The Kings of Coal-gate

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New Delhi:  Enter Nagpur and enter the world of Abhijeet Group. Their website keeps up the hype of a company on the march - projects ranging from power, steel, roads, mining and an upcoming IPO on the stock market.

Cut through the hyperbole, and the only verifiable claim is that they, along with their parent company Jayaswal Neco, control 10 coal blocks, with around 976 million tonnes of deposits, bigger than the even the Tatas.

But the claims of success came crashing down as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) targeted their offices and plants this week across the country, from Delhi, Kolkata, Nagpur to Raipur. The CBI filed FIRs against three of their companies for inflating their net worth, concealing evidence of prior allotments and even corruption.

Activists who have tracked the history of dubious coal allotments like Sudiep Srivastava, a lawyer from Chhattisgarh, knew this was waiting to happen. Mr Srivastava says, "Abhijeet Infra and other companies are mainly highway project construction companies. One of their companies, Jas infra, was earlier Jas Toll Road. They actually applied in the name of Jas Toll road and subsequently changed the name.  Abhijeet Infrastructure also has no presence in steel or any kind of metallurgy industry, they simply showed this Jayaswal Neco flagship company and presented many applications for many projects thereby securing 6-7 coal blocks."

The parent company, founded by BL Jayaswal Shaw, a scrap dealer from Bhilai, had less controversial origins. Mr Shaw built a mini-metals empire around the company's flagship steel plant Raipur. But in 2005 his increasingly ambitious son, Manoj, branched off to start Abhijeet Group , it seems with a voracious appetite for coal, not so much for the projects it was meant to fuel.

To verify how many of Abhijeet's end-use projects for their coal blocks are actually operational is not easy because the group is an opaque organization. When we visited their corporate headquarters in a Nagpur mall, security guards blocked our cameras, and we were not allowed to interview any of their officials.

There were no clear answers either at a hastily summoned press meet in Nagpur, where a senior official from Abhijeet Group read out a statement and left abruptly, refusing to answer any questions. All he would say is that they have not been informed of the CBI's FIR, and denied any wrongdoing.

In order to match Abhijeet's claims, we used a combination of field visits to their project sites and our own research, to get closer to the reality of Abhijeet's so-called business empire.

In 2005, Abhijeet Infrastructure Private Limited, bid for and won 3 coal blocks in Jharkhand. The end use: a single project for a 2 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) steel plant and 90 MW power plant in Saraikela, Jharkhand.

Except that, they had signed the exact same Memorandum of Understanding under a different company - Corporate Ispat Alloys Limited - which bid for another coal block, on the same pretext. So now they had won 4 coal blocks for the same project.

Eight years later the steel plant is taking shape and so is the power plant. The coal mines are lying dormant.

In 2008, this time under the name of Jas Infrastructure Capital Private Limited, they bid for a fourth coal block in Jharkhand, for a power plant in Bihar. The power plant is nowhere in sight and they have been slapped with a show cause notice for lack of progress on the coal block.

In the same year, 2008, they were back before the Coal Ministry under the name of JLD Yavatmal, which bid and won a fifth coal block in Chhattisgarh. It was initially for a power plant in Vidarbha but later they requested for a change in the location of the project. The new location of the project is unclear. The coal block is still lying dormant.

In 2009, they appeared as AMR Iron and Steel, which bid and won a coal block in Bander, Maharashtra, for a steel plant. There are no clear details available over the status of the project , and the coal block too is lying undeveloped.

It is this modus operandi, of using multiple identities to amass coal blocks even while missing targets, which led the CBI to the doorstep of the Abhijeet Group. But how did the government's Screening Committee's through the years clear block after block?

One apparent reason cited is the personal proximity and business links between Manoj Jayaswal and Rajya Sabha Congress MP and media tycoon Vijay Darda, the owner and editor of Maharashtra's largest circulated daily, Lokmat.

Nagpur BJP MLA, Devendra Fadnavis says, "The relationship between Vijay Darda and Manoj Jayaswal goes back a long way. Manoj Jayaswal has said many times that Vijay is like his elder brother. Vijay is like his friend, philosopher and guide. They are almost like family to each other. I don't know when they started their business relationship, but their families go back a long way."

At exactly the same time when the UPA I came to power, Mr Jayaswal assisted by Mr Darda, split from his father to form three of the companies mentioned earlier: Jas Infrastructure, JLD Yavatmal, and AMR Iron and Steel with the Dardas.

Two days before the CBI raids, Mr Darda claimed on NDTV that he was justified in fighting for a coal block for one of the companies because he wanted to set up a power project in his home district of Yavatmal. Mr Darda defended himself saying, "I set up a company by the name of Jawaharlal Darda Yavatmal Energy Limited in 2006. I asked for a coal block near Yavatmal district, since I belong to that district and wanted to set up a power project there. I wanted to provide power for marginal farmers but unfortunately the block allotted to me was 600km away so I pulled out of that project."

Two days later, the CBI had raided all three Darda-Jayaswal companies, with Mr Darda sounding less comfortable with the justification. When he was asked whether as an MP his asking for a specific coal block amounted to lobbying, he told NDTV, "I deny lobbying. I did not."

