Financial scams have a habit of cropping up with an alarming regularity in the Indian financial system. We have reconciled to financial irregularities to such an extent that we simply do not pay heed to smaller scams that take place around us on a daily basis. I am, or rather was, a part of the financial machinery for a few years, and trust me, even the private sector is not entirely free of the machinations of unscrupulous and enterprising scamsters. The scope of the money involved multiplies manifold in the public sector, with a corresponding drop in accountability.
Despite a plethora of scams that surround us on a daily basis, frequently scams of large proportions come to light, and manage to stun even our jaded sensibilities. Then, there is the usual round of allegations, counter-allegations, enquiries and legislation. Some of our most notable regulations and financial institutions are the results of such scams.
I have compiled a list of ten leading financial scams in India, which have affected a large population of investors, and involved huge sums of money. They managed to shake the very foundations of our financial system, and were driven by that most basest of human instincts – GREED. In most cases, it was the greed of just one individual, or a very small group of individuals, who managed to pull of such huge scandals.
Insurance Scam – This scam had originated and prospered in the period immediately following Independence in 1947. At that time, the insurance sector was not nationalized, and a handful of private companies ruled the roost. These companies were more concerned with providing benefits to selected industrialists, and ignored the interests of the common man. The government responded by nationalizing the insurance sector, and the LIC was founded under an special Act passed by the Parliament. This scam laid the foundation of the nationalization culture in India.
Securities Scam – Harshad Mehta – This is perhaps the most well known of all financial scams – probably because it happened in a highly visible period – economic reforms had just been started in 1991. Harshad Mehta was quick to understand the weaknesses of the banking system, and exploited these weaknesses to the hilt. He managed to procure huge amounts of money using the so called “Ready Forward” deals, and used this money to purchase large amounts of shares at hugely inflated prices. He earned the sobriquet of “Big Bull” due to this penchant. Later, the banks got a clue of his shady deals, and demanded their money back. The house of cards collapsed, and the rest, as they say, is history!
CRB Scam – This scam took place in the years 1992-1996, the period immediately following the Harshad Mehta fallout. This makes the scam even all the more daring and surprising. CR Bhansali, the perpetrator of this scam, floated more than 100 companies, such as CRB Mutual Funds and CRB Capital Markets. The primary purpose of these companies was to attract huge funds from the public by promising high rates of interest. This interest was later paid form further borrowings, and so on. In 1995, the stock market collapsed, and this proved to be the undoing of CR Bhansali. He was investigated, and later arrested. After a brief 3-month stint in jail, he has disappeared without a trace, and nobody is asking!
UTI Scam – The UTI scam involved the flagship US-64 scheme of UTI, which was meant to channel the funds of small investors into instruments bearing high returns. Gradually, US-64 developed a investor base of around 2 crore investors. The economic liberalization in India, coupled with the absolute opacity in the operations of UTI, led to a situation wherein the Government was forced to announce a huge bailout of about Rs 3,500-4,000 crores in an order to prevent default in payments to the investors. The consequences of such a situation are unimaginable. But the story does not end here. Later, it turned out that the UTI Chairman appointed at this time, Mr P S Subramanyam, along with a couple of executive directors, acted wrongly to selectively benefit a powerful coterie of brokers and industrialists, while at the same time, jeopardizing the interest of lakhs of small investors.
Home Trade – Around the year 2000, a finance portal emerged on the financial landscape, and gained quick recognition on the back of endorsements by personalities like Hrithik Roshan, Sachin Tendulkar and Shahrukh Khan. The portal, owned by Sanjay Agarwal, claimed to deal in gilts. Soon, RBI got suspicious of activities of some cooperative banks in the gilt market, and a scam was uncovered. The same old saga – brokers and bankers combining to rob people of their hard earnings – was repeated. Funds from Seaman’s Provident Fund and PPF were affected. The total scam size was reported to be around Rs 300 crores, and more than Rs 200 crores were spent on publicity costs alone.
Securities Scam – Ketan Parekh – That our system never learns its lessons was proved by this scam. Ketan Parkekh, a qualified CA, and a stock broker, identified a number of stocks (popularly called the K-10), and took up huge positions in these. For this purpose, he used a large number of Benami accounts and smaller stock exchanges, such as the Kolkata and Ahmedabad stock exchanges. He also borrowed heavily from banks such as Global Trust Bank and Madhavpura Mercantile Cooperative Bank. Unfortunately, he was stuck in a bear cartel, and was soon pounded to pulp on the stock exchange. The extent of the scam was estimated to be around Rs 1,500 crores.
Fake Stamp Papers – This scam promised to be the mother of all scams in India, with the initial reports quoting a figure of Rs 30,000 crores as the scam size. Later, RBI clarified that this figure was “rather exaggerated”, and the “correct” figure was around Rs 200 crores. Again, this scam exposes how the India system works – Mr Abdul Karim Telgi, the scam kingpin, paid bribes to get access to the security press in Nasik, where stamp papers and currency notes are printed. He later used this knowledge to print fake stamp papers. At the height of the scam, Telgi’s network spanned 14 states, 125 banks and more than 1,000 employees.
DSQ Software – Though this scam was modest in terms of money involved (only Rs 600 crores!), and did not affect the general public to a great extent, yet it is notable for how it came into being. The main player in the scam was Mr Dinesh Dalmia, who was the MD of DSQ Software Ltd. This company issued around 1.3 million shares in 2001, and these shares were allotted to four companies on a preferential basis. NSDL, a stock depository, dematerialized and helped in delivering the shares. Nothing wrong in that, except that the shares were not even listed on any stock exchange! Oops!
IPO Scam – A number of key operators, including corporate stock brokers such as Karvy and Indiabulls, were involved in the IPO scam that spanned the years 2004 – 2005. The modus operandi was simple – the operators would open thousands of fake accounts to purchase shares in IPOs, in the hope of selling later at huge profits. A spate of IPOs issued during this period were heavily oversubscribed due to this scam, sometimes by as much as 40 times!
Satyam – On a cold January morning in 2009, Ramalinga Raju, chairman of Satyam Computer Services, admitted to falsification in the company accounts and various other irregularities, and sent a chill down the collective spine of the Indian financial system. Coming on the back of the global recession, this incident promised to bust the Indian outsourcing industry and the stock market, but for some deft bailout work by the government. The matter is still under investigation and litigation, and the true extent of the scam will be known in the future, perhaps. Mr Raju himself had admitted to irregularities worth around Rs 12,000 crores.
An analysis of the scams reveals a common script – greed, corruption, unscrupulous brokers, colluding bankers, irresponsible authorities and hapless investors, who refuse to learn their lessons. But then, these are the essential ingredients of a worthy financial scam!