It began as a routine trap set for a government official demanding a bribe.
But it has opened up a can of worms so startling — and far-reaching — that the Central Bureau of Investigation says it could take months to determine the full extent of the scam.
So far, the plot is thick enough: A number of central government employees have been earning crores every year by renting out, with the help of real estate agents and a few local policemen, plush apartments meant to house Union officials.
Ironically, 449 government employees have meanwhile been on a waiting list for official accommodation — some of them for up to three years.
The flats — in prime areas like Wadala, Antop Hill, Ghatkopar and Belapur — are handled by the Directorate of Estates, a government body responsible for the administration and management of office buildings and residential accommodations of central government employees.
Late on Saturday, acting Estate Manager Madan Mohan Banerji and his assistant Chengan Prakash Raman were arrested for allegedly demanding a bribe of Rs 30,000 from an estate agent, in exchange for not evicting one of his clients from an Antop Hill flat.
A trap was set and Raman was arrested while allegedly accepting Rs 10,000 as the first installment, at his Antop Hill residence. The CBI thereafter arrested Banerji, the alleged mastermind.
The CBI has also found that the officials used two constables from the Antop Hill police station to threaten the private tenants with eviction and police action for illegally occupying the flats.
In exchange for letting them stay on, the officials would take as much as Rs 30,000 per flat in bribes — cash that was later evenly split up between the scamsters.
“This racket has probably been going on for years,” said CBI Joint Director (Western Region) Rishi Raj Singh. “We will now begin verifying the status of government accommodations across India.”
There are 8,500 government accommodations in Mumbai. The CBI has so far checked 1,000, following the two arrests — and found 100 illegally rented out. The CBI is also following up on its list of 10 real estate agents who helped the officials find tenants.
The CBI estimates that in 2008 alone, the officials earned Rs 1 crore from the illegal rent on 100 flats. The CBI suspects at least 500 flats were rented out illegally in Mumbai. A final tally will only be possible after the records of all 8,500 flats are scrutinised.