New Delhi: A few blocks from Fatehpuri market, a favorite among wholesale cloth merchants in Old Delhi, a man in his early 40s hurriedly walked through the shops selling prayer ritual items. He was carrying an empty blue bag and a smartphone tucked in the pocket. He was intercepted by another man with a yellow airbag on his shoulder. What transpired during the brief conversation is not known but a spotter shadowing the man watched them pulling out their phones and showing something to each other. Subsequently, the bags were exchanged and they disappeared in the crowded lanes. No one else noticed the pair that foggy morning of mid-January 2018.
The watcher from Rajasthan Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), a trained operative, immediately called his controller and reported the event that unfolded before his eyes. The officer sitting hundreds of miles away in a command centre pored over the files, examining similar interactions reported by the Human Intelligence (HUMINT) a few days back and decided to launch a sustained surveillance.
This was the beginning of 'Operation Kuber' that months later culminated into a massive haul exposing a deep-rooted hawala network in the country that was spreading its tentacles after demonetisation in November 2016.
The name for this shadowy operation was aptly chosen, as Kuber means 'God of Wealth' and the ATS sleuths were on the hunt of those moving illegal and a large amount of unaccounted cash from one state to another.
Amid the cash crunch, the government and the Central Bank, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) have argued that there is no currency crisis in the country and some temporary shortage was being reported because of a sudden surge in withdrawal and logistical issues in replenishing ATMs. But, 'Operation Kuber' reveals that cash hoarders and hawala operators are once again active and a large chunk of cash is disappearing from circulation using cash mules.
The sudden surge in withdrawal by the aam aadmi is one aspect of the problem, however, hawala syndicates crawling back to business is a serious concern when the government itself had revealed that cash including new currency notes of about Rs 110 crore were seized immediately after demonetisation.
Within weeks, the ATS team had gathered evidence including chatters that the hawala network was active in at least four states " Delhi, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. A huge amount of cash was being moved from one place to another at regular intervals.
"When we say regular interval that means one transaction in six-seven days. The (delivery of) consignment by the hawala operators was conducted as a normal routine. In the hawala network, the operators typically handle the transporters from a vantage point and the identity of the transporter and the receiver is kept secret," a top source revealed.
What the intelligence gathering mission of 'Operation Kuber' revealed was startling and overwhelming. The cash was being moved by unsuspected mules through public transport and 'Chinh' (identity) of the transporter was being verified through mobile phones. At least two nodal points in Rajasthan were identified, ATS DIG Vikas Kumar told Firstpost.
"The origin of the cash was Delhi. Bhilwara and Udaipur were two nodal points for further transportation of the cash. Their modus operandi was unique. The person who picked up the bag full of cash used to show a particular signature on his mobile phones. The person handing over the cash and the receiver too had a similar signature that was sent by the syndicate through WhatsApp messenger. In layman language, it is called 'chinhdena' (establishing identity). There was no need for them to reveal each other's identity, just the message containing signature was enough. We started tracking them from the place of origin," Kumar said.
The intelligence harvested through HUMINT and technical surveillance disclosed that one active cell from Delhi was operational, however, there were other modules as well that were transporting unaccounted cash.
The cash mule, who was eventually arrested in March from a private bus and handed over to the Income Tax Department, was part of the network that was operating in four states. Since they were dealing in high denomination notes, mostly in Rs 2,000, it is suspected that key figures of the syndicate are still at large.
DIG, ATS Vikas Kumar said that the Income Tax Department is trying to figure out the beneficiaries of these illegal transactions and as far 'Operation Kuber' is concerned they have gleaned a lot of clues of hawala modules and still working on the fine details.
"What appears from our operation is that a large amount of unaccounted cash is being moved and for that reason, the Income Tax Department has been roped in. We believe that Enforcement Directorate is also going to look into the syndicate which has been busted in the Operation. We have some leads and intensely focusing on that to disrupt and dismantle the hawala networks," Kumar further added.
Both the government and the RBI have assured that adequate currency would be supplied to meet the increasing cash demands in the coming days, but away from the public glare, the chilling facts of the hawala network indicate that the agencies need a coordinated strike to neutralise the modules. With the ongoing 'Operation Kuber' a war against cash hoarders has just begun.