On March 17th morning, Prakash called. He was in a cheerful mood. The stocks had filled up rapidly in last two weeks. The cold storages were almost eighty percent full, driven by small farmer produce. On top of it, Dau’s brother had not troubled him. His hard work was now paying off.
Till now we had handled only sealed trucks that had mandi certificates and weigh bridge certificates. But the small farmers typically brought their trolleys direct from the farms. They did not have the certificates required by the bank and the insurance agency.
Prakash told me, “Bhaiya, these folks don’t need bank loans against stock.”
I asked, “But we as custodians should take their under insurance cover. That will need weight and rate certificates.”
Prakash agreed but he had made up his mind to give priority to filling up the remaining capacity. This process requirement looked like mundane clerical work to him. He said, “I will ask Ravi to get it done.”
I told him, “You should have told the farmers to bring it. Now get Ravi to do this as early as possible.”
In the afternoon, I called Raju Mama. I asked, “Raju Mama, how did Lucky Sardar get a hold of you that day?”
Raju Mama first used the choicest of expletives for Lucky. Then he said, “I knew you will understand he is not with me. That asshole had been sitting at my home since the morning. Then he took me to meet you. He knew that you were coming. Next time, let him come.”
Raju Mama’s show of bravado did not mean much to me. I knew he was going to be under stress every time Lucky was around him.
I asked him, “How does he know you?” Raju Mama said, “A local politician had called me and introduced him to me once. I had only heard about him till then. But I didn’t keep in touch. He is a very bad fellow. He ate at my place; then also stared at women in our yard.”
I asked him, “Why is he called Sardar?” Raju Mama did not know. He said, “His boss in Indore must be a Sardar. But Bhaiya, you keep away from him.”
Then I told him about the storage operations and the small farmers adopting it without taking bank loan. He thought for a moment and asked, “But Bhaiya, small farmers not taking loan or full payment against their stock is difficult to imagine. Usually, these folks can’t wait for next day; a few months wait is impossible for them.”
It set me thinking. I asked him to go and assess what was going on. He decided to go next morning.
Next morning, Raju mama called me from Pipariya Storage facility. He said, “Bhaiya, there are many farmers are in a queue with their tractor trolley, for keeping their produce. Ravi ji is taking them in.”
I called Ravi. I said, “Ravi, Prakash must have told you that we need certificates of their product rate and weight from a licensed agency. Don’t accept them in without it. As it is we have backlog to correct.”
Ravi said, “But Bhaiya, those who have come inside the premises will create a scene if I refuse them now.”
Raju Mama was standing next to Ravi. He suggested loudly so that I could hear on the cell, “Bhaiya, put up a sign at the gate that there is no space available. At least new ones won’t come in.”
I liked the idea and told Raju Mama to make and put up a board while Ravi completed the existing queue.
That evening, when Prakash came back from the field work, he was quite agitated. More than anything else, he wanted to know why I had allowed Raju Mama to interfere and put up the board. I asked him to calm down and think over the possible consequences of having uncertified stock with us -no agency was going to fund it or insure it. Then we discussed the risks around us and that we could not break any process. Then he eased a bit.
Next morning, Ravi was assigned to the task of assess and get certificates for all the uncertified records. He estimated a few days work.
Two days later, on Friday, Ravi sent in his resignation. He wanted to move back to a bigger city. He wanted immediate release. The reason was that he needed to join elsewhere immediately.
Prakash asked him to complete the task on hand and then get released. We realized that he hadn’t progressed much in last two days. He agreed to it but to our surprise he did not report to the office after that day.
Monday morning, March 26th: 4.30 in the morning. My cell kept on ringing. I had been in deep sleep. Finally, I received it without seeing who was calling. It was Prakash.
He had ice cold voice, “Bhaiya, storages are on fire. Come immediately.” I kept the cell down and still slept for a few more minutes – believing it was a dream. Then I woke up with a jerk and looked at my cell. There indeed had been a call from Prakash.
I called back, “Prakash, how big is the fire?’ He told me, “It’s massive. I have informed the police and the fire station. But they have just one tanker. It won’t suffice. It is all over.”
I asked him to calm down, and told him that I am starting for Pipariya immediately.
I woke up Tilak. He had slept in our verandah. As we got ready to move, my parents got up. My mother asked, “What happened?” I told her, “We need to go to Pipariya immediately. There is a small fire but there is nothing to worry.”
Then she said, “Confirm if it’s correct. They might be calling you on road in odd hours.”
