New Delhi: A Delhi court on Saturday extended till January 28 the interim bail granted to RJD chief Lalu Prasad in two Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation scam cases. Special Judge Arun Bhardwaj also extended the interim bail granted to Prasad’s wife Rabri Devi and son Tejashwi Yadav in the cases till January 28. On the said date, the court will pronounce order on the regular bail application of Prasad and others in the ED case.
The cases relate to alleged irregularities in granting the operational contract of two IRCTC hotels to a private firm. Seeking regular bail, Prasad, through his counsel, told the court he was not arrested during trial. “I appeared on summons and now there is no need of my custody because my custody was not sought when the probe was on. All documents are already seized and there is no vulnerable witness cited by ED,” he said. He also said he was 69 years old and unwell.
Yadav told the court he was in his teens when the alleged conspiracy started and he has no knowledge of what was going on. “ED is opposing for the sake of opposing. (There is) no allegation that we tried to hamper or influence the probe or tamper the evidence,” the accused said. ED opposed Prasad’s bail application, saying offence affecting the economy of the country as a whole and posing a serious threat to financial health of the country. “Just because we did not arrest the accused during the probe, it can’t be a ground for bail after he was summoned and appeared before the court. Bail is not automatic. Laundering was done through various persons and lawyers,” ED said, opposing the bail applications.
It added that names of employees were misused in laundering money that they are not even aware of. “They may try to tamper the evidence or influence the witnesses as some of them are their employees. They are still being examined,” ED said. All the accused are currently on interim bail in the money laundering case. The court reserved its order for 4pm on Prasad’s application for regular bail in the CBI case. He is currently on interim bail in the case. Other accused have already been granted regular bail in the CBI case.
According to the chargesheet filed by CBI, between 2004 and 2014, a conspiracy was hatched in pursuance of which BNR hotels of the Indian Railways, located in Puri and Ranchi, were first transferred to IRCTC and later, for its operations, maintenance and upkeep, given on lease to Sujata Hotels Private Limited, which is based in Patna, Bihar. It is alleged that the tender process was rigged and manipulated and the conditions were tweaked to help the private party – Sujata Hotels. Based on the CBI case, ED also lodged a case of money laundering against Prasad, Devi, Yadav and others.
In the CBI chargesheet, the agency had said there was enough evidence against the three and others, including Additional Member of Railway Board B K Agarwal, who was then the group general manager of IRCTC. Besides them, former Union minister Prem Chand Gupta, his wife Sarla Gupta, then managing director of IRCTC P K Goyal and then IRCTC director Rakesh Saxena are also named as accused in the chargesheet. Among others named in the chargesheet are – then group general managers of IRCTC V K Asthana and R K Goyal and Vijay Kochhar, Vinay Kochhar, both directors of Sujata Hotels and owners of Chanakya Hotel.
Delight Marketing Company, now known as Lara Projects, and Sujata Hotels Private Limited have also been named as accused firms in the chargesheet. he CBI registered a case in July 2017, and carried out searches at 12 locations in Patna, Ranchi, Bhubaneswar and Gurgaon in connection with the case. The charges in the case include criminal conspiracy, cheating and corruption, CBI had said. It also claimed that on February 25, 2005, Vinay Kochhar sold commercial property in the form of three acres of land in Patna through 10 sale deeds for Rs 1.47 crore to Delight Marketing, in which Sarla Gupta was a director as a front benami holder on behalf of Prasad. Between 2010 and 2014, this land was further transferred, CBI alleged.
In 2001, it was decided to handover the management of catering services of the Indian Railways, including of its hotels, to the IRCTC. Two such hotels – BNR Hotels in Ranchi and Puri – were also identified and a memorandum of understanding was signed between the railways and the IRCTC on March 19, 2004. According to an FIR flied by CBI, Prasad, the then railway minister, entered into criminal conspiracy with the owner of Sujata Hotels, Sarla Gupta, wife of his close associate Prem Chand Gupta, a Rashtriya Janata Dal MP in Rajya Sabha, and IRCTC officials for “undue pecuniary advantage to himself and others”. The probe agency also alleged that BNR hotels were transferred to Sujata Hotels through a “rigged and manipulated” tender process managed by P K Goyal, the then managing director of IRCTC.
The CBI inquiry shows that the railways sought bids for developing, operating and maintaining Rail Ratna Hotels on September 16, 2006. The probe agency has alleged that Prasad was aware about the whole process and was keeping a track of the tender proceedings. It surfaced that while over 15 bid documents were received for both the hotels, IRCTC had no records of bidders other than Sujata Hotels. It was also alleged that with an intention to render undue pecuniary gains to Sujata Hotels, the bid of another hotel was deliberately and unreasonably given low marks under technical evaluation. “As a result, Sujata Hotels remained the only bidder in financial evaluation and was qualified,” CBI had alleged, adding that after the tender was awarded to Sujata Hotels, the ownership of Delight Marketing also changed hands from Sarla Gupta to Rabri and Tejashwi between 2010 and 2014.
By this time, Prasad had demitted the office of railway minister. He became Bihar’s chief minister in 1990, but had to resign in 1997 following corruption charges in the multi-crore rupees fodder scam. From 1997 to 2005 his wife Rabri ruled as the chief minister of the state and was replaced by JD(U) president Nitish Kumar. Prasad also served as railway minister from 2004 to 2009. The RJD again came back to power after forging an alliance with its bitter rival Janata Dal (United), led by Kumar in 2015, and Tejashwi Yadav became the deputy chief minister. However, Kumar parted ways from the RJD in July last year, marking the end of Yadav’s tenure.