Uncle Bansal’s Gravy Train

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The nephew Vijay Singla,
The nephew Vijay Singla, Photo: Indian Express Archive/Jaipal Singh

In the Mahabharata, Shakuni, the cunning mama (maternal uncle) plants the seed of war in the mind of his bhanja (nephew) Duryodhana, which eventually leads to the downfall of the Kaurava clan. And if Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal is to be believed, in the 21st century version of the epic with an uncharacteristic role-reversal played out in New Delhi’s Rail Bhavan, an unsuspecting mama has become the victim of his opportunistic bhanja, Vijay Singla. Despite his “I have nothing to do with my nephew” claim, the meteoric rise of the Bansal clan in Chandigarh leaves little to the imagination.

The CBI has arrested Singla for accepting a Rs 90 lakh bribe to fix a coveted post in the Railway Board. Surprisingly, the sleuths are yet to question Bansal, 64, despite overwhelming coincidences of a concomitant rise in the fortunes of the uncle-nephew duo.

“Today, if Bansal’s kin have put a post in the Railways’ highest governing body on sale, the day is not far when the railway minister’s post will also be sold off by such relatives,” says Satya Pal Jain, the national head of the BJP’s legal and legislative cell. “Today, he has denied links with his nephew. In the past, he had denied links to his own son. I wonder who he is going to deny relations with next. He should come out of his rathole and give an explanation.”

The rise of Singla, 42, the son of Bansal’s late sister Prem Lata, in Chandigarh’s power circles has been astronomical. Born and educated in Bhatinda, Singla is believed to have been an obedient son tasked with operating his father Mithan Lal Singla’s oil mill. The Bansals and Singlas were a tightly knit family — a typical Bania household where a helping hand in family and business matters is always on standby. As the oil mill business had little scope for expansion, the Singlas decided to move to Chandigarh in the early 1980s, encouraged by Bansal’s steady rise in the city’s politics.

Bansal, who started his political career in 1976, had risen to become president of the Punjab Pradesh Youth Congress and the Chandigarh Territorial Youth Congress in 1982. The Singlas are believed to have moved into a rented apartment in Panchkula upon their arrival in Chandigarh and their help was immediately enlisted by Bansal to further his political career at a time when the Congress was slowly turning into a much despised party in Punjab owing to its crackdown on Sikh extremism.

Bansal soon found himself in favour with the Congress high command. In 1984, the year of Operation Bluestar, Bansal was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Chandigarh from where began his journey into national politics.

Photo: Dijeshwar Singh
Photo: Dijeshwar Singh

People close to him reveal that Singla, who was just a budding teenager, was chosen by Bansal to “keep an eye” on Chandigarh while he was away in Delhi. Singla was the chosen one because Bansal’s own sons were adolescents at the time of his elevation to the Rajya Sabha. In 1990, when Bansal’s tenure finished, Singla had used his business acumen to set up Jagan Industries. In 1991, when Bansal was elected to the Lok Sabha from Chandigarh, Singla set up JTL Infra Ltd, a Rs 1,000 crore company as of date — involved in the manufacturing of galvanised steel pipes and structural steel with a factory in Dera Bassi, located 15 km away from Chandigarh.

Bansal’s detractors have called for a probe into how Singla mobilised funds to start a steel manufacturing unit. All the directors at JTL Infra turned out to be Bansal’s nephews. Even though Bansal has denied links to any of his nephews’ dealings, the fact remains that his nephew Vikram, one of the directors at JTL Infra, used Bansal’s address (No. 64, Sector 28-A, Chandigarh) in documents submitted to the Registrar of Companies (ROC). By the time Bansal’s first Lok Sabha tenure was nearing its end in 1995, Singla’s company had generated enough funds without a bank loan to start another unit at the Urla Industrial Estate in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, by incorporating a company called Chetan Industries Ltd.

Bansal lost two successive elections until his re-election in 1999. However, the time away from Delhi gave him a chance to consolidate his power in Chandigarh after being appointed the president of the Chandigarh Territorial Congress Committee in 1997. For Singla, Bansal’s stint in the wilderness meant that business was dull. During that time, only one company was opened with Bansal’s nephew Vikram as one of the directors. The firm called Vibgyor Designs was registered in August 1998 and again Vikram mentioned his uncle’s Chandigarh address in submissions before the ROC.

Even as Bansal has denied links with any of his nephews, company documents accessed by the BJP mention that Vibgyor Designs had given loans worth Rs 5 lakh each to his elder son Amit and his wife Madhu in addition to a loan of 8 lakh to his younger son Manish. When Bansal was re-elected to the Lok Sabha in 1999, Singla continued to expand his parent company, JTL Infra, by opening a branch at Bakersfield in the US (TEHELKA’s request for information on the US branch, called Diana Products Company, was repudiated by Singla’s company officials and they refused to divulge any information).

Singla and Bansal’s kith and kin expanded their business with a vengeance in 2004 when Bansal was re-elected to the Lok Sabha for a third term. In 2004-10, Bansal’s near and dear opened six companies.

Singla’s first investment, and perhaps the most significant of them all, was in 2004. Chandigarh was witnessing a spike in property prices. The result was a mad rush for land in the tri-city comprising Panchkula, Mohali and Chandigarh. Along with his brother Madan Mohan and Bansal’s relatives, Singla entered the real estate sector by establishing Jagan Realtors. Singla scouted for prime land around Chandigarh and acquired 100 acres for building a residential project in Dera Bassi. According to sources, the prime location is worth hundreds of crores at current market rates.

