Calcutta, Jan. 1: Operators camping on Trinamul-associated premises in the heart of Calcutta are openly demanding money in the name of elected representatives to facilitate illegal construction, an undercover investigation by The Telegraph has established.
Posing as a businessman, this reporter approached three leaders with three requests: help evict tenants and facilitate illegal construction, ensure co-operation from police and civic officials for developing property without clearances, and allow the building of two washrooms in a property at a prime location without opening a can of worms.
Two of those who sought money claimed leadership roles in the Trinamul Congress or in an affiliate. The other was introduced by a person in the room as a Trinamul leader.
For brokering the fictitious deals that they thought were genuine, two bosses used two rooms that they said were Trinamul offices and which displayed the paraphernalia associated with such units. One conversation took place at a Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) health and community centre.
The events that followed — recorded fully on audio tape and partly on video tape — suggest that chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s constant refrain against corruption and extortion is falling on deaf ears.
Mamata, whose party runs the Calcutta corporation as well as the state government, has repeatedly warned local leaders against three evils: keeping in touch with promoters, asking for money from anyone and condoning illegal construction.
On dates spread over three weeks in December, this reporter met the trio separately at two party offices (Ward 24 on Ganpat Bagla Road at Burrabazar and Ward 63 on Shakespeare Sarani) and a CMC community centre at Ward 28 near Rajabazar.
The three are Dilip Sonkar, whom a person in the Trinamul party office referred to as party president for Ward 24; Bablu Pyne, who introduced himself as the party president for Ward 63; and Khalid Basar Choudhuri (Manju), who said he was the general secretary of the party’s youth wing in Ward 28.
Mihir Kumar Saha, councillor for Ward 24, later told The Telegraph he was the ward president. “I was made the ward president a few months ago,” Saha said.
But the purported change of guard does not appear to have affected Sonkar’s access to what he said was the party office. It is possible that the party has other offices in the same ward. When this reporter met Sonkar 21 days ago, he was seated inside and kept pointing to a collage of pictures to claim proximity to powerful people in the party.
Multiple claims to leadership used to be an age-old — and effective — underworld tactic that shielded the real lynchpins.
Designations in personality cult-driven parties cannot be established conclusively in the absence of a clear structure such as that in a regimented party like the CPM. An amorphous structure helps organisations distance themselves from those caught out and deflect direct blame.
The most striking feature of the conversations with the three was the audacity with which they mentioned the names of a Trinamul MLA, a former party MLA, a Trinamul leader holding one of the most influential elected posts in the CMC and another public representative.
Since the undercover operation could not proceed beyond a point without paying bribes, which is against the law, the trail was snapped before it took the reporter to the public representatives repeatedly named by the three Trinamul leaders.
Libel guidelines and ethics prevent The Telegraph from publishing the names of the public representatives as direct cash transfer to them could not be established with evidence. The newspaper is putting in the public domain what the reporter, who has been writing reports on illegal construction for the past five years and came across a surfeit of complaints of foul play in the past few months, has been able to record.
Sonkar, who was introduced as the Trinamul ward president, specifically declared that the MLA and the former MLA would personally take the cut and listed the amounts.
Manju, the youth wing leader who was introduced by a property dealer as the “personal assistant” to the influential CMC figure, declared with impunity that the “**** (elected person) bhi lega, police bhi lega, hum bhi lenge (the elected person too will take, the police too will take, I too will be taking)”.
“I give Rs 10 or Rs 1,000. Whatever ***** (the elected person’s) demand, I will deal with it,” he bragged. That he was making such claims at a facility run by the CMC did not appear to be an impediment.
So audacious was Manju that he suggested only Dawood Ibrahim or someone like Osama bin Laden would be able to hamper his operation.
Rs 4-lakh price
At the Burrabazar party office, against the backdrop of a big poster featuring Mamata Banerjee with folded hands, Sonkar was more specific than Manju.
Sonkar demanded “motamoti chaar” (around Rs 4 lakh) as the initial payment for evicting three (fictitious) tenants and constructing a “brand new” building on the pretext of repairing an existing one.
Slices of the pie
With clinical precision, Sonkar described how the spoils would be shared.
“Hum aapse ek lakh maang lenge. MLA do liya woh aapko maloom par ja raha hai samne. Usse to hum wapas paisa nahi lenge. MLA lega to aapka haath se lega. Hum khud aapse bolega ke humko ek lakh dedijiye. Hum aapko khud bolenge. Theek hai na? Aap khud dekhlijiyega. Aapko maloom hoga na ke kaam ho raha hai. Tenant log ko samne bulake faisla karayega MLA (I will take 1 lakh from you. The MLA will take 2 lakh, that you will know. If the MLA takes it, it will be from your hand. I will personally tell you to give me 1 lakh. I will tell you personally, all right? You will see for yourself. You will know that your work is getting done. The tenants will be called and the matter will be settled by the MLA),” Sonkar said.
How did Sonkar propose to evict the tenants who were purportedly refusing any money?
“Tenant ko bulake bolenge ‘Chaliye aapko **** (former MLA) bula rahe hain’. Dada unko thora sa chamkayega, thora sa dhamkayega (We shall tell the tenants, ‘Come, the former MLA wants to meet you’. Dada will shake the tenants up),” Sonkar explained.
Sonkar also revealed a modus operandi for hoodwinking the corporation. Sonkar said: “We will take permission for repairing. On the sly, we will make a new building. It will be a reconstruction only in name. The entire building will be brand new. There are lots of ways. Don’t you worry, yaar.”
“I will tell you the rates… whether it is Rs 2,000 (per sqft) or Rs 1,800, Rs 1,500. This will be the money you will pay for the finished product.”
Sonkar made it sound as easy as flicking a switch. “You will just have to switch on the light and enter the building. We will provide marble for the floor and paint the walls.”
Asked whether the police might create problems, Sonkar said: “Arre, why should you worry about the police? That is our job. We will take care of the police. If we face some problem anywhere, we will tell you to pay something extra. May be another Rs 200 (per sqft).”
The Shakespeare Sarani conversation with Pyne, who introduced himself as Trinamul president for Ward 63, was different from the other two in which non-existent properties were discussed.
In this case, sources had told The Telegraph that a Trinamul leader was keeping track of all construction, including repairs, in parts of Camac Street, Park Street, AJC Bose Road and Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road.
According to the sources, a businessman had earned the ire of the leader for constructing washrooms in an eighth-floor office at a Camac Street highrise without seeking permission. The reason for not applying for permission is not known but fear of harassment, demands for bribes or the absence of authentic documents are the usual reasons.
When this reporter posed as the Camac Street businessman’s nephew, Pyne immediately called him over to the party office on Shakespeare Sarani.
After mentioning how a prominent politician every year visits the Puja that he helps organise and warning of the consequences of the police getting wind of the washroom construction, Pyne came to the point: “Arre, paisa ka mamla hai. Aur koi baat nahi (Money is the issue, nothing else).”
He named the price too: “Bees hazar rupiya de dijiye (give Rs 20,000).”
Pyne had said an elected person had sent him to the highrise earlier. Asked what if he failed to pass the money on to that elected person and he caught hold of the “nephew”, Pyne declared: “No, (the elected person) will not even go to you. Ek baat sun lijiye. Ek khassi ko do baar zaba nahi kiya jayega (Get one thing clear. One goat will not be sacrificed twice).”
At a subsequent meeting on December 28, Pyne lowered the amount to Rs 15,000. The contact was broken off then and no money was paid.