Life and death of a baron

FP
If the lines on a palm could tell a story, Ponty would have had none. Where would the story have begun? After all, his left hand ended in a stub below his elbow and his right hand had been scarred after a near-fatal kite flying session as a 10-year-old. The lines should have vanished. Instead, that's where Ponty's story begins—the story of Gurdeep 'Ponty' Chadha and his migrant family from Montgomery in Pakistan who moved to Moradabad in western Uttar Pradesh, his rise to become one of the most successful and connected business tycoons in these parts till the alleged fratricide that shook the Chadha family last week. For once, the lines were stark—Ponty and his brother Hardeep 'Satnam' Chadha were dead after a simmering property dispute at their farmhouse in Delhi.

In Moradabad, where Ponty, his siblings and his cousins were born, grew up and spent much of their youth, the events of the last few days have allowed the city's residents the indulgence of slipping in and out of shock and nostalgia as they talk about the Chadhas, their phenomenal rise and their eventual falling out.

Like most cities, Moradabad lives in layers. The rich live in the posh Civil Lines area where houses have high iron gates and higher walls. The poor, with no walls to hide behind, simply spill out into the city and its galis crowded with bazaars, rickshaws and scooters. Ponty knew both worlds.

The beginning

During Partition, Ponty's grandfather Gurbachan Singh and his three sons, Kulwant, Harbhajan and Surinder, made the journey from Pakistan to Ramnagar in Uttar Pradesh (now in Uttarakhand), where they set up a sugarcane crushing unit. A close associate of the family who didn't want to be quoted says the Chadhas later moved to Moradabad, a bigger city, where they entered the milk business, supplying milk to homes and commercial units. There are different versions from here on, but reports in the local media talk of how Kulwant, Ponty's father and the eldest of Gurbachan's sons, supplied milk to an excise inspector in Moradabad and soon, landed a licence to set up a liquor outlet in the city. The Chadhas had made their nascent diversification—from milk to liquor.

From then on, the business grew and so did the Chadhas' social standing. A leading advocate in the city who didn't want to be quoted says, "About forty years ago, the high society in Moradabad didn't want to be associated with the Chadhas. They were derided as Kalwars (a community that is associated with the liquor trade) and sharab bechne wale. But with money came respectability. Now the situation is such that if we don't get an invite from the Chadhas for any of their family functions, we feel left out."

The Chadhas were essentially a family business, with a loose division of responsibility. Soon after Emergency, Ponty's father Kulwant is said to have effectively retired from the business and handed over the reins to his children and his brothers. While uncle Harbhajan and his family limited their business to Moradabad, Ponty spread himself out. By the 90s, Ponty had extended his hold over the liquor business in the rest of Uttar Pradesh.

The Chadha group's spectacular rise came with stories about the family's political and financial muscle, his links across political divides and of money being allegedly routed to political parties.

"Ponty was dabang and had the right mix of business acumen and luck. But while all of that may be true, he was very good to his family and his employees," says the advocate.

In 1993, Ponty and his brothers and their families moved from Moradabad to Delhi. But the happy stories stayed in Moradabad—of the family's early days in 25, Adarsh Nagar, their spectacular rise, of Ponty's love for the city. There are stories of the good deeds he did, even after he became "such a big man"—of the 43 jobs he gave out, "khade-khade", to people from Moradabad at a family wedding he attended, of the expensive Swiss chocolates and watches he sent as Diwali gifts to friends and well-wishers, of the Wave Mall he "gifted" Moradabad simply because he didn't want his home-town to be without one.

A childhood friend of Ponty says Ponty's brothers meant the world to him. At the height of the Punjab militancy, Ponty's younger brother, Hardeep, had been kidnapped from the family's Bilaspur (then in Madhya Pradesh) mill and Ponty had put everything—money, muscle, contacts—to save his brother.

Outside the gurdwara at Adarsh Nagar, a Partition resettlement colony with narrow lanes and cheek-by-jowl houses, Bhupinder Singh Billa, 61, and Surinder Singh Kalra, 62, remember the Chadhas fondly. "Those days, we lived a few houses away from the Chadhas' house. As children, we played all the time," says Kalra, before turning to his cousin Billa, "Remember, we would take turns to sit in Ponty's plastic car and storm our way through these lanes."

Billa refuses to believe the brothers killed each other. "We have grown up with them. I have never seen someone as generous and rooted as Ponty. The last time he came to the gurdwara, he promptly signed a cheque for four ACs. The brothers are incapable of something like this. Kisi aur ki shaitani hai," says Billa.

The ground floor of 25, Adarsh Nagar, where Ponty was born in 1957, is now a crumbling heap. But a flight of stairs leads to rooms around a central courtyard, where the winter sun lights up the elegant yellow house. It was here that Kulwant Singh, his two brothers, their wives and their children lived. Today, each of these rooms have been let out to the Chadha Group's employees—drivers, accountants and caretakers. It still resembles a bustling household, women going about their chores, clothes hung out to dry and the aroma of ginger tea in the air. The Chadhas lived here for many years before they moved to the posher Civil Lines area of Moradabad, to Chadha House or 'White House' as it is sometimes called. Today, on Thursday, the fortified White House has its gates shut tight. The entire family is in Delhi for a prayer meeting at Gurdwara Rakabganj.

At Avantika Colony, retired school teacher Suresh Kumar Mehrotra remembers Ponty as the boy who stunned him with his geometry diagrams. "I taught them mathematics in class VIII-A and would offer to help him with his geometry because of his handicap. He would refuse, in turn asking me, 'Who'll help me in my exams?' He cleared his class X with IInd class. That was considered very good in those days," he says.

