FPJ Special | Chhattisgarh coal scam: ED says scamsters maintained extensive records on illegal levy collection via WhatsApp groups

FPJ Special | Chhattisgarh coal scam: ED says scamsters maintained extensive records on illegal levy collection via WhatsApp groups

Coal scamsters used WhatsApp groups for record maintenance as the messaging app offers users end-to-end encryption, which means nobody except the sender and recipient can read messages.

Abhishek SharanUpdated: Tuesday, February 21, 2023, 12:11 PM IST
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FPJ Special | Chhattisgarh coal scam: ED says scamsters maintained extensive records on illegal levy collection via WhatsApp groups | Representative Image

The Enforcement Directorate’s (ED) investigation into Chhattisgarh’s coal levy scam has allegedly revealed that the accused had created specific WhatsApp groups to keep account of / update in real-time their extortion transactions, ED sources told FPJ on Monday.

They were forced to do so because of the large scale of their levy-collection activities, which spanned across the state’s coal-producing districts, they said.

WhatsApp offers users end-to-end encryption, which means nobody except the sender and recipient can read messages.

The agency, which has carried out searches in multiple cities, including Pune and Delhi, apart from those in Chhattisgarh, opened the investigation on the basis of a case registered on the complaint of the Income Tax Department. It recently submitted a supplementary case charge-sheet.

ED investigating alleged cartel of bureaucrats, biz men, etc.

The ED is investigating an alleged cartel – comprising bureaucrats, businessmen, politicians and touts – that imposed a levy of Rs25 per tonne of coal being transported in Chhattisgarh. About Rs540 crore was allegedly acquired by the imposition of the levy, according to the ED.

So far, the agency has arrested nine people under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act. The investigation has found that the cartel used a wide range of tools – including electronic / virtual ones – to collect and maintain its accounts, according to the sources.

Hand written diaries and excel sheets were maintained

“Since a large number of stakeholders were involved, well-documented, handwritten diaries and Excel sheets of coal delivery orders were maintained to keep account of the widespread extortion taking place in the state,” an official said.

“Diaries were maintained as per the instructions of Suryakant Tiwari [a coal trader and one of the accused] and were written by his brother… and other associates. Such was the scale and extent of the extortion couple with the fact that people were placed at strategic locations, that the accused maintained WhatsApp groups, so that the extortion amount could be updated in real time,” the ED’s charge sheet says.

The accused were allegedly in direct contact with district-level mining officials and through Whatsapp. According to the ED, a few officials had allegedly accepted that the entire system of issuance of the No Objection Certificate (NOC) was a sham. They admitted that no NOC was given against a coal delivery order unless the levy was paid to the employees of the accused, whose behaved with impunity because they were backed by certain bureaucracy.

The racket had allegedly benefited from a July 2020 order that substituted the existing system that combined online verification with manual verification of delivery order by concerned District Mining Offices (DMO), the sources said.

Shocking revelations from the probe

The probe revealed that the DMOs verified and approved the delivery orders only after the levy had been collected by associates of Tiwari, the sources said.

The ED has provisionally attached assets worth Rs 170 crore as part of its money-laundering probe.

On Monday the ED conducted searches at over a dozen locations in Chhattisgarh including at premises linked to state Congress leaders as part of its investigation, the sources said. The searches came days before the start of the three-day plenary session (beginning February 24 in Raipur) of the Congress, which is in power in the state. Top state Congress leaders criticised the agency’s searches, calling it “vendetta politics” by the Centre, a charge that was rejected by a Cabinet minister. The Congress also questioned the timing of the searches.

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