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The ED says Chhattisgarh government officers created ‘benami’ assets in coal levy scams; everything’s attached

Some Chhattisgarh government bureaucrats, including Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel’s deputy secretary Saumya Chaurasia, an IAS officer named Sameer Vishnoi, and coal traders allegedly associated with them, allegedly “used” their relatives to create “benami” assets. The ED attached the properties of these individuals worth over Rs 150 crore on Saturday.

Earlier this year, the federal probe agency alleged that a “grand conspiracy” had taken place in the natural resource-rich state to perpetrate a coal levy ‘scam’ that resulted in the theft of Rs 540 crore.

The Enforcement Directorate launched a money laundering investigation in October after a raid was conducted on Vishnoi, who was working as the chief executive officer of Chhattisgarh Infotech Promotion Society (CHIPS). In the past, he served as the director of the geology and mining department as well as the managing director of the Chhattisgarh Mineral Development Corporation (CMDC), during the tenure of the incumbent Congress government headed by Chief Minister Baghel.

A number of raids were conducted in Chhattisgarh, including some at the residence of Suryakant Tiwari, the “main ringleader” of the scam, as well as the homes of his relatives and other coal traders.

Under the criminal provisions of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), the federal probe agency issued a provisional order on Friday for the attachment of 91 immovable and movable properties of the accused in the case, including flats, jewellery, coal washeries, and plots.

According to the Enforcement Directorate, the assets are valued at Rs 152.31 crore in total.

It is reported that 65 properties belong to Suryakant Tiwari, 21 properties belong to Chaurasia, a powerful state administrative service official posted in the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO), and five assets belong to Vishnoi, in addition to others owned by another Chhattisgarh coal businessman, Sunil Agarwal.

According to the ED, the lands include agricultural lands measuring 63.38 acres in Hirri, Potiya and Sevati in Durg district, agricultural lands measuring 10 acres in Rasni and Arang in Raipur and commercial lands measuring 12 acres in Thakuraintola (Durg district) and some farmhouses.

In addition to these four individuals, the ED arrested another businessman, Laxmikant Tiwari (uncle of Suryakant Tiwari).

It is believed that the money laundering case stems from a complaint filed with the Income Tax department following raids conducted by the taxman in June.

A cartel with the involvement of senior bureaucrats, businessmen, politicians, and middlemen has been extorting an illegal levy of Rs 25 per tonne of coal in Chhattisgarh, according to the ED investigation.

In the last two years, the probe found that at least Rs 540 crore had been “extorted”.

A large number of handwritten diary entries have been analyzed by ED. A thorough investigation has been conducted by the ED, not only by relying on the diary entries, but also by analyzing seized bank accounts, analyzing seized WhatsApp messages, performing interviews (of approximately 100 individuals), and so on, in order to support the diary entries.

The ED alleges that influential members of the extortion syndicate such as Suryakant Tiwari, Saumya Chaurasia, Sameer Vishnoi have been using their relatives to create benami assets.

It was alleged that land deals were conducted at minimum check amounts, and that large sums of cash were infused into the purchase of assets from the proceeds of extortion.

The term “benami asset” refers to any property that is the subject of a benami transaction as well as the proceeds from such a property. When a “benami transaction” occurs, a property is transferred or held by a person for consideration, which is provided or paid by another individual. In a real estate transaction, the property is held for the immediate or future benefit of the owner.

In most cases, the ‘benamidaars’ (in whose names Benami property stands) did not have the minimum amount of capital to conduct land deals.

As a result of this, small unsecured loans were taken from multiple people in exchange for cash in order to create capital for the purchase of land.

Furthermore, after the IT raids on June 30, in a panic to avoid attachment by IT/ED, many assets were sold to Sunil Agarwal in order to avoid “alienation” of the tainted assets.

Suryakant Tiwari was referred to as the agency’s “main henchman” at the ground level, who deployed his employees throughout various regions to extort money from coal transporters and industrialists. He and his team were physically coordinating with lower-level government officials, coal transporters, and representatives of user companies.

“Since his employees were spread across the state, they maintained WhatsApp groups, excel sheets of each coal delivery order and the extorted amounts and shared them with Suryakant Tiwari, who in turn maintained detailed handwritten diaries of the incoming bribe amounts and their utilisation for purchase of benami lands, payment of bribes, payments for political expenditure, etc.” “This kind of systemic extortion was not possible without the knowledge and active participation of the state machinery,” it said.

In light of the fact that it (alleged extortion racket) continued uninterrupted for two years without raising any FIRs and collected approximately Rs 500 crore, the ED stated that all the accused persons were acting in concert at the instructions of individuals at the highest level, who have authority and control over the state machinery.

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