Mehrotra says he remembers Ponty because he stood out among the others—the sardar boy with a stump for a hand and an amazing grit. "He even came home for tuitions after school hours, riding a Luna, his severed left hand resting on the Luna handle." Mehrotra says he lost touch with his student after the family moved to Delhi, but says Ponty would have remembered him if only he had called him. He had saved Ponty's number on his cellphone but never made that call.

The spread

After Ponty moved to Delhi, the group renamed itself Wave Inc and diversified into sugar manufacturing, distilleries, paper mills, real estate and multiplexes and even film distribution. Though no precise estimate of the business's worth is known, it is said to run into thousands of crores. While Ponty has been quoted as saying that his son Manpreet 'Monty' Singh Chadha, joint MD of the company, is the brain behind its operations, it is no secret that it was Ponty and his ability to steamroll any opposition that came his way that spurred the group on.

Meanwhile, he continued to spread his wings—from eastern Uttar Pradesh to Punjab. Like in Moradabad, he would start by taking control of the liquor trade before moving on to real estate and other businesses. Several liquor satraps had their hold over eastern UP till Ponty took control in 2007.

Rakesh Pandey, BSP MP from Ambedkarnagar in UP, was one such liquor satrap in the Poorvanchal region of the state. Though Ponty eliminated him from the business, Pandey grudgingly admires his guts.

"Ponty was sharp, not only in business but also when it came to judging people. He developed contacts with anyone who could be useful to him. If he spotted a man with potential, he would rope him in and back him with money. In return, he demanded total loyalty. It is simply impossible for anyone to control the liquor trade in a big state like UP. One has to deal with police, mafia, politicians. Only Ponty could manage it," says Pandey.

Jawahar Jaiswal of Varanasi, another of his adversaries in the liquor trade, was jailed in a criminal case. Ponty is said to have flown to Varanasi in his chartered plane, met Jawahar and resolved the animosity, though Jawahar lost his business to Ponty.

He knew how to keep his 'friends'—politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen—happy. For Diwali this year, Ponty is said to have gifted them expensive Raymond Weil watches. These 'friends' wouldn't let him down either. In February this year, the Income Tax Department conducted multiple raids on his establishments but it is said that he was tipped off by at least 15 sources. Besides, Ponty reportedly had his own vigilance team. This team would conduct mock raids on his offices, confiscate papers and computers and systematically wipe out anything that could be held against them.

His friends in Lucknow say he was fond of good clothes and vehicles, and loved to travel abroad. It is said that he even owned an island in Dubai's famous Palm Islands, though family sources claimed to know nothing of his overseas interests, except that both his daughters are in Dubai.

Ponty's hold over the rest of UP began during Mulayam Singh's regime in 2005. He constructed Lucknow's first multiplex, Wave, in Gomti Nagar. He also got a prime 18-acre plot in Gomti Nagar for a group housing project. In 2005, he bagged a contract for the supply of nutritional supplements under the Integrated Child Development Scheme. But his prize catch was the 4,800-acre Hi-Tech city in Ghaziabad, said to be the biggest housing project in the country.

When Mayawati took over as chief minister in 2007, many thought it signalled trouble for Ponty Chadha. But the BSP government gave him a monopoly of the wholesale liquor trade in the state, besides about 40 per cent of the retail trade.

The liquor trade fuelled Ponty's growth. "It gave him a huge daily cash flow, which he funneled into other businesses," says a liquor trader.

It was also during Mayawati's regime that Ponty got 160 acres in Sectors 32 and 25A of Noida for his ambitious Wave City Centre project. The auction of this land earned the Noida Authority Rs 367 crore as stamp duty, one of the highest such collections in the country.

Ponty also bought several sugar mills when the Mayawati government decided to go in for disinvestment. A CAG audit report said that the state suffered a loss of Rs 1,179.84 crore because of undervaluation of land and buildings.

There are reports that he also ventured into the mining business in the state but his name never figured anywhere. "Ponty had more than two dozen companies, all in the name of his close associates. It is hard to find him on the scene," says an official.

The Samajwadi Party had turned the sugar mills scandal into a major election issue and promised an inquiry to uncover the truth. But at Akhilesh Yadav's swearing-in ceremony in Lucknow in March, Ponty had a seat reserved in the VVIP enclosure. He did not come, but sent son Monty instead. The Akhilesh government recently handed over the sugar mills case to the Lokayukta.

***

Ponty entered Punjab in 1999 after he was introduced to Adesh Partap Singh Kairon, Shiromani Akali Dal minister and Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal's son-in-law. He gradually took control of the liquor business, later investing in sugar mills, distilleries, paper mills and even real estate.

"Ponty ruled the liquor business for many years. He simply uprooted us," says former Akali Dal minister Jagdish Singh Garcha. "In 2002, during the auction of liquor vends, we entered the auction hall forcibly but Ponty had got majority of the liquor vends. The next year, we were not even allowed to enter the auction hall."

Though Ponty entered Punjab through his contacts in the Akali Dal, he grew in strength during the Congress government of 2002-7 headed by Amarinder Singh. He had complete monopoly of the liquor business from 2002-6 and even after changes in the excise policy, he retained more than 60 per cent of the share in vends across the state.

"Ponty used to speak very less but he was very sharp and usually spoke in whispers. He was always conscious of what people thought of him," says Manik Reikhi, a liquor vendor in Ludhiana.

That would surprise most people because for much of Ponty's life, they wanted to be on his right side and wondered what he thought of them.

(With inputs from Rakhi Jagga)

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