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12 Feb 2017

Death tied to old currency 'switch'

Monalisa Chaudhuri, Debraj Mitra and Pinak Ghosh, TT, Calcutta, Feb. 11:  The death of a banking foot soldier in Howrah after he posted an incriminating Facebook message has brought to light an unforeseen dimension of demonetisation.
Rajat Chowdhury, a 48-year-old "banking correspondent" who operated at an Uluberia branch of Union Bank of India, was found dead on the railway tracks in Howrah last night.
The Facebook post, which suggests he was about to commit suicide, and a police complaint filed by another person earlier in the week have thrown up the following claims:
♦ A family that runs an LPG dealership and mobile phone distribution business had accused Chowdhury of switching the new notes they deposited with old notes. The value of the notes has been put at between Rs 30 lakh and Rs 35 lakh.
♦ The family filed the police complaint after a purported notice from the income tax department that is supposed to seek explanations for all deposits above Rs 2.5 lakh.
♦ The family claimed in the complaint that Chowdhury had admitted to the switch and said so in a signed written undertaking.
♦ Chowdhury said in the Facebook post that he was forced to give the written note.
♦ Investigations are expected to cover the following angles: whether Chowdhury indeed switched the notes and, if so, who prompted him to do that and whether he was innocent and coercion had driven him to death.
Either way, unscrupulous elements appear to have found a vulnerable link in the banking chain to get past built-in checks and balances.
If coercion is proved, it will raise the disturbing question of how many of the vulnerable banking correspondents were arm-twisted by those with clout to get around the demonetisation hurdle and how many more will be left to fend for themselves once income tax notices wind their way into households that deposited more than Rs 2.5 lakh.
Hired by a third party with which a bank enters into an agreement, banking or business correspondents are foot soldiers authorised to offer transaction services to customers as well as nurture banking habits, usually in places where banks do not have a branch.
In the post-demonetisation rush, many banking correspondents played a larger role in many branches, dealing with known high-value customers and accepting deposits from them, sources said. Since banking correspondents do not enjoy the privileges and protection of regular bank employees, they cannot afford to antagonise the regular customers with clout and are often forced to do their bidding, the sources added.
The post in Chowdhury's Facebook timeline said a family had forced him to write an undertaking on "exchange" of old notes.
".... Amar m(r)it(y)ur janno daye somnath ghosh o amit nayek bank jato taka exchange hayacha sob somnath ghosh and family amaka diya jorkore likhito niya amar name police case kora dilo... (Somnath Ghosh and Amit Nayek are responsible for my death. Ghosh and his family had forced me to give in writing all the money exchanged and implicated me in a police case)," reads the post.
In a disturbed state of mind, Chowdhury might have meant deposit when he wrote "exchange" since such high amounts could only have been deposited.
Ghosh is an LPG company distributor in Uluberia while Nayek, according to Chowdhury's family, is his associate. Neither Ghosh nor Nayek could be contacted for comment.
Ghosh's wife had filed a complaint on Wednesday, alleging that "a bank employee" had replaced the Rs 30-35 lakh her family had deposited in new notes with old notes.
It is not clear how the family got hold of such a large quantity of new currency notes between November 9 and December 30 when restrictions were in place. Even if the lower amount of Rs 30 lakh is taken into account, the LPG outlet and phone business would have had to carry out daily transactions worth over Rs 58,000 for the 52 days.
Police sources said that Ghosh's wife Ekta, in whose name the couple run the mobile phone distribution business, said in her complaint that she had received a mail and text message from the income tax department seeking details of transactions in a current account linked to her business between November 9 and December 30.
"The complaint mentions that when they approached the bank, they were told to wait for a day. The next day, the complaint says, an employee went to their home and admitted that the Rs 30-35 lakh they had deposited in new currency notes was replaced with the demonetised notes," said a police officer. This "bank employee" took the blame, the complaint said.
According to Ghosh's complaint, the branch manager had fished out the counter-receipts and found that the original receipts were replaced with fudged ones that showed deposits of old notes.
The complaint claimed that the manager had summoned Rajat Chowdhury, who had allegedly visited the Ghosh family the day before.
The complaint attached the purported handwritten undertaking that Chowdhury is said to have signed in the presence of the manager. The undertaking essentially says that the new notes were replaced with the old ones, police sources said.
The manager of the Union Bank branch at Baniban in Uluberia could not be contacted by this newspaper despite repeated attempts.
But a senior Union Bank official said: "The bank has a limited role in this case. If the state administration requires any co-operation, we would provide our support."
Chowdhury's wife Kabita lodged a complaint of abetment to suicide against Ghosh, Nayek and two bank officials, including the manager. "My husband was very disturbed yesterday. He just said they had implicated him in a money-related matter. He had named a few people," Kabita said.
According to her, Chowdhury had known Somnath for years. "For the last four years my husband was working in the bank. Before that he was in a car showroom. He knew Somnath Ghosh from those days," she said.
Howrah rural SP Sumit Kumar said both complaints - the one from Ekta and the other from Kabita - would be investigated.

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