But was Mr Darda the sole political patron of Jayaswal? Or as the photo gallery of his daughter's wedding proves, did he have many friends in high places who turned a blind eye to the gaps in his business empire and assisted in the amassing of vast coal reserves? The galaxy of leaders who attended his daughter's wedding in late 2009 cut across political lines, including Salman Khurshid, Kamal Nath and Sanjay Nirupam from the Congress, and LK Advani, Nitin Gadkari, Murli Manohar Joshi and Sushma Swaraj from the BJP.

Congress leader Nirupam says, "Manoj Jayaswal had thrown a reception for his daughter or son. Even I was there as he had invited me and I remember LK Advani, Sushma Swaraj, Nitin Gadkari, all BJP and Congress leaders were there. By virtue of belonging to the same city (Nagpur), they had a lot of contact with the Jayaswals."

The BJP, though, insists that Jayaswals' proximity to their leaders is superficial and that his real allies are apart from Vijay Darda, the present Union Coal Minister, Sriprakash Jaiswal. According to senior BJP leader, Kirit Somaiya, "The Jaiswals of Kanpur and the Jayaswal's of Nagpur are related through family members. And also have financial links. I have given enough evidence to the CBI."

Sriprakash Jaiswal has always denied that a common surname means family links. He told us, "I am related to many people. All the Jaiswals in the country are my relatives. How can I say I have no relation to them? He had called me for his daughter's wedding and as we are related, so of course I attended. I want to ask by what relation had Mr Advani gone there? What relationship does Sushma Swaraj have with them? Why did Mr Gadkari attend? These should be investigated. I attended as we are related to each other. To attend someone's daughter's wedding and give one's blessing is part of our tradition."

But there is a family link which we were able to establish. In Kolkata, the family of local businessman Ganesh Prasad, confirmed to us that his son is married to the Coal Minister's daughter, and his niece to Manoj Jayaswal.

Mr Jaiswal clarifies, "Manoj Jayaswal is not a member of the family in which my daughter is married. If he is a relative of any of the family members then I do not know. I do know Manoj Jayaswal, I do know the Jayaswal Neco Group, he is part of the Jaiswal society and I did attend his daughter's wedding. I do not think it is a crime to attend someone's daughter's wedding."

When asked whether he mediated the family business division, Mr Jaiswal said, "When I was asked to help, I had said that there are many Jaiswals in the country and I cannot help all of them. I told them to sort out their differences amongst themselves since I had many more pressing engagements." He also denied using his ministerial position to leverage coal blocks for them, "I will resign from politics if anyone can prove any such linkage."

So will the CBI probe a deeper web of political influence? A close reading of the 5 FIR's they have filed so far suggests that they may have gone soft against the Dardas. NDTV correspondent, Sunetra Choudhuri gave us exclusive details of how the CBI has only charged the Dardas of cheating, and not corruption. In the remaining four cases, all the accused have been charged with corruption, a baffling decision given that all five face the same basic allegation, of concealing prior coal allotments and inflating net worth.

But if the CBI does probe deeper, it may find a new dimension to captive coal allotments. This has to do with the enduring mystery of why companies like the Abhijeet Group would accumulate coal blocks without building the end use projects. The answer to that can be found in the case of Jas Infrastructure, an Abhijeet Infra company in which the Dardas have a stake. The CBI has charged it with concealing facts and inflating its true worth. But the money trail uncovered by NDTV suggests an even more dubious gameplan, of how to make crores from a company whose coal assets in Jharkhand are still untouched, whose end use project has barely taken off the ground.

In 2010, the Dardas - Vijay, his brother Rajendra and their two sons - started a company called Asera Banka Power Private Limited, ostensibly to increase their stake in Jas Infrastructure.

It does this by buying 5.8 crore shares of Jas Infrastructure at Rs. 10 per share, at a total cost of Rs. 60 crores. This gives Asera Banka a 7 per cent stake in Jas Infrastructure.

About five months ago, to raise the 60 crores, Asera Banka started selling its own shares. But unlike the shares it bought at Rs. 10, they sold them at a massive premium of Rs. 8885 per share. This earned the company Rs. 113 crore.

When contacted, the Dardas refused to speak on record, but their family sources insist that this was a legal transaction to raise money for buying a 7 per cent stake in Jas Infrastructure.

Even if we accept their argument, the Dardas will still be left with Rs. 40 crores, once they pay back Jas Infrastructure. Not to forget that their company notionally would be worth over a Rs. 1000 crore. In his assets submitted to the Rajya Sabha, Vijay Darda has declared he owns 74 per cent of Asera Banka, which makes his share worth almost Rs. 700 crores.

This for a company which, as NDTV found, has no sign of its presence at its registered office in Nariman Point. It only has nameplates of other companies owned by the Dardas Lokmat group.

Even more mysterious are the companies which bought Asera Banka's share at a huge premium like Tracon Accord or Ricon Infrastructure, all located in Kolkata. When NDTV visited their addresses, they found little traces of these companies.

Darda family sources insist that these are trading companies, used to raise money by debutante entrepreneurs. Except that the Dardas, as owners of the powerful Lokmat media empire, are hardly business debutantes.

Senior BJP leader, Kirit Somaiya makes stronger allegations, "These are nothing but kickbacks paid to Dardas as the companies which are involved are Jayaswal companies."

Whether these are kickbacks or complex monetary transactions through shell companies is for the CBI to judge. The deeper question is whether Jayaswal, an ambitious businessman and his political allies, the Dardas, were serious about building power or steel plants, or did they merely wanted to profit from millions of tonnes of coal that they have amassed.

(Inputs from Niha Masih)


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