Behind fresh CBI raids against Karti, ‘back-door visas for China firm during dad’s MHA tenure’

Behind fresh CBI raids against Karti, ‘back-door visas for China firm during dad’s MHA tenure’

CBI Tuesday conducted raids at nine locations, including the homes and offices of P. Chidambaram and Karti Chidambaram in Chennai and Delhi, in connection with a corruption case.

Congress leader P Chidambaram (L) and his son and Congress MP Karti Chidambaram

Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram (L) and his son and party MP Karti Chidambaram | ANI Photo

New Delhi: Facilitation of “back-door” project visas for a Chinese power company to bring in professionals from their country, in exchange for “illegal gratification” — this is the allegation the CBI is probing in a fresh case filed against former Union minister and Congress leader P. Chidambaram’s son Karti and others, ThePrint has learnt.

Project visas are granted to foreign nationals coming to India for execution of projects in the power and steel sectors. It is being alleged that Karti helped the Chinese company defeat rules pertaining to the number of permissible visas during his father’s tenure as Union home minister over a decade ago.

According to sources in the CBI, Talwandi Sabo Power Limited (TSPL) — a Vedanta Group company, according to its website — which was in the process of establishing a 1,980-MW thermal power plant in Punjab’s Mansa area had outsourced work to a Chinese company named Shandong Electric Power Construction Corp (SEPCO).

The work was, however, allegedly running behind schedule. So, the sources said, to avoid penal actions for the delay, the company tried to bring in professionals from the Chinese company for on-site work.

To bring these people from China, they needed project visas over and above the ceiling imposed by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) at the time, the sources said.

These professionals had been granted visas before but the visas had expired. The cap on the number of visas meant the company couldn’t make a fresh application,

This is when they allegedly approached Karti through one of his associates with a plea to reuse the existing visas, a CBI source said.

The MHA guidelines on the project visas did not make any provision for their reuse, but said deviation in rare and exceptional cases could be considered and granted, only with the approval of the home secretary.

The FIR filed by the CBI — accessed by ThePrint — names Karti P. Chidambaram, S. Bhaskararaman (his alleged associate), Vikas Makharia (of Vedanta Group), Talwandi Sabo Power Limited (Mansa), Bell Tools Limited (Mumbai), unknown public servants and other private persons. 

According to the FIR, a company of the Vedanta Group approached Karti through S. Bhaskararaman in 2011 for approval to reuse the project visas. 

  1. Chidambaram was the Union home minister at the time. During the discussions, an illegal gratification of Rs 50 lakh was demanded and subsequently paid, the FIR says.

“The representative of the company (Vikas Makharia) approached a person in Chennai (Karti Chidambram) through his close associate (Bhaskararaman) and devised a back-door way to facilitate these visas, by defeating the purpose of ceiling (maximum project visas permissible to the company’s plant) and granting permission to reuse 263 project visas allotted to the said Chinese company’s officials,” a CBI source claimed.

BJP leader and present Union power minister R.K. Singh was Chidambaram’s home secretary at the time.

ThePrint reached the Vedanta Group on mail for a comment on the case, but no response was received until the publishing of this report. This report will be updated once a response is received.

A TSPL spokesperson told ThePrint that “the searches at our Punjab facility have been part of a larger CBI investigation. We are extending full cooperation to the authorities and facilitating the due process. We have no further comments”.

The CBI Tuesday conducted raids at nine locations, including the homes and offices of P. Chidambaram and Karti Chidambaram in Chennai and Delhi, in connection with the case. Searches were also conducted in Mumbai, Koppal (Karnataka), Jharsuguda (Orissa) and Mansa (Punjab), ThePrint has learnt.

The Enforcement Directorate will now seek documents from the CBI to see the money trail and may soon start an investigation under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, said CBI sources.

Chidambaram has questioned the “timing” of the raids while the Congress has criticised the CBI action.

