The alleged forgery that was recently detected in a file signed by CM Uddhav Thackeray is just the tip of the iceberg of dubious government records in a country that is remarkably tolerant of the fake and fraudulent in every field.
There have been cases where file notings by IAS officers have been tampered with but two big cases show how high the stakes are and how audacious the forgers can get.
When Ajoy Mehta, currently adviser to the CM, was the Mumbai municipal commissioner in 2018, he alleged that forgers had reversed one of his orders, simply by changing should into shouldn’t. As a result, the BMC lost a prime plot of land in Jogeshwari worth Rs 500 crore.
In 2019, two Supreme Court employees were sacked for tampering with an order directing the personal presence of industrialist Anil Ambani in a contempt case. While uploading the order, the duo twisted it to imply that Ambani need not appear in person.
In the Uddhav case, someone had allegedly squeezed in a sentence in red ink above his signature, saying that the inquiry (against a PWD superintending engineer) be closed.
The inquiry, which was initiated by the previous government and endorsed by the present PWD minister Ashok Chavan, pertains to repairs at the JJ School of Arts campus. It seems that the art of Plunder Without Detection, as former PM Morarji Desai described the PWD, has been forgotten.
Land records and forgeries
The public works department may have an unenviable reputation but in the common man’s mind forgeries are associated with land records. The Bollywood hit, ‘Khosla ka Ghosla’, starring Anupam Kher and the just released ‘Kaagaz’ featuring Pankaj Tripathi, reflect this reality.
Chavan himself was embroiled in the land scandal of the last decade – the Adarsh housing society – which cost him his chief ministership.
While cases such as Adarsh get prominence, the manipulation of land records in the outskirts of expanding cities by talathis and tehsildars go unreported. The government itself has lost thousands of acres of land through systematic tampering of records. Of late, the National Land Record Modernisation Programme is trying to fix the problem.
The urban talathis and tehsildars are the office-bearers of cooperative housing societies who delay, deny and defraud members -- for instance, transfer of property to the rightful heirs of deceased members. The extent of fraud and forgery here is no less than that in rural areas.
The falsification and skulduggery involved in schemes to redevelop old and not-so-old housing colonies in cities is so intricate and extensive that reputed builders employ a dummy builder and step in only after getting vacant possession of the plot.
Byword for corruption
Staying with real estate, which is a goldmine for unscrupulous builders, the SRA (Slum Rehabilitation Authority) is a byword for corruption in Maharashtra. In Juhu, even filmstars were found to be beneficiaries of this scheme which promises free houses to slumdwellers on government land in lieu of TDR, i.e. rights to construct additional storeys on a plot towards the suburbs.
It is another matter that most of these slums house illegal immigrants, who have managed to get ration cards and Aadhaar cards. The Pakistani hijackers of Indian Airlines flight IC 814 in 1999 had even obtained Indian passports based on fake driving licences made in Mumbai. It was after this that the procedure to get a passport was tightened.
‘Fake it till you make it’ seems to be our mantra. Educational institutes are deluged with fake certificates from students and employers struggle to distinguish the genuine from the fake. In fact, we don’t see it as forgery but as ‘jugaad’.
Included in this fake-in-India cottage industry are forged missives, certificates and recommendations from high offices, including the PMO. So blasé are we about such things that the Uddhav file forgery has hardly made a splash in the media. Or, one can blame it on cynicism, given the all-pervasive corruption.
Leading by example
It must be considered that the Government itself sets a bad example when it doesn’t bat an eyelid before giving incorrect or one-sided information in a court affidavit. For instance, the Union Government claims that it held pre-legislative consultations on the contentious farm laws. Last year, the Uttar Pradesh government insisted that the alleged gang-rape victim in Hathras had been cremated with the consent of her family.
And ‘karma’ doesn’t catch up with such cheats. Several candidates file false affidavits during the nomination process but the Election Commission of India only threatens them with strict action. Meanwhile, those who have lied about their educational qualifications become education ministers.
By the time it is proved that the victor in a poll had submitted a false caste certificate, chances are that they have already completed their five-year term.
The problem is compounded by the fact that it is not easy to prove forgery because of legal loopholes. For instance, it is difficult to pin the blame for a forged document on the person who submitted it but did not make it. Also, the laws against counterfeiting and piracy lack teeth.
The forgery in the Maharashtra CM’s file was reportedly detected when PWD minister Ashok Chavan saw the red ink remark and smelt a rat. The file was sent back to the CM’s office and was tallied with the scanned copy which did not have the remark.
However, the case may drag on for years, just as in the case of Ajoy Mehta. In fact, the defence lawyer there contended that there was no forgery at all.
Western countries take forgery seriously. The UK has a national document fraud unit, which has a user-friendly website to familiarise people with commonly used identity documents, to provide a basic awareness of document abuse and to give out a simple checklist to verify documents.
Serious Fraud Investigation Office
India is catching up in this area, with the upgrading of the Serious Fraud Investigation Office (SFIO) consisting of experts in the field of accountancy, forensic auditing, law, information technology, investigation, company law, capital market and taxation.
The SFIO, as well as the cybercrime units of police forces have a huge challenge on their hands, given the low level of cyber literacy; even seasoned journalists and premier institutions fall prey to phishing attacks.
In 2019, Rs 12 crore was siphoned off from the bank account of the AIIMS, using cloned cheques. In the Rs 19 lakh e-wallet forgery case of last year it came to light that even fingerprints were sold. Such cases have increased manifold during the lockdown and the cops have a lot of catching up to do even in economic offences.
To end with, a nugget from Maratha history. A forgery is believed to have led to the assassination of the 17-year-old Peshwa Narayan Rao in 1773 in Pune’s Shaniwarwada.
His uncle Raghunathrao, the regent, sent a missive to his guards to kidnap Narayanrao but it was intercepted by his wife Anandibai, who changed one alphabet in it to convert it an order to murder the teenager.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.