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Politicians are implicated in the Rs 1,000-crore cobbler scam

Beneficiaries All

THE boot may well be on the other foot now. While it was former sheriff Sadruddin Daya of Dawood shoes, Rafique Tejani of Metro Shoes and Kishore Signapurkar of Milano Shoes who were held as the prime accused in the Rs 1,000-crore cobbler scam, fresh investigations have revealed the full-fledged compliance of Maharashtra politicians in the fraud.

Leaders from all three prominent parties—the Congress, the BJP and the Shiv Sena—appear to have been involved in the diabolical siphoning of public funds under the garb of setting up cooperative societies for poor cobblers. And in the coming weeks, investigators hope to unearth the names of the political beneficiaries of the embezzlement.

Meanwhile, allegations are flying thick and fast. Among the political links being investigated is that of former Maharashtra chief minister, Sharad Pawar. Though there is no direct evidence implicating the Congress leader, investigations have revealed Tejani to be a director of the    Rs 500-crore Dynamix Dairy Products Pvt Ltd in which Pawar is believed to have a stake through the holdings of family members. According to sources, the sole milk supplier to Dynamix, the Baramati Milk Cooperative, is controlled by Pawar. Sources hint that a good amount of the money from the shoe scam may have been diverted to Dynamix. However, the Pawar link still remains tenuous.

What is not tenuous, however, is that it was during Pawar's regime that Congressmen had a field day. It was at this time thistimethat                              Sushil Kumar Shinde, chief of the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC), floated the Chakrayu society which flouted every rule in the book. It dealt in machine-made goods against the mandatory rule of handcrafted leatherwear. So while the project report guaranteed employment to 2,000 cobblers, only about 50 were actually employed. Further, the rules say that 10 per cent of the total funds should be contributed by members of the society; 60 per cent should come from financial institutions and the state government should loan the remaining 30 per cent. However, according to the Accountant General's report, member contribution to the Rs 133-lakh Chakrayu project was just            Rs 4.75 lakh. Of this, Rs 4.25 lakh was contributed by 200 members who were shown as "people of repute". Investigations reveal that they included Kripashankar, vice-president, MPCC and Ramdas Phutane, a Congress MLC, among others.

With the cobblers being too poor to contribute even the token Rs 100 to join cooperatives, it is usually the Mahatma Phule Vikas Mahamandal which pays their membership fee. However, in the case of Chakrayu, the Mahamandal refused to give the funds. In 1992, Shinde, then state finance minister, got the government to sanction Rs 44.5 lakh for the society in three instalments. In a further flouting of rules, Shinde got the Maharashtra State Finance Corporation to sanction Rs 60 lakh.

Once Chakrayu was formed, the cobblers' interests were given a back seat, say sources. Normally, every member of a cooperative society has equal voting rights, but Chakrayu modified the rule—only members with a contribution of Rs 1,000 or more were entitled to vote. This virtually alienated the cobbler members of the society.

The Congress involvement has given enough ammunition to the BJP and the Shiv Sena against the previous regime, although both parties cannot deny the involvement of some of their own members. For the moment, however, it is Pawar and his partymen who are being accused of turning a blind eye to the looting of public money. Points out Kirit Somaiya, MLA and Mumbai city president of the BJP: "The previous government cannot be absolved of the responsibility of letting such activity flourish for over 10 years." Nor does that absolve the Shiv Sena-BJP government. The present deputy chief minister, Gopinath Munde, who held the finance portfolio for about three months and presented the '96-'97 budget, is also under the cloud of suspicion. Mrs Maharuk Keravala, a friend of Tejani's wife and a prime suspect in the scam, has alleged that she, along with BJP MLA Sadashiv Lokh-ande and others, approached Munde to help them out. Munde obliged by raising the sales tax exemption limit to Rs 50 lakh and doing away with the need for societies to get a certifi-cation from the Khadi Village Industries Commission (KVIC). The KVIC had laid down in 1987 that only societies located in villages were entitled to benefits from it. By doing away with the need for certification, Munde made it possible for cooperatives located in Mumbai to enjoy the bene-fits of KVIC subsidies.

As investigations continue, lesser known politicians are also being pulled into the net. Money to prime accused Sadruddin Daya was sanctioned by the chairman of Saraswat Cooperative Bank, Suresh Prabhu, who is now a Shiv Sena MP. Bomb blast accused Abu Azmi of the Samajwadi Party has also been found to have links with the scam-sters. The Economic Offence Wing has identified Shiv Sena legislator Baburao Mane among those who may have been aware of the scam.

The BJP claims it is looking into the involvement of its members. The Sena has not been as categoric. But with the interrogation of the accused revealing names of leading lights in the political firmament, the cobbler scam is likely to have a fallout whose repercussions will be felt by all parties, be it the Congress, the BJP or the Shiv Sena.

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