Former director of the Enforcement Directorate Karnal Singh, an IPS officer of the 1984 batch, first shot to fame when as DCP Crime, Delhi Police, he solved a series of blasts which rocked the Capital around 1995.
His scientific methods of investigation received appreciation not only from the Intelligence Bureau, Military Intelligence and R&AW, but also from international agencies, including CIA, which acknowledged the tech-intel gathering standard operating procedures (SOPs) devised by him for tracking three or four telephone numbers from over 15 million telephone calls made to Bangladesh and Pakistan within the one km radius of over a dozen blast sites.
Some of Singh’s tech-intel SOPs were used by US intelligence agencies in the 9/11 terror attack investigations. When he was heading the Crime and Special Branch of Delhi Police, he neutralised several terror modules in and around Delhi. When Karnal Singh headed the Enforcement Directorate, he exposed a series of terror financing and money laundering cases. The ED handled high-profile cases during his tenure, including the 2G scam, the coal scam, the National Herald case, the Vijay Mallya scam, the Hassan Ali scam, the Aircel-Maxis and INX Media case, the PNB scam involving diamantaires Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi, cases involving NCP leader Chaggan Bhujbal and meat exporter Moin Qureshi, the Sterling-Biotech fraud and the AgustaWestland VVIP chopper scam.
In an interview to VIJAY THAKUR, Karnal Singh spoke on the functioning of ED, the problems faced by it and why it appears to have become hyperactive during the past few years.
Q: The Enforcement Directorate was never so active as it became after you joined it. It has been hitting headlines every now and again for the past six years. Why has ED become so important visa-vis other premier investigating agencies of the country?
A: The Enforcement Directorate goes back to pre-independence times. During the Second World War there was a lot of corruption in purchases. It led to formation of CBI and implementation of Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, 1947. It was then that ED was created as a small unit under RBI to deal with foreign exchange violations. In 1999 FERA was repealed and FEMA (Foreign Exchange Management Act) came into being. After the 1991 economic reforms, foreign exchange conditions in India improved substantially. The difference was that prior to 1999, ED had no power to arrest people, FERA was a criminal offence, while FEMA was a civil offence. In 2005, Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) was promulgated, and the ED was made the sole agency to implement it. The PMLA has given a lot of power to ED including attaching the properties of proceeds of crime and arresting the accused persons. There were now many cases which ED could take up. So, the influx of cases was more because seizure and arrests started taking place only after the law was made more stringent.
Q: What were the problems ED faced and why did it become hyperactive after you joined? What did you do to transform the Directorate?
A: Though the PMLA Act came into being in 2005, the Directorate was not able to take it up with full force due to acute shortage of manpower. Out of the sanctioned strength of 2000, the strength was only 700 in 2015 when I took over. We realised if the ED has to improve its working, the only way was to increase qualified manpower, and this cannot be done overnight. We sent a proposal to the government to give more incentives to people joining ED on deputation from Customs, Income Tax and various police organisations. Once the proposal was approved, we started getting qualified manpower on deputation… within three years the staff strength increased by 40 per cent, and it showed the desired results. Secondly, we started training ED staff about latest high-tech electronic evidence collection, its analysis and revised SOPs. A boot course was started to upgrade their skills and on how to present their case before courts with proper facts and figures. We must remember that in ED you are dealing with those who have highlevel connections, can afford a battery of the finest lawyers to represent them. Because of the rigorous training to ED staff and attractive benefits, investigating officers were able to handle high-profile cases like Nirav Modi, Vijay Mallya, etc. And it was reflected in seizures, arrests and convictions. We were able to attach property worth Rs 36,000 crore during my tenure, which was the highest ever. We also approached High Courts requesting them to devise a mechanism to expedite the trial of PMLA cases. I personally along with my officials interacted with 10 judicial academies. When I joined ED not a single PMLA case was decided, but now more than 10 cases have been decided. We hope more and more decisions will be taken in coming months that would help in improving the image of the Directorate. We also set up six in-house forensic labs to examine electronic documents. Earlier we used to rely on CBI CFSL labs, which sometimes used to take as long as three years to give the report. With the facility of in-house forensic lab, we can examine any electronic document within hours and get reports in 24 hours.
Q: Did it really reflect on ED’s performance?
A: Statistics speak of the improved performance. Second is public perception. People now recognise and appreciate the proactive action taken by the Directorate. During the past five years, the agency has moved forward in many cases pending for a long time. For example, we took quick action in the Agusta Westland case which was pending for a long period. In Vijay Mallya case, property worth Rs 13,500 crore was attached; in Nirav Modi case, property to the tune of Rs 5,000 crore was attached immediately. In Sterling Biotech, case property worth Rs 5,000 crore was attached. The ED has also started taking action in terror financing cases.
Q: ED has been attacked for alleged political interference. Accused people claim that they were victimised by the party in power because of their political connections. Does the ED get directions from the political leadership?
A: It is very easy to accuse an investigating agency because we are a disciplined force and do not reply to these accusations. Earlier certain high-profile criminals or those who were involved in corrupt practices thought that they would never be caught. It is a fact that they have high connections and can afford to hire the best legal brains of the country. Now when they are caught and confronted with electronic documents, they are finding it difficult to defend themselves Their only defence is to make allegations against the agencies, play the victim card and say that everything is being done at the behest of ‘somebody’. But actually, it is their Karma which they are facing now.
Q: Since ED is investigating very high-profile cases and accused are well connected politically as well as financially, it is easy to make allegations against investigating officers and tarnish their image. Do you think the officers who are handling sensitive cases need to have protection to freely conduct investigations?
A: It is a very difficult question. We have democracy, we have freedom to speak. And people can make allegations against anybody. Laws of defamation are not very stringent, and cases take a lot of time to be decided. A government servant avoids going to court for one reason or the other. Some kind of protection may come in the Act itself saying that no allegations can be made against investigating officers and the accusers would be made liable if the allegations are found to be untrue. Officers who are handling such difficult cases require support from their seniors, and ED needs to stand by them in case of false allegations. If the allegations are true, then certainly stringent action must be taken against the investigating officers.