It is also learnt that Singla bought another 30 acres for a school project in Zirakpur, which is on Chandigarh’s periphery. The BJP has accused Singla of buying this land for establishing a second branch of Delhi Public School in collaboration with the Heritage Educational Trust in which Bansal and Congress MP Ambika Soni, along with her husband Uday Soni, are trustees.

Singla also acquired a four-acre commercial plot in Chandigarh’s Industrial Area-1. While Singla was expanding his land banks in the city, the big impetus to transforming these into business opportunities came in 2008 when Singla established another real estate firm named Mirage Infra. Of the three directors of this firm — Singla and Madan Mohan were Bansal’s nephews while the third director, Chetan Singla, was Singla’s nephew.

Mirage Infra’s most significant investment was the Acropolis Mall, spread over four acres, built with an investment of Rs 1,000 crore in Industrial Area-1.

“It defies commonsense how someone can raise such amounts of money without relying on bank loans in a span of a few years when the operating profits of their steel business as of 2012 was only around Rs 60 crore,” says Jannat Jahan, a local BSP councillor. “Bansal and his relatives have become a mafia in Chandigarh, and are trying to take over the city with their political muscle.”

The significant inroads into Chandigarh’s real estate market was just one aspect of the stupendous rise of Bansal’s near and dear. Between the acquisition of large swathes of land in 2004 and starting construction in 2008, there were a host of other companies floated by Bansal’s relatives, including his sons.

In 2005, as Bansal entered the second year of his third Lok Sabha stint, his sons Manish and Amit floated a company called Theon Pharmaceuticals. This company also had Bansal’s daughters-in-law Monika and Shiana, along with his nephew Punit Bansal, on the board of directors.

In a report released last May, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare had pointed out that Theon Pharma was selling five drugs (Pregabalin, Methylcobolamine, Alpha Lipolic Acid, Pyridoxine and Folic Acid) for which phase-3 clinical trials mandated by the Drug and Cosmetic Rules were never conducted. It also found that Theon Pharma was selling a drug (Pregabalin), which had been banned in the West. “There is no scientific evidence that the drug was safe and effective on Indian patients,” says the report.

In addition, the Drugs Control Laboratory, Aurangabad, had found that Theon Pharma’s medicines were sub-standard, with most containing less than the prescribed limits of drugs required to effectively treat a patient.

Thus Bansal’s son was selling ineffective drugs at high prices to poor patients. When grilled by the media in 2007, Bansal denied any links with his son’s firm — an argument that he has been making in the railways bribery scam involving his nephew. This despite the fact that all his sons and their wives had mentioned Bansal’s address in Theon Pharma’s documents filed before the ROC.

As Bansal consolidated his political power, his sons and nephews not just diversified into real estate and pharma but also into energy and education. A firm called Bansi Raunaq Energy Group was registered in 2006 with his wife and sons on the board of directors, which again mentioned Bansal’s address in company documents.

[EasyGallery id=’bansal’]

In 2009, when Bansal was re-elected for a fourth term, his sons opened two more companies — Iva Healthcare in 2009 and Isis Packaging in 2010. Both had his wife, sons and daughters-in-law in the board of directors. Though many of these firms are unlisted in the stock market, his political detractors have pegged the value of Bansal and his extended family of nephews at Rs 5,000 crore. However, according to his election affidavit, Bansal’s net worth is disclosed at a little over Rs 3 crore.

Bansal is known as a man who rewards loyalty; while Singla is known to be a wily business networker who would often clinch deals with Bansal’s invisible hand and brand. Bansal’s formidability in Chandigarh is also sustained by his “local loyalists” such as councillor Pradeep Chhabra and mayor Subash Chawla.

In 2011, BJP leader Sushma Swaraj set the cat among the pigeons when she flashed a report in the Lok Sabha prepared by Chandigarh Additional Deputy Commissioner PS Shergill which named Bansal and Chhabra of fraudulently allotting more than 100 shopping booths worth hundreds of crores to people who were never entitled to these shops. While Union Territory administrator Shivraj Patil had promised a CBI probe, nothing ever came of it. Shergill had examined in detail about how Chhabra had influenced lower-level policemen who went for the inspection of burnt down shops and prepared false reports about fake claimants.

“If Bansal’s corruption in Chandigarh has to be probed, then it is important to include Chhabra. He is more dangerous than Singla because he exercises both political and financial power,” says BJP leader Raghuvir Arora.

Bansal’s writ runs large in Chandigarh and there have been instances when he has been accused of ruling by fear. Traders recount how Bansal has often used vendetta to wean support. Last December, the UT administration raided the shops of three top-most office holders of the politically influential grain market in Chandigarh and filed an FIR against them for tax evasion and incorporating illegal firms. All three were members of the BJP. Barely two months later, the leaders of a market that determines the fruits and vegetable prices of the city, switched allegiance to the Congress.

Not surprisingly, Bansal presided over the function to welcome them into the Congress fold. “All these small leaders act as cronies of Bansal and they have made him the father figure of Chandigarh, which is a big misconception. He is nothing but an opportunist and has made the city a corrupt place,” says Jahan.

While the CBI seems reluctant to interrogate Bansal, the rail bribery scam has only exposed the tip of a murky iceberg. From the Karunanidhi clan in Tamil Nadu to the Pawar family of Maharashtra to the Bansal clan in Chandigarh, Indian politics seems to have become irreparably infected with the “big-daddy syndrome”, a disease that threatens to erode the very foundations of Indian democracy.

sai.manish@tehelka.com

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