The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is examining payments worth Rs 14 crore by the scam-tainted Pearls group to sponsor four editions of the Kabaddi World Cup organised by the Punjab government, with the agency widening its probe against the firms accused of fraudulently gathering Rs 45,000 crore from investors.
The state government’s sports council wrote to the agency, admitting that it received the money from the group, but denied getting another Rs 5 crore in donations, said sources.
In a bid to woo the rural masses -- the core vote bank of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) -- Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, who holds the sports portfolio, had introduced the Kabaddi World Cup as an annual sporting event. He had even boasted of pitchforking kabaddi into an Olympic sport by 2020. The cash-strapped state government has been spending lavishly on this tournament. The event is known for its extravagant and glitzy shows featuring song-and-dance performances by Bollywood A-listers such as Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar, Priyanka Chopra, Katrina Kaif and Deepika Padukone.
The Pearls group was the title sponsor of the first four editions of the World Cup, held in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. In the 2014 edition, there was no title sponsor. Last year, the event was cancelled following the statewide unrest due to a series of incidents of sacrilege.
The investigating body began its inquiry two years ago after filing an FIR against the companies and eight senior officials, drawing attention towards India’s vast informal financial sector with firms that raise money from the public but don’t fall under the purview of regulators.
The CBI had subsequently asked the Punjab government to submit all records related to the conduct and financing of the sporting events, said a source in the agency.
“Responding to the agency’s queries, the state government authorities recently clarified to the CBI that the Pearls group did make monetary contributions of up to Rs 14 crore towards sponsorship of a few editions of the Kabaddi World Cup held in the state,” the source said.
The agency is trying to ascertain, added the source, whether the sponsorship funds were linked to the Rs 45,000 crore gathered by the firms from more than 5.5 crore investors through deposit schemes that are being probed.
“We are also verifying if there was any irregular quid pro quo in the transactions,” he said.
On Friday, the CBI had arrested four top representatives, including chairman and managing director Nirmal Singh Bhangoo, of the two accused firms -- Pearls Agrotech Corporation Ltd (PACL) and Pearls Golden Forest Ltd (PGF).
The officials were arrested after the agency questioned them at its Delhi headquarters during which they allegedly gave “contradictory and inconsistent responses on key queries”.
These were the first arrests made in the probe by the CBI.
Investigators are likely to record the statements of a few state government officials then associated with the organising of the sporting events.
“The question is whether the firms got any undue advantage linked to the irregularities being probed,” said the source.
When contacted by HT about the CBI probe, Dr Daljeet Singh Cheema, Punjab education minister and SAD spokesperson, denied any wrongdoing in the transactions.
“The state government had received money under the corporate social responsibility…If they (Pearls group) have done any fraud, the law will take its own course. Receiving financial assistance as per the law from a corporate house doesn’t mean that we are shielding law-breakers,” he said.