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Welcome to the real convoluted world of counterfeit currency in India, where the victim is prosecuted, the fence eats the crop, and the criminals walk free. This is the first part of a three-part series
So you thought that just because you got your currency notes from across a bank teller's counter or an ATM, they were guaranteed to be the genuine item?
Just one of many episodes - over Rs4 crore worth of fake currency in an assortment of 500 and 1,000 rupee denominations, running into 76,108 currency notes, would take around 80 shoe-boxes to fill. That is about 8-10 large steel trunks of the sort used by banks to move cash around. One could probably understand if it was moving from one hoodlum to another, or a large city, or even in a medium or small town. But as part of an RBI controlled cash chest at an SBI branch in an extremely small town in Uttar Pradesh that does not even have a railway station? Domariganj, close to the Indo-Nepal border, probably doesn't transact in lakhs per day, but hey, that didn't prevent the fine people at SBI from replacing Rs4 crore worth of genuine money with some funny money made elsewhere - same series, everything.
This episode a couple of years ago was sought to be hushed up by both RBI and SBI. However, the grapevine is supreme, and there is no smoke without fire - so the buzz is that this currency was destined, via private transporters, to the business of refilling ATM cartridges - which as of now is also privatised, and as per information, is often still not required to provide currency note checking facilities. Till March 2011, and that also only where branches have daily cash transactions exceeding Rs50 lakh, you will continue to get currency notes that may not have been "duly checked for authenticity/genuineness and fitness by machines."
(For more, see: http://www.rbi.org.in/scripts/NotificationUser.aspx?Mode=0&Id=5376).
Were those who were behind this crime punished? We don't know, but if you had found yourself with even one of those currency notes, and then tried to go back to SBI to argue about it, well, hey, they would have filed an FIR with the local police. Against you. That's for sure. How about that for a neat system to make sure that any fake notes in circulation will not be complained about?
Welcome to the real convoluted world of counterfeit currency in India, where the victim is prosecuted, the fence eats the crop, and the criminals walk free. Matter of fact, they rename themselves the "cash management industry", are closely allied to the "payment processing industry", and will make sure the system will lock you up if you try to complain about them. (Moneylife had earlier reported about the issue. Read more http://www.suchetadalal.com/?id=c63f9c37-83fa-d18a-4a8425120108&base=sections&f and http://suchetadalal.com/?id=aa6db152-66d8-27d4-49b4f6fd0e2f&base=sections&f&t=Even+RBI+Can%27t+Check+Fakes! )
Seafarers worldwide are natural and favourite targets for fake and counterfeit currency, such is the nature of the job. Earning in one currency, getting paid in another, spending in a third and getting change back in a fourth, is par for the course. As a result, they acquire a reasonably sharp sixth sense about the subject, and pick up enough from the grapevine too.
For example, in the '70s, ports in Taiwan, the Philippines and the rest of the Far East, including and especially Singapore before it went sterile and sanitised, were areas of high caution. The regular SCI-operated passenger ship between Singapore, Malaysia and (erstwhile) Madras, called the MV Chidambaram, was especially famous as a regular carrier of fake currency, with the way-port of Nagapattinam a known transit point. When the Suez Canal re-opened, it was awash with fake German currency, many were the unwary who were saddled with close to worthless East German marks at market rates matching the West German ones. And Aden, for some reason, was one location where bundles of well-worn and used fake Indian currency could be obtained in the local souks - much of this currency was 'used', because it had been used as legal tender in the Arab countries and some of the African countries, in the past. Till the '70s.
Likewise, it was always rumoured that the areas around Kolhapur and Belgaum, especially Khanapur, were centres of excellence as far as printing anything counterfeit was concerned. This probably started off as a mutually damaging effort on the part of the Portuguese in Goa versus the British in India before and during World War II and everybody else after that, till the more famous stamp paper scandal of the recent past.
Your correspondent was on a cargo ship trading worldwide, which called at a small port on the West Coast of the US, mid-70s. We went ashore to the local market and bars one evening with US currency that was paid to us in Singapore, some of which was found to be counterfeit, and then tracked back to us. As our ship was still in port, we ended up being questioned very closely indeed - first by the local police, and subsequently Treasury agents from the US Secret Service.
That was the first time in my life when I learnt how countries like the US approach the issue of the sanctity of their currency. It is at a level which is on par if not higher than the safety of the life of their President as well as the defence of their country. However, the complete investigation as far as we or our ship was concerned was not to blame us or find us guilty, but to co-opt our assistance in trying to trace the source for this currency. The investigators, and they were really tough and mean looking big guys, took immense pain and effort to let all of us know that we or our ship were not going to be put to any trouble - but at the same time, they certainly wanted to know as much as they could, so would we please co-operate?
And pass the beer, hey, we were all good guys on the same side.
Here is the link (http://www.rbi.org.in/scripts/NotificationUser.aspx?Mode=0&Id=5828) to the relevant RBI circular instructing banks and other entities in India on what to do in case their customers or they detect fake or counterfeit currency in the course of their daily work. Please do not miss the wording of the FIR, which immediately places the customer at a disadvantaged position - even if he or she had just been given the same counterfeit currency by the same bank!
Moneylife awaits responses from RBI on the subject.
(The second part of this series will appear tomorrow).