Also read: Fake invoices, impersonation, hawala bribes: How ‘nexus’ of officials & NGOs ran FCRA scam

‘Money paid to knives company in name of visa consultancy’

Sources in the CBI said the payment of the alleged bribe in exchange for the permission to reuse project visas was made by Talwandi Sabo Power Limited through a company identified as Bell Tools Limited, which is said to be dealing in industrial knives.

It was shown in invoices found by the CBI that the money was paid for “visa consultancy”, the sources added.

“The bribe money was paid through this industrial company by raising a false invoice. According to the invoice, the power company paid money to Bell Tools for consultancy and out-of-pocket expenses for Chinese-visa-related works,” the aforementioned source said. 

“But Bell Tools has never been associated with any visa-related work and is in fact in an entirely different business of industrial knives.”

The FIR says the payment against the invoices was made by TSPL to Bell Tools Limited through cheque, and the amount in question was paid in cash to S. Bhaskararaman.

“There had been constant e-mail communications between Vikas Makharia, S. Bhaskararaman and Karti P. Chidambaram,” the FIR adds.

“On 2 September 2011, Vikas Makharia conveyed his thanks on email and attached permission letter dated 30.08.2011 issued by MHA (foreigners division) to Bhaskararaman which was duly forwarded to Karti P. Chidambaram,” the FIR says.

According to sources, the alleged irregularity came to fore during the analysis of some documents recovered in searches conducted in connection with the INX Media case, in which Karti Chidambaram is an accused.

‘Then home minister, Home Secretary knew about bribes’

According to the FIR, the request to the MHA’s foreigners division for approval to reuse project visas allotted to the Chinese company was submitted on 30 July 2011, after discussions with Bhaskararaman.

“On 17 August 2011, Vikas Makharia, on being directed by Bhaskararaman, sent a copy of the said letter to him through e-mail, which was forwarded to Karti P. Chidambaram,” the FIR says.

It further claimed that Bhaskararaman, after discussion with P. Chidambaram, demanded an illegal gratification of Rs 50 lakh for ensuring the approval.

“Vikas Makharia assured Bhaskararaman that M/s TSPL (Talwandi Sabo Power Limited) was ready to pay the said illegal gratification demanded by him after discussion with concerned officials of the company. Thereafter, TSPL was granted the said permission,” the FIR says.

Project visas were introduced in October 2010 as a new category. Detailed guidelines were issued with the approval of P. Chidambaram, who was then the Union Home Minister. 

“In view of facts discussed above, there is reason to believe that the then home secretary and home minister were in the knowledge of the matter of M/s TSPL and work of M/s TSPL was done through them, but it is not ascertained at this stage whether, P Chidambaram, the then home minister and the then home secretary were in the knowledge of aforesaid demand and payment of illegal gratification or not,” the FIR says.

The FIR also claims that there is information that indicates P. Chidambaram had been on the board of Vedanta Group, while Karti had taken “financial favour” from Sterlite Optical Technologies Limited, Mumbai, a Vedanta Group Company, which lent Rs 1.5 crore in November 2003 to his company, Meltraack India Limited. The interest thereupon was waived in August 2004, when P. Chidambaram was sworn as the Union finance minister, the FIR says.

“Information also exists that Karti P. Chidambaram and his front-man S. Bhaskararaman were indulged in collection of undue payments for settling the issues pending with the offices under the influence of Sh. P Chidambaram as minister of Government of India in various ministries,” the FIR said.

‘Lowest ebb in political discourse’

Reacting to the raids, P. Chidambaram said the “timing of the search is interesting” and claimed the CBI team showed him an FIR in which he hasn’t been named as an accused.

The Congress also hit out at the raids, saying the former Union minister’s “commitment to the country is unquestionable”.

Meanwhile, Karti said he had “lost count” of the number of times searches have taken place. “Must be a record,” he tweeted, along with another post where he shared his ‘Wordle’ score to say there was “no reason to miss out on my daily routine”.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: Delhi court issues summons to P Chidambaram, son Karti in INX Media money laundering case