The Enforcement Directorate has arrested a high-ranking bureaucrat in Chhattisgarh. The agency arrested Saumya Chaurasia, deputy secretary to Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, and sent to four-day custody for alleged money laundering.
The agency took Chaurasia for a health check-up after the arrest. It took her to a local court escorted by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).
Sources said that central probe agencies had questioned Soumya several times in the past two months. The Enforcement Directorate conducted search operations and made arrests under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) 2002.
Case of Enforcement Directorate in Chhattisgarh
The Enforcement Directorate had in October arrested Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer Sameer Vishnoi and two others after conducting search operations in the case.
The money laundering investigation, launched after the Enforcement Directorate took note of a complaint by the income tax department, is linked to an alleged scam in which a cartel of senior bureaucrats, businessmen, politicians and middlemen extorted illegal levy of Rs 25 per tonne for every tonne of coal transported in Chhattisgarh.
Weak law but effective political tool
Cases under the said law against money laundering have a terrible conviction rate of less than 0.5%. However, those charged under this law end up spending a few years in jail as undertrial inmates.
Only 23 people had been convicted on money laundering charges even as the Enforcement Directorate had registered over 5,400 in the past 17 years under the PMLA, resulting in the attachment of assets worth over Rs 1.04 lakh crore, the government informed the parliament in July.
Almost two-thirds of the total cases — 65.56% or 3,555 of 5,422 cases — were registered after the Narendra Modi government assumed power in 2014. The opposition alleges that the Modi dispensation is using central agencies to harass political opponents, a charge denied by the government.
According to a written reply by Minister of State for Finance Pankaj Chaudhary in the Lok Sabha in July, the registration of cases under PMLA over the years had resulted in the attachment of proceeds of crime to the tune of around Rs 1,04,702 crore.
Of the 5,422 cases registered, filing of prosecution complaints (chargesheets) was only in 992 cases. This resulted in confiscation of Rs 869.31 crore and conviction of 23 accused persons under PMLA, the Minister said in his reply to JD(U) floor leader Rajiv Ranjan (Lallan) Singh.
The PMLA became a law in 2002, was given assent by the then-president in 2003 and notified in 2005.
The data that the minister provided for the past 10 years showed that there were a total of 3,985 cases under the PMLA. The highest number of 1,180 cases were registered in 2021-22 while 2020-21 had 981 cases.
There were 221 and 209 money laundering cases registered in 2012-13 and 2013-14 when Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister. The first year (2014-15) of the Modi government saw 178 such cases and it declined to 111 the next year.
However, 2016-17 saw almost doubling of cases to 200 which again saw a decline to 148 in 2017-18. But it rose again to 195 in 2018-19. There was a dramatic rise in 2019-20 when 562 cases of money laundering were registered and it further rose in the next two fiscals.
The poor conviction rate notwithstanding, the Supreme Court upheld the provisions of the act and retained the powers of the Enforcement Directorate under the PMLA, which was criticised for putting the personal liberty of citizens at risk by the undue process allowed by the provisions of PMLA.
On 22 August 2022, the highest court of the country accepted a petition to review its 27 July 2022 judgement which upheld core amendments made to the PMLA. On 25 August 2022, the Supreme Court said that two provisions, not providing a copy of the Enforcement Case Information Report to the accused, and reversal of the presumption of innocence, needed reconsideration.
Experts say that the poor conviction rate of the PMLA is hardly a mistake of the prosecuting agency that also conducts the raids and arrests under the law. They say it does not necessarily mean the accused are innocent, but benefiting someone through a third party, while raising the Enforcement Directorate’s suspicion, is difficult to establish as a link to a deal of quid pro quo in a court of law.
Baghel cried foul
The agency had raided Chaurasia’s house in February 2020. The chief minister had called the search operation “political vendetta” and claimed it was part of an attempt to “destabilise” his government.
Last week, the chief minister alleged in tweets that the Enforcement Directorate and Central Board of Direct Taxes officials manhandled some detained businessmen and state government officers with rods.
“We have come to know about incidents of detaining people without informing local police, serving them summons on the spot, making them sit in murga position, stopping them without food and water till late night, beating them with rods, threatening them with imprisoning them for life by Enforsement Directorate officials,” the chief minister had said.
Baghel said the Enforcement Directorate officials should make video recordings during interrogations. “Agencies like the Enforcement Directorate and income tax should take legal action against those involved in corruption, we welcome it, but the way illegal activities are coming to the fore during the investigations by the Enforcement Directorate and I-T department are not at all acceptable,” the Chhattisgarh chief minister said.