Rs 35 crore. In the complaint the bank alleged that having taken the loans, the SVLL Directors did not transfer the ownership of vehicles to drivers. In many instances, the vehicles were and continue to remain hypothecated to the other lenders and were not transferred to the drivers. The SVLL had a direct exposure of Rs 259 crore and an indirect exposure through the SRTO of Rs 645 crore. A major part of loan – over Rs 400 core – meant to purchase new trucks and transfer of old vehicles to drivers was diverted to other purposes.
The bank in its complaint to CBI said the total outstanding dues from the SVLL stand at Rs 839 crore, NPAs as of March 2015.
The forensic audit says there were significant fund transfer transactions between SVLL and group companies, with the bank loans finally being routed or re-routed back to the main company.
Take just one example for instance: The BoM’s Deccan Gymkhana branch in Pune disbursed Rs 130.66 crore as part of financing the purchase of 1150 new vehicles to a company called Addplus Distributors Pvt Ltd; the trucks were to be purchased from Ashok Leyland. The audit report found that though the Ashok Leyland had issued a letter of intent to Addplus it was never appointed an authorized dealer. After getting the money from the bank, Addplus transferred the entire sum to the SVLL and its group companies through four transactions.
The report’s gist observes that the loans were released without adequate supporting documents even for the financing of new trucks; the vehicles already hypothecated to other creditors were offered as collateral against the term or individual loans under the ‘Chalak se Malak’ scheme; loan disbursement from Deccan Gymkhana branch was used for the part payment of loan taken from the Model Colony branch and a part of loan for old trucks was used as margin money for financing new trucks as vendor payment.
The forensic audit could not go beyond the BoM loans because it could not get the statements of account from the other 10 banks from where the SVLL borrowed money, the report says. Also, the tax invoices submitted by the SVLL suppliers did not contain information such as VAT number or contact details of the suppliers, which raises question mark on the suppliers too. In February 2015, the BoM’s credit monitoring department in its confidential report found the SVLL had term loans running into approximately Rs 2000 crore from 10-11 PSBs with balance of Rs 1500 crore and principle and interest overdue of Rs 80 crore.