Delhi’s Casino Royale

Forget sports, anything’s game at the seat of the capital’s illegal betting operations
Delhi’s Casino Royale

Ask anyone who has spent a little more than a decade with the wire service UNI in Delhi and he’ll tell you that as junior copy editors surviving on stale rice, dal and omelette during long night duties, they often encountered a burly Sikh who would drop in at odd hours and ask for the Associated Press global weather report. And then, he’d leave after taking down the climatic conditions of cities with not even the remotest links with India. The reason was simple. The Sikh’s need for that information was purely to help him place better gambling bets on bizarre things: it could be a soccer tie between Peru and Ecuador in Lima. Or a yacht race in the North Sea. Or a baseball game in Connecticut. That’s satta with a tinge of sophistication.

But if you are seeking the real way this unpredictable business operates in the capital, a journey to the congested, dingy bylanes of Fatehpuri in the Walled City area is a must. Here, hidden behind swanky watch and dryfruits shops and outlets selling dress material for weddings is a 50-year-old building where hundreds indulge in their daily business of satta. For the record, the brokers at Coronation Building shouting in hoarse voices are dealing in futures trading for commodities like edible oils and jaggery. But for those interested in business between the lines of the brokers’ notepads, it’s almost anything and everything-from cricket to movies to politics to real estate. The potbellied lalas sitting on their mattresses can do wonders through their maze of telephone lines, which some estimate to be more than 200 in that building alone.

"Their trading in commodities helps us as we are in a similar business. And honestly, we are not interested in their other satta business because it does not concern us," says Rita Arya, editor of Vyapar Kesari, a Hindi daily dealing in commodities. Arya, whose family also runs the National News Service from the same premises, agrees that nearly 90 per cent of Delhi’s satta business takes place within the Walled City.

Mukesh Chand, a broker who has been in the business for more than three decades and runs a mustard oil wholesale operation as a front, agrees. He estimates the daily satta business from the second-floor offices of Coronation Building and Hauz Rani in Jama Masjid area alone accounts for nearly Rs 1,000 crore. "Cricket is not important now. The priorities have shifted after the Hansie episode." So what is important, then? "Will Shiela Dixit remain chief minister of Delhi? Will prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee be able to tackle Sonia Gandhi in Parliament? Will Shah Rukh Khan manage to stave off the challenge from newcomers like Hrithik Roshan and Abhishek Bachchan? And yes, in sports a few transactions took place with our friends in southern and western states on the recently-concluded National Soccer League," admits Chand.

He should know. Barely a month ago, Delhi Police officials had information that apart from cricket, soccer was another segment which was popular among satta operators in Mumbai, Panaji and Thiruvananthapuram. Recently, a senior Delhi Police officer admitted that agencies like the CBI and Calcutta Police had gathered evidence on match-fixing efforts which took place during the National Soccer League, won by Mohun Bagan. Interestingly, some bookies and satta kingpins questioned in Goa admitted that efforts were made to ensure Bagan lost a few matches. But the move fell through because top Mohun Bagan players and officials could not be contacted in time.

Another broker says the entertainment industry also plays a major part of any satta business at Coronation Building. On average, 10 to 15 movies are released across the country (from Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad and Calcutta). And along with them are linked the fortunes of a host of people-the stars, financiers, distributors and cinemahall owners. "There’s lots of money at stake to make or ruin anyone," says the broker, speaking on condition of anonymity. Expectedly, Kishan Kumar’s involvement in the match-fixing scandal is not news here. The brokers corroborate the Delhi Police theory that Kumar’s financial woes started after his nephew started consolidating the family business under a single banner (unlike the system of multiple company ownership which existed during Gulshan Kumar’s days) and that Kishan Kumar, popular in tinsel town for his lavish lifestyle, was a known name in the Mumbai gambling racket.

Also high on the agenda is real estate valuation, especially given the dwindling rates in cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Calcutta and Delhi. "It’s fairly volatile because you do not know how the rates will move in the coming months," he says, adding: "A reason why cricket match-fixing got priority was also because a host of brokers who were earlier active in real estate suddenly found themselves without good business."

And it is primarily for this reason sports is not the mainstay of the Coronation racket. Shopkeepers in Fatehpuri say beside satta in other businesses, almost all brokers have dual responsibilities like dealing in commodity futures trading (an act which the government is debating whether or not to legalise) which takes up a significant portion of their day’s work. And there lies the difference between business at Coronation Building and Hauz Rani. "Games like cricket take a priority here only when India plays Pakistan in one-dayers and when major, high-profile international championships are on (for example, in Sharjah or the World Cup). That time, we too take a break from our business to join them upstairs," says one shopkeeper. But otherwise, the Coronation Building racket remains confined mostly to its upper-storeyed business with the shopkeepers downstairs remaining completely cut off from the transactions upstairs.

Where does it leave the law-and-order machinery? Senior police officials based in the area admit tremendous difficulties in conducting raids in the locality to nab the brokers. "First, it is difficult to tap land phones and that too where a single building has more than 200. The brokers rarely use cellphones. Again, they mostly talk of edible oils and jaggery and in between two calls they quickly talk ‘business’. So you are essentially trying to tap such a huge number of phones for more than seven to eight hours a day which is almost impossible," says a senior police officer, adding: "Raids are also near-impossible because it’s an extremely sensitive area and the chances of communal clashes are very high. And do not forget the building and its neighbourhood also houses a large number of residential blocks. It’s not like raiding a gambling den or a bar."

Arya disagrees. "It happens right under the nose of the police station next door. The only time business came to a standstill was when ‘supercop’ Kiran Bedi was in charge of the area. Her no-nonsense approach made things extremely difficult for the brokers who had to down shutters and shift to alternate business. But the day she was out of the area they were all back." Any bets on how long it will last?

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