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A Carrion Crow

A Carrion Crow

Author: Smruti Koppikar
Publication: Outlook
Date: August 17, 2009
URL: http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?261229

Introduction: Nashik's garbage boys are victims, the Buta-son bust brings out the stink

"Hang him, he has cheated the poorest of the poor," screams an agitated Sanjay Thoke, taking a moment from work at the garbage dump in Saptshringi, Nashik. The man he's venting his ire at is Ramrao Patil, the contractor-builder at the centre of the scam that got veteran Congress leader and National Commission for SCs and STs chairman Buta Singh and son Sarabjot into trouble. Thoke, in his late 20s, gets worked up every time someone mentions the "fake loan case", as the municipal conservancy workers here call it. After an 8-10 hour shift on the ghanta-gaadi, a tractor-powered trailer that picks up garbage door-to-door on behalf of the Nashik Municipal Corporation (NMC), it's the least he can do.

Thoke recalls that evening in late June at his tiny shed-like home in Wadala gaon-a colony of daily-wage and contract labour, mainly Dalits and scheduled castes-when he was attempting to make sense of an "intimidating looking paper from some bank". It was the final notice for Thoke to pay up a loan he had supposedly defaulted on in the last few years. The total amount he owed was over Rs 11 lakh. This, when the man earns a salary of Rs 3,200 per month, barely enough to keep his family fed and clothed. "Look at me, look at my house," he says, "even if I sell this room and everything in it, I won't get Rs 11,000. How could I have taken a loan against it that runs into lakhs?"

Thoke isn't the only one. There's Nandu Bhagat from Akola district who drifted to Nashik in search of work to supplement his family's farm labour income. He too got a 'final notice' from the Sahkarmitra Shri Chandrakant Hari Bade Urban Cooperative Credit Society, headquartered in Varangaon, Jalgaon district. "The only loans I have taken is a few hundred rupees for festivals. I haven't even heard of this credit society," he says. Then there's Manoj Ahire, who says even if they all got together they would not be able to raise even a lakh of rupees. Keshav Bhuktare is another victim-a man who works double shifts on the ghanta-gaadi ("I only see and smell garbage all day," he says) so he can afford school for his two children.

At last count, there are about a hundred people who have received 'final notices' for amounts ranging from Rs 11 lakh to Rs 15,97,000, for loans they supposedly took in 2003-04. Apparently, the contractor at the time, Ramrao Patil, took loans in their names from the New Panvel branch of the credit society to finance garbage collection contracts elsewhere in the state. With the money, he bought tractors and trailers, set up a distribution agency and diversified into construction. The outstanding loan, in these workers' names, is now over Rs 10 crore.

As worker after worker approached their union, the NMC Shramik Sangh, the extent of the scam began to unfold. But the Nashik police would still not entertain the case. The union persuaded Buta Singh to pull rank. Buta was in Nashik for a day on July 10 and the case was registered a day later. Bhuktare was the complainant. Another 36 were asked to file one-page affidavits stating that their complaints were similar in nature. Ramrao Patil is charged under IPC sections 420, 465, 468, 471 and Section 3 of the Prevention of Atrocities Act. The investigation is still on and ACP Digambar Kale is on record saying "if we had found him, he would have been behind bars".

Sources told Outlook that Patil's web of fraud even involves his two wives, sister and her family, cousins and nephews, taking the scale of the loan scam into a few hundred crores, if not more. A well-placed source says "he has defaulted on loans taken from Godavari Urban Cooperative Bank as well as the Indian Mercantile Bank in his relatives' names...this workers' loan scam came to light thanks to the government-appointed administrator to the credit society".

The workers are quite wary of the 'investigation' so far, more so after they found Patil comfortably chatting at the police station the morning they went to register the case. "The FIR shows only Bhuktare as the complainant, with a fraud amount of around Rs 11 lakh, backed by about 36 affidavits. The total scam amount shown is therefore Rs 3.7 crore, much lower than what it actually is. The case has been diluted," says the Shramik Sangh secretary, Milind Ranade, who has been fighting cases on the workers' behalf since 2003. Their 22-month agitation five years ago backed by a couple of court cases to get the prescribed minimum wages-Patil had been paying workers barely half the amount-resulted in his having to pay close to Rs 1 crore as workers' dues, including a penalty on their Provident Fund. The agitation at the time had been backed by Buta Singh. Union leader Anand Gangurde says that's probably why "Patil tried to ensnare Buta and his son by approaching the CBI...they seem to have been trapped." It now looks like Patil approached Buta's son Sarabjot 'Sweety' Singh to save him in the case and the latter asked for a bribe. Sweety was arrested while accepting Rs 1 crore from Patil.

Patil's modus operandi in cheating the illiterate workers was rather simple. Rahul More, a veteran conservancy worker, recalls the chain of events in mid-'03. There were about 450 conservancy workers on contract with Patil when he bagged the tender for ghanta-gaadis. After the agitation that forced him to pay up, Patil summarily sacked 250 of them. He had about 100 of the remaining workers brought to his office in batches of 8-10. "Only one of us was taken in at a time," remembers More. "We were made to sign or put our thumb impression on a page, while the rest of the document was hidden by Patil's handlers. We were told the forms were for our insurance and PF. He had arranged for a photographer too. Most of us don't know how to read and write, so we blindly signed the forms. I asked them to read it, because I glanced at the top which showed a credit society's name. I was threatened with dire consequences then and there and thrown out of his office and my job.... So I was saved from this fake loan."

The loan papers, which formed the basis for disbursement, are part of the police investigation. Outlook examined the loan applications, and they looked like a scam ready for the making. For one, except for a name and two markings, the forms are virtually blank. Secondly, the applicants have all stood guarantee for each other; thirdly, the verification process was not carried out. How then were the loans sanctioned? Sources point to the credit society's now-defunct board of directors, packed with Patil's friends and cronies. Depositors at the society are now up in arms. As Gangurde says, "Patil has messed up our lives as well as of those depositors." The NMC terminated Patil's contract in 2005, but by then the scam was in play. And facing the brunt of it are the workers now. "Even if I toil night and day for 20 years, I can't hope to pay the lakhs outstanding in my name," says Bhagat. "Life was hard earlier, now it's become completely cruel."

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