A devious conman or just an agent of his victims’ aspiration? The cheated tell Shobhita Naithani how it happened
GALI NUMBER paanch (five) of west Delhi’s Hind Vihar is fairly hushed except for a group of children who play in the slushy puddles, the result of a relieving downpour in Delhi’s sweltering heat. At the end of a grimy, dented street, a woman in her 40s sits on the floor and stares into nothingness. Grieving relatives encircle her. One of them leads me up the poorly-lit steep stairs of the unventilated two-room duplex. The rest of the family follows. “This is where I found him,” says Paramhans Kumar, 25, pointing to a decrepit double- bed in the terrace room. “He was unconscious and lay face down. The left of his face was soaked in ulti (vomit),” he says.
At about 10:30am on June 22, 2009, Kumar’s older brother Ashok Gupta committed suicide by consuming poison. Gupta’s wife and three children were not home at the time. Gupta, a scrap dealer for the last 18 years, was rushed to the hospital and declared dead after seven hours.
A stone’s throw from Gupta’s house is the office of Stop Loss Commodities Private Limited, an investment company owned by Subhash Aggarwal. Once bustling with clients buoyed by the idea of making big money quickly, Stop Loss today lies desolate in its vanished activity. The images of fantasy holidays on its outer walls are testimony to the empty promises made to gullible investors. It is the only three- storied building in an area where roads, power and water are permanent predicaments. Around the ‘opulent’ building lie thousands of brick dwellings inhabited mostly by drivers, grocers, chemists, owners of small eateries, dhurrieweavers and scrap dealers.
Aggarwal allegedly swindled over 5,000 residents of West Delhi’s Nangloi and neighbouring areas like Aman Vihar, Prem Nagar, Satya Enclave and Mundka. The 44-year-old, who belongs to Haryana’s Rohtak town, moved to Nangloi about two and half years ago and cleaned up with around Rs 1,000 crore. Inhabitants recall that for the first six months, the Aggarwal family lived on rent and Aggarwal himself rode a ramshackle scooter. He soon started an investment company called Bonanza and conducted some intense footwork. He sweet-talked almost half the locality into investing in his new scheme, which assured extraordinarily high returns. Most folks remained wary, so the enterprising ‘businessman’ found himself an enabler in the form of local property dealer Satpal, who owned almost half the colony and had been living in the area for over 20 years. Making inroads into people’s homes became easier. “Everyone in the settlement had got his or her house through Satpal. And since Satpal was ready to lend a hand to everyone in troubled times, we trusted his association with Aggarwal,” says Rakesh Maurya, a local.
Thence, there was no stopping Aggarwal. He promised Rs 1,000 interest every month on a one-time investment of Rs 10,000. Soon, word of mouth got going in the locality, which remains isolated from modern opportunities and facilities. In our society where public status has begun to matter more than formal track records, and where personal reputations are made and broken through mere image and hearsay, people become desperate to seek quick means of elevation.
For getting rich quick is not just about easing your material wretchedness – it’s also about keeping your self-confidence afloat. Aggarwal’s confidence was infectious, which is another way of saying the man was inspirational.
Till the Sensex soared, so did Aggarwal. He would return his investors’ money and then convince them to re-invest those very same returns with him. When the markets crashed six months ago, he failed to return the promised amounts even though his borrowing continued. “On paper we are lakhpatis and crorepatis, but in reality we are beggars,” says Jamlal, who runs a dona and pattal (bowls and plates made from leaves) business in the area. The 40-year-old had invested Rs 3 lakh in January 2009 and was looking forward to receiving Rs 5 lakh in the next four months. Today, Jamlal speaks of the unexpected anguish. “I wanted to save as much as I could for my handicapped daughter, and I have nothing today. It’s like losing 10 years of your life.”
The fraud first came to light on May 18, 2009 when several investors found that Aggarwal’s cheques had begun to bounce. When confronted, Aggarwal defended himself by declaring that he had moved the money into another account for income tax reasons, and cajoled his audience into believing they would receive their money soon. The next morning, he fled, followed soon by Satpal.
Seventy-three-year-old Ajith Khan was the first to invest with Aggarwal. A carpet weaver, Khan sold 40 acres of his land in his Uttar Pradesh village to invest with Stop Loss. He aspired to marry off his two daughters into wealthy families. Khan started his investment with Rs 20,000, and ended putting in about Rs 26 lakh, with a promise of it all doubling soon. “He ruined my head. At 73, I have to start from scratch,” says Khan.
Gupta had invested heavily with Stop Loss. His widow Anita Devi recalls that since Aggarwal went missing, her husband ate little, barely slept and had turned into a recluse. “He never talked about anything with me. Every time the phone rang, he would panic. When I asked him why he was so tense, he would say it wasn’t for me to worry,” says Anita.
FATE SEEMED sealed for Gupta when Aggarwal and his wife Snehlata were arrested by the Delhi Police on June 12, 2009. “In hindsight, I don’t think he had a way out of the deep mess he had got himself into,” says Kumar of his brother. Gupta’s phone records show that after consuming poison, he called up his friend and local financier Jassu, who says Gupta told him he was killing himself since he had lost a lot of money. The family is still clueless about exactly how much Gupta had invested in Stop Loss. They cannot find the papers for the house they live in, and suspect that Gupta might have mortgaged the house.
Gupta’s desperate move drew public and media attention to the enormity of the issue. “Before that nobody even came to ask us how much we had lost,” says Manku, who runs a sweets shop in the area. Manku lost over a lakh of rupees. He remains distressed, but says, “Madam, is duniya me laalach kisko nahin aata (who in this world isn’t smitten with greed?)” But when does greed tip into negative territory? It’s not tough to tell apart the greed of Manku and Gupta from that of Aggarwal’s. While the duo’s desires revolved around attaining money for better education and housing for their children, Aggarwal was out to bilk anyone who was an easy prey.
Many had borrowed from kin to invest. Personal reputations are again at stake. Regret casts a dark, dry cloud
Today, the entire neighbourhood is engulfed in a discussion on how it should have shown restraint before bowing down to the imp of laalach (greed). Many had borrowed from friends and kin to invest. Personal reputations are again at stake. Regret casts a dark, dry cloud.
Before Stop Loss ran out of favour (and access to credit), the common refrain was that its investors were the dhanwan, buddhiman and gundwan (the wealthy, intelligent and those with character). Only the murkhs (fools) hadn’t invested. Today, thedhanwans, buddhimans and gundwans curse Aggarwal. “Woh Ravan ka baap tha (he was Ravan’s father). He will never ever live happily again and will die a dog’s death,” says Jamlal.
Starting from scratch will be a tall order for the Khans and the Guptas. Those with proof of investment have filed complaints with the police, but there are many others who claim they weren’t given a receipt at the time of investment and therefore have nothing to show. While there has been some emotional relief for the victims with Aggarwal’s arrest, the closure of the case, with the recovery of the money, seems far from over.