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FIRST STRIKE

Telgi is so Indian

ANIL DHARKER

THE Telgi stamp scandal is big. The Telgi stamp scandal is national. The Telgi stamp scandal is all-encompassing. But, above all, the Telgi stamp scandal is Indian.

Consider its many elements. First, the rags to riches story of Abdul Karim Telgi, born 47 years ago in Khananpur near Belgaum to a minor functionary in the railways. The father died when Abdul Karim, the second of three sons, was still a child. He was determined to study and supported his own education at a local English medium missionary school by selling vegetables and fruit on trains. His one ambition, apparently, was to go to the Gulf, which suggests an early desire to make money.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. Except that our system, since the 1970s at least, encourages you to take short-cuts in the pursuit of money. And the late 1970s is when Telgi came to Mumbai from the Gulf, the legitimate ways of making money too slow for his liking, and discovered the joys of forgery. From forging passport documents (which is a cottage industry in India) to forging stamp paper and revenue stamps is a small leap in imagination but requires a large leap in entrepreneurship. Telgi was equal to that, and the rest is (recent and dark) history, showing once again that entrepreneurship which flouts the law thrives most in our country.

We have often seen how our system of checks and balances to prevent corruption, in fact encourages it, and the larger the scope of a scam, the more likely it is to succeed spectacularly. Telgi's fake stamp scam is the biggest ever in the country, and it was possible because of this simple, yet unshakeable Indian truth: everyone, or at least almost everyone is corruptible. From the constable to the cabinet minister, everyone, or at least almost everyone is on the take. Telgi's corruption network must be far, far larger than the arrests made until now suggest (12 policemen at various levels and two MLAs). The Telgi tapes, over 1,200 hours of his phone conversations secretly taped by the Karnataka police while he was in jail, must have a lot of very senior policemen, other officials and ministers quaking in their boots now.

In the meantime, let's just look at the policemen so far in the net. The most spectacular of them, in terms of greed, is Assistant Police Inspector Dilip Kamath. The salary for this fairly low-level post is Rs.9,000 per month. The SIT (The Special Investigative Team in charge of conducting the investigation into the scam), estimates that Kamath's assets are in the range of — hold your breath — Rs.100 crores! A Senior Inspector in the crime Branch, Vashisht Andale (salary Rs.14,500), according to the SIT, was only half as greedy, with assets estimated by the investigating agency to be in the vicinity of Rs. 50 crores. The senior most policeman caught so far, Joint Commissioner of Police Sridhar Vagal, (salary Rs. 24,000 per month) has amassed assets, according to the SIT again, of Rs. 25, crores. For these very, very large bribes, Abdul Karim Telgi got very, very large favours. The biggest of course, was to carry on unhindered, the business of forging government stamp paper. The fact that this translates into defrauding the government of very large revenues, isn't something that bothered our keepers of the law, as long as their own demands were met. Among the smaller favours Telgi obtained from the police was to stay in an air-conditioned hotel room when he was supposed to be in jail. And to make unlimited cell phone calls while in jail. By the time Telgi came to need Vagal and Company, he had already learnt that the right sum of money into the right pocket at the right time, ensures that an official head will look the wrong way when wanted. That, in fact, was how his stamp paper career started: he was able to bribe insiders to give him the production programmes of the heavily guarded Government Security Press in Nashik, so that he knew what denomination and category of papers were being printed at any given time, so his own press could do the same. Even more importantly, Telgi was able to buy special printing machines from the Nashik press which had supposedly gone beyond their shelf life, and were meant to be destroyed and sold as scrap. Telgi did buy them as scrap (at an auction which was fixed in his favour), but he was able to ensure that the presses were NOT destroyed as they were meant to be.

Another reason why the Telgi scam is so very Indian is that it involves so much of official incompetence. Whether the incompetence was just that or was motivated, is for the SIT to find out. Telgi was first arrested in June 1995. The MRA Marg police station in Mumbai which seized stamp papers from him suspected them to be fake and sat on them for four whole months before sending them to the Security Press at Nashik for verification and testing. Was that "buying time" in more ways than one? In any case, when the 331 documents were sent to Nashik, a senior functionary there certified them all to be genuine. As it happens, the government stamp office in Mumbai told the police that these 331 stamp papers had NOT been sold by them. So who had? If the police had investigated further, that too might have stopped Telgi before his scam became such a massive fraud.

Two more elements make the Telgi scam thoroughly Indian. The first is the very scope of the scam. Initial figures said that the fraud totalled Rs. 2,000 crores. That already massive figure has steadily been increased so that in some circles the estimate goes up to Rs. 26,000 crores and in some even to Rs. 32,000 crores. Where do these staggering figures come from? And why are these being bandied about so loosely? This suggests the usual rumour mill in action, kept in check neither by the authorities nor the media. Surely it would be possible to get a better approximation by looking at annual figures of stamp papers officially sold over the last few years, looking at the annual rate of growth and checking if there was a large fall in the sales figures in the last few years. That reduction would give a reasonably accurate estimate of the market cornered by Telgi.

The very last, but not the very least, Indianness of the Telgi scam lies in its primary source: the stamp paper. Why is stamp paper needed? It's a vestige of bureaucracy from the British empire and which the British — and much of the developed world — has done away with now. We know that it is a large source of revenue for the government, but the government has many other ways of raising money. Doing away with the stamp paper requirement will reduce a bit of the red tape which strangles our lives every day. As a post-script, one can ask yet another question no one seems to be asking. Where has all the money gone? You can't hide thousands of crores in sheets under your bed; the money has to be somewhere. Why isn't the government interested in looking for it quickly before it disappears abroad?

Anil Dharker is a journalist, media critic and writer.

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