On the morning of November 21, an Income Tax (I-T) team reached the entrance of an alleged hawala operator’s residence in Delhi’s posh Punjabi Bagh area. The man’s fortress-like gate and ferocious Rottweilers acted as his first line of defence, giving him a precious six-minute window to slip out of the house with incriminating documents and the keys to a number of secret lockers.
Neetu Nayyar, who runs a forex counter in Karol Bagh with a daily hawala business of Rs 7 crore, has security that gives one a glimpse of the elaborate measures even medium-level operators have in place to thwart law-enforcement agencies.
A week before the incident, Enforcement Directorate officials had raided Nayyar’s office – RG Consultants – in Karol Bagh. Later, in a completely unrelated move that underlines the lack of coordination between government agencies, the I-T department decided to put him under surveillance.
As expected, Nayyar’s phone went silent in the days that followed. However, when the I-T team landed at his doorstep, he made a big mistake. Nayyar called a neighbour for help.
The I-T department’s mobile surveillance team intercepted Nayyar’s conversation and passed two pieces of real-time intelligence to officers on the ground. First, he was sending somebody to collect a bag from his room on the fourth floor and, second, they were meeting at a neighbourhood cinema hall called Milan.
I-T sleuths arrested Nayyar, but the man – a seasoned hawala operator – did not give in to interrogators. An employee, however, spilled the beans on a private vault located less than 500 metres from his residence.
Nayyar refused to part with the keys, spurring I-T officials to force the vault open with gas cutters. Inside it, they found a book with codes, and evidence that the lockers were last operated on November 10 – two days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the demonetisation move. Upon being decoded, the diary gave the sleuths their second clue: The location of three more private lockers located across Karol Bagh.
While the first vault was located in a basement that could be accessed only from a neighbour’s back alley, the second was found in a dilapidated apartment on the top floor of a building. Sleuths found the third in a pigeon-frequented one-room apartment with a bathroom that hid a secret door to another flat.
When the three vaults were forced open with gas cutters, I-T officials recovered jewellery worth Rs 3.5 crore, Rs 60.7 lakh in cash and a stash of $12,500.
However, even this haul was nothing compared to the actual size of Nayyar’s operation. Documents recovered from his possession revealed that he had laundered nearly Rs 920 crore from April to November. To find the names of his clients, the I-T department would have to launch individual probes into each entry – an exercise in futility given the staff crunch it faces.
“The department is short of 40,000 inspectors in Delhi alone. It will take years to investigate all these cases,” a senior I-T official told HT.
Sudesh Garg, a former I-T director (investigation) and a practising lawyer, agreed. “To begin with, the investigations are time bound and one has to unravel complex transactions. It’s tougher in this day and age, when cash can be moved electronically to 20 jurisdictions in 20 minutes,” he said.
Another official said investigators were unable to attend to dozens of other tip-offs on the day they spent chasing Nayyar.
The I-T department has cancelled the leaves of all its investigation officials, and is even sourcing staffers from other departments.