Mother’s ambulance bill to towels, UK visa to daily expenses: Railway PSU chief got his office to pay
Using his home as a “company guest house” and funding personal household expenses through the company; getting exorbitant medical bills and other expenditure reimbursed; getting the company to pay long-term visa fee for foreign travel on personal passport for a period well after his retirement; misuse of official car.
In the wake of these allegations of financial misconduct and misuse of position, the Ministry of Railways Saturday stripped Amitabh Banerjee of his powers as Chairman and Managing Director of its PSU Indian Railway Finance Corporation (IRFC).
The IRFC is a top-rated, Schedule A PSU owned by Railways. It lends money to Railways for purchase of rolling stock and, of late, creation of infrastructure assets.
The action against Banerjee comes close on the heels of the government sacking National High Speed Rail Corporation MD Satish Agnihotri over corruption allegations.
A vigilance probe by Railways, following a whistleblower complaint, found that Banerjee, who joined the civil service as an officer of the Indian Railway Accounts Service (IRAS), moved with his family into a four-bedroom house in New Delhi’s Green Park Extension in January 2020 after getting the company to take the house on lease for around Rs 2 lakh per month as the IRFC “guest house”.
Being the only occupants of the “guest house”, the Banerjee family got their day-to-day expenses, groceries, vegetables, dry fruits, computer mouse, sanitary items, fittings, fixture, recharge of utilities paid by the company as expenses to run the “guest house”.
There are documents to show expenses described as “food items” – often without any bill number – listed for reimbursement. Expenses of consumables ranged around Rs 30,000 a month.
The guest house has shown “food items” purchased multiple times during a day, every month, of varied amounts mostly under Rs 1000 and sometimes more than that.
There are a lot of entries described as “miscellaneous items” including a Shoppers Stop bill of Rs 9,000. Several are from “SIX to TEN”, “Super Marche”, “Reliance Fresh” etc, as per the documents.
The “guest house” got a fridge, TV, washing machine etc rented at Rs 70,000 per month, according to the vigilance complaint which said the rental payments are ultimately higher than the value of the assets.
Round-the-clock help, including cook, helper, and cleaning staff were also deployed in the house for the family at company expense on account of the so-called guest house.
Banerjee vacated the premises recently and shifted to a house in Kailash Colony on his own lease.
In another set of allegations being probed by Railways, Banerjee got a 10-year UK visa in 2019 for his official travel to the country for which he claimed a visa fee of around Rs 98,000. The vigilance probe questioned why the company paid for the expensive 10-year visa on his personal (non-official) passport when Banerjee is due to retire in 2023. The vigilance asked why a cheaper, short-duration visa was not taken.
Documents showed that red flags were raised within the company before authorising this payment but Banerjee, as the CMD, prevailed.
“The financial implication of the various alleged misconduct may not be much but they are misuse of power and misconduct nonetheless, and certainly unbecoming of a CMD of a PSU,” a top Railway ministry source told The Indian Express. “That’s why he has been divested of his powers. He cannot be removed outright without approval of the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, which may take around two-three months,” the source said.
Saturday’s order by the Railway ministry asked Director Finance of the company, Shelly Verma, to exercise the powers of CMD for three months.
In another set of allegations, Banerjee hired an ambulance from a private vendor for his ailing mother during the second wave of the Covid pandemic in April last year and took a reimbursement of Rs 1.54 lakh as ambulance charge to transport the patient from Green Park to Apollo Hospital in Jasola. Documents show this expenditure did not have a bill. Another ambulance was hired for Rs 19,000 to shift the patient from Apollo to the Northern Railway hospital. There were additional expenses like Rs 10500 for oxygen refill etc which have been reimbursed, as per the records.
Banerjee was appointed on October 12, 2019. Documents show that from October 14 to November 2, 2019, his office incurred expenditure of Rs 77,000 to purchase even personal household items.
Some of the items bought were: Ball pens: Rs 2,290; photo shooting: Rs 8,000; Shoppers Stop items (towels, wall clock, glass, vacuum bottle, service tray and coaster): Rs 33,462; Towels: Rs 3,000; Smart Bulb: Rs 14,612; Labour charge: Rs 6,000.
“All the allegations are frivolous. This is a vendetta against me,” Banerjee told The Indian Express Sunday.
On the allegations, he said the chargesheet by the vigilance is only on two items – the guest house and the UK visa.
“The Board of Directors approved leasing of the house as ‘directors’ guest house’. It had four bedrooms. My wife and I stayed in one room while the other three remained unoccupied. There was no other occupant because it was mostly the lockdown period,” he said.
Banerjee said that to stay in the guest house, he paid a fee of Rs 27,000 per month.
“The expenses shown by the guest house is because we stayed there. Why else am I paying Rs 900 per day to the guest house?” he said.
Banerjee said that after he came to Delhi from Konkan Railway (his earlier posting as Director Finance) in Mumbai, the Railway ministry had approved a Type 5 government accommodation for him. But no house was vacant.
“So, after the approval of the IRFC Board of Directors, we tried to purchase a house as a permanent company guest house. When nothing materialised, the company took the property on lease. During this time, I did not take Rs 1.4 lakh per month of house allowance I am entitled to,” he said.
Regarding the visa fee, Banerjee said that the 10-year visa was at the discretion of the visa issuing authority. “It is the visa issuing authority that ultimately decides the duration of the visa, no matter what the applicant asks. In any case, the difference between the fee for a shorter visa and a 10-year-visa is meagre. I do not have a red (official) passport and we did not have time to get one at that time,” he said.
Documents show that as IRFC MD, he made multiple trips to UK, Singapore along with other officials for “roadshows” to raise funds. Sources said the railway vigilance was looking into expenses incurred during these trips.
On the medical bills, he said his ailing mother was on a ventilator while in transit during the “second wave of Covid” and that “his people” arranged the ambulance at the time of need.
Incidentally, Banerjee was among those named in a past probe by the CBI into bamboo procurement by the Hindustan Paper Corporation Limited where he was Director Finance. Sources said the CBI subsequently filed a closure report in the matter without charges.