New Delhi: A complaint filed by a sweeper employed by the Bhopal Municipal Corporation is likely to shed light on a corruption racket allegedly involving a few top officials of a prominent nationalised bank that is allegedly going on for years now in the Bhopal circle—including the two states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Such claims are denied by those close to the bank.

The sweeper was allegedly forced to pay a bribe of Rs 80,000 so that he could get a personal loan of Rs 4.30 lakh from a branch of State Bank of India (SBI) in Bhopal. This whole exercise was carried out with the nexus between private middlemen and a few senior bank officials who are the final authority in sanctioning loans. Banks have seen stricter measures being implemented following the Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi scams. What has added to the possibility of top officers, including those at the levels of Chief General Manager (CGM), Deputy General Manager (DGM) and General Manager, being aware of such a nexus but choosing not to take any action is the fact that more than nine months ago, the SBI had formed an investigative team to probe similar corruption allegations across the state. The Sunday Guardian has accessed the order sheet recommending the formation of the said 16-member team, which was done on 10 December 2020 on the order of the SBI corporate office, Mumbai. It was asked to submit its report, as per the order, before 19 December 2020.

However, till date, the SBI has not taken any action on the employees who were found to be involved in disbursing loans to eligible individuals by allegedly taking a bribe from them or by taking a bribe for disbursing loans to eligible applicants, who are mostly people belonging to the economically weaker sections who take loans for medical emergencies, study of children or marriage of daughter.

Even more surprisingly, one of the middlemen, despite the inquiry report naming him as one of the most prominent players in the whole nexus, was allowed to set up a SBI Customer Service Point in Bhopal to facilitate the bank customers in June 2021, just six months after the investigative team named him in the report. The Sunday Guardian has a copy of the said agreement.

Some of the confidential findings of this investigative team, covering multiple branches of Bhopal, that have been accessed by The Sunday Guardian, show that the probe found that bank officials and middleman took commissions ranging from 10% to 25% for sanctioning personal loans by accepting fabricated pay slips, ignoring existing liabilities and by giving loans to individuals who had poor CIBIL records and hence were not eligible for loans. Interestingly, the team was not asked to probe the transactions happening in the Habibganj branch from where Rajaram’s, the sweeper’s loan was sanctioned. The probe had further found that during the time period when this team was asked to investigate these complaints of irregularities, two middlemen and a firm owned by them saw at least Rs 1.56 crore being credited into their account in multiple tranches, which was done immediately after the loan was credited into the accounts of the customers. These loans were sanctioned from the posh Area Hills branch of the bank. One of the middlemen who has been named in the report is the same individual who has been named in the complaint filed by Rajaram.

The probe report had also stated that in all cases, a cash withdrawal was immediately done after the loan was sanctioned, ostensibly to pay the commission to the middleman. In almost all cases, existing EMIs, which should be taken as a consideration while deciding the loan amount, were ignored. Similarly, in the majority of these cases, the address proof and salary slip that were submitted were found to be forged.

According to bank officials, this shows how deeply the loan mafia is entrenched in the PSU banking system in Madhya Pradesh. “The portion of commission that goes to the bank employees is more than what these middlemen and loan mafia take. If the loan mafia received Rs 1.56 crore as commission, one can just imagine how much the bank officials, who are a part of such nexus, must have earned as bribe,” a senior bank official said.

“A loan disbursement goes through several processes and it is not done until it receives the sanction of senior officials of the level of AGM, GM, DGM and CGM depending on the loan amount. It is hence wrong to put the blame just on the branch managers for such acts,” a retired bank officer told The Sunday Guardian.

As per the bank’s policies, every branch manager is given a target that has to be achieved by way of sanctioning loans to customers. The top officers, under whose command the branches are distributed, are then awarded with commendation and lucrative postings once these targets are achieved.

The Sunday Guardian sent a detailed questionnaire to the SBI Chairman, to the Chief Vigilance Officer, SBI and to the Chief General Manager (CGM), Bhopal circle, and the vigilance officer of the Bhopal circle, seeking their response on this loan mafia involving a few SBI officers. No response was received till the time the story went to press.

The sweeper, Rajaram, 50, who had to pay Rs 80,000 as bribe to the middleman, earns Rs 17,000 as monthly salary. He had sought the personal loan to marry off his daughter last year, but after the same was refused by the SBI, he took it from a private moneylender at an inflated interest rate. To repay the debt to the moneylender, he readily agreed for the SBI loan that the middleman agreed to arrange.

Rajaram has written two complaints, on 6 September and 14 September, to SBI Director Dinesh Kumar Kharra, apart from the Ministry of Finance and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), detailing the entire incident and how he was taken inside the Habibganj, Bhopal branch of the SBI at 8 pm on 4 August by the middleman where he met the branch manager. After this, his loan was sanctioned on 7 August. The commission amount was transferred to the middleman’s account as soon as it was disbursed by the bank. After his first complaint on 6 September, he started getting calls from the middleman and his friends and senior bank officials, asking him to end the matter and take the bribe money back. This led to him writing a second letter to the SBI Chairman detailing the conversation and the individual who were calling him. The Sunday Guardian has accessed details of some of these calls in which individuals introduced themselves as senior bank officers and asked him to take back the bribe money and come to meet them so that the issue could be sorted.

Rajaram, while speaking to The Sunday Guardian, confirmed that he had written the letters. “I had applied for a personal loan at the start of this year. However, the officials at the SBI branch, where my salary account is, refused to give me a loan, stating that I had a bad CIBIL score. However, 3-4 months ago, I got a call from a person asking whether I still needed the loan. If yes, then he could arrange it. He called me to meet him at his office. When I went there, all my documents like salary slips, Aadhaar card and PAN details were with him. He said he would arrange the loan within 72 hours, for which I would have to pay him some money (Rs 80,000). Over the course of time, he took me inside several branches (including Udayachal branch, which is located in the same premise of the Local Head Office of SBI where the CGM and other senior officials work from) where he was welcomed by all the branch managers and staff very warmly. Later, he took me to the branch in Habibganj, at 5 pm. I stayed till 8 pm and met the branch manager. My loan was sanctioned then. The bribe money of Rs 80,000 was paid from my loan account on that very day. Everything is there on the record. The CCTV footage of the banks, too, will confirm what I have said,” he told The Sunday Guardian.