Industry of ill-gotten gains

Karnataka BJP leader K.S. Eshwarappa got his two minutes of infamy last month when officers of the Karnataka Lokayukta, the state's anti-corruption ombudsman, raided his house and business establishments in multiple locations and seized several kilograms of gold and silver and a stash of cash. Alongside these was a relatively unusual item: a currency counting machine. Eshwarappa is but one of nearly two dozen prominent leaders of various political hues facing corruption cases in Karnataka. Why would a private citizen need a currency counting machine?

Eshwarappa is not just any politician. He is the president of the BJP in the state, and deputy chief minister of a state that is edging close to an assembly election in the next couple of months. Following the raid by the Lokayukta, which was probing his assets based on a complaint about "disproportionate assets", Eshwarappa could come up with no reasonable justification on what a currency counting machine was doing in his home. When questioned by a local newspaper, the deputy chief minister reportedly came up with a preposterous explanation: the machine was being used as a toy by children in the house.

A currency counting machine is an electronic gadget that counts stacks of currency notes efficiently and speedily. It provides a final tally of the amount after counting off different denominations. More sophisticated versions can detect counterfeit currency. They are commonly used in modern ATMs and at banks, hotels and big retail stores where cash changes hands over the counter and large amounts of currency need to be added up at the end of each business day. But these days, currency counting machines are also found in the hands of jewellery store owners and real estate developers, who transact in enormous amounts of cash, often illegitimately.

More recently, currency counting machines have been found in the hands of private individuals, whether politicians, bureaucrats or businessmen. Deal sites offering currency counting machines at "low prices" and "portable versions" are a good indicator of the huge demand for these contraptions. Dealers have spread out to smaller Indian towns.

In Bangalore, several recent incidents have highlighted the trend. Eshwarappa could have no justifiable reason to have a currency counting machine in his possession. In another episode, Lokayukta officials intercepted the car of a Bangalore corporator's brother and discovered a cash counting machine.

A currency machine now appears to be a badge of honour amongst the corrupt across India. Madhu Koda, the former chief minister from Jharkhand who became notorious for his money-laundering scam, was discovered to be a millionaire with business interests in far-flung countries like Liberia and Laos. In the stash discovered in Koda's home were five currency counting machines. Such machines were reportedly found in the home of Ashok Jadeja, Ahmedabad-based conman and fake guru who defrauded thousands in a money-multiplier scheme. A Madhya Pradesh doctor couple in government service was found with huge amounts of unaccounted cash and a currency counting machine a few months ago.

Possessing a currency counting machine is not illegal in India. But the recent discoveries suggest that illegal cash transactions are so massive that physical counting is impractical and machines are being brought in. These days corruption cases anyway involve tens of crores of rupees, if not hundreds. It is becoming routine for corrupt politicians and bureaucrats to have a currency counting machine besides documents, cash and jewelry, said Justice Santosh Hegde, former Karnataka Lokayukta and an anti-corruption crusader. "Bribes are mostly received in cash and this indicates the volume of unaccounted money sloshing about in the financial system," said Justice Hegde. Currency machines are symptomatic of India's parallel economy, he said. He suggested the government either ban private citizens from owning currency counting machines or bring in a licensing system to regulate their possession.

Some are saying currency machines are revolutionising Indian politics by bringing in the latest technological advances in corruption. Plugging the rampant sale of these machines is not impossible. It is time the country's finance minister and the tax agencies took note. To start with, finding out which private individuals bought such machines, and paying a visit to all of them, is in order.

saritha.rai@expressindia.com

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