I had not thought about it. But she had feared for me day and night – that was her first thought. I checked with Pipariya police station and fire station – there was a massive fire in our premises. I removed her fears and we two moved.
As soon as we left home, I called up the Insurance Manager and intimated him. He told me that the first surveyor will reach there by seven. Along the way, I kept calling to line up private tanker owners but none were ready at this hour. We reached the storage premises just before seven.
It was a horrible sight. Most of the stock had been burnt. The iron girders and pillars of the buildings were bent but still standing. There was still fire on the ground as a lot of material lay that was inflammable. The lone fire tanker was pouring water from one side but it was hardly effective.
A lot of crowd had gathered outside the premises as the news spread in the morning. Prakash sat alone in front of the office room. Office room was a distance away from the storage premises, and was not affected. I went to him. He sighed, “Everything is over.”
I said, “Let’s salvage whatever we can. The first surveyor will be here anytime.”
I asked Prakash, “Everyone working here is safe and out?” He nodded, “No one got hurt- all checked.”
Soon Raju Mama arrived. Today he didn’t say anything. A lot of crowd had now gathered. Most were from neighboring villages and had come to see the fire. Many of them were small farmers who had kept their produce. They started wailing and shouting. Some were demanding immediate compensation. A few representatives of the larger agents and traders had also come. But they were not too worried about their stock. They just enquired if the documentation for insurance was ready.
Around 8 am, the Insurance surveyor, Mr.Ramani arrived. He went around and took pictures.
Then he came to me and asked, “Where are all the documents of the stock?” I introduced Prakash to him. Mr.Ramani explained his role to both of us. He had to seize all the documents, seal and sign them. Hereafter, no new documents would be admissible as proof of stock. Prakash took Mr.Ramani to the office room, and they got busy.
After a while, many vehicles came within a few minutes of each other. One SUV had Dau Patel. Another had his men. Soon after, Raja Saheb followed in a jeep. Sometime later, the Lucky Sardar arrived.
Dau and Raja Saheb spotted me and came towards me. Raju Mama and Tilak were with me. Dau put his arm around me and said, “Bharat, it is a tough time for you all. Let me know how I can help. I have nothing to do with this.” I accepted it and thanked him. Then Raja Saheb shook my hand, and said, “I am sad to see this.” I acknowledged his words.
Both of them moved towards the gathered crowd.
Immediately, finding me alone, Lucky came next to me and said, “You saw their colors. I told Raju Mama long back that these guys will not let you work.”
I told him, “Whatever has happened has happened. No point in mulling over it.” Though I said that, the wailing small farmers weighed in my mind.
Lucky then took our leave and left the premises. Meanwhile, Raja Saheb was giving a speech to the gathered folks. The crowd was now almost three hundred strong.
He said, “Brothers and sisters, everyone here, Bharat ji, and Prakash ji had worked very hard to make this facility up and running. But Lord Ram wishes otherwise. I know many of you are worried about your loss. But have faith in the God. I will try to help so that you don’t face any hardships. The insurance company will complete its survey and pay out for the damaged stocks.”
Someone shouted, “But what about the interest cost. Insurance company will only pay for the damage, but I have taken loan from Sahukar (moneylender) at three percent a month, to buy and store onions here. If Insurance doesn’t pay immediately, my family will not be able to pay the interest cost. Please help.”
Dau asked, “Which Sahukar gave to you?”
The man said, “Soni Saheb, the jeweler in chowk.”
Dau said loudly, “You all can come to my house in the evening. Let me know the name of the Sahukars and the amount. I will get the interest forgiven but you have to return the principal.” There was a loud cheer. Some even shouted slogan praising Dau and Raja Saheb. Then both of them left in their vehicles.
I told Raju Mama, “Raju Mama, it appears that these folks are not farmers. They are small vendors in Pipariya who have bought farmer’s produce on loans and kept it here for future profits.”
Raju Mama added, “Bhaiya, there was a news going around Pipariya that a lot of profit can be earned by buying low from farmers and storing it here. Someone must have been making it circulate.”
With that, my hope of getting any compensation for this stock vanished. These guys had used black money to buy and store. Confirming their product value by any paper trail was going to be difficult. As it is, their verification report was absent.
Next four hours passed without any event. The fire tanker kept doing rounds. By one pm, the fire had almost been extinguished but there was no more stock left to burn. The crowd had disappeared but around fifty folks still remained. They were waiting for the Insurance surveyor to come out.
Another hour later, Mr.Ramani came out with Prakash. He looked satisfied after a marathon document sign off exercise. The gathered folks came around the office. One asked him, “Sir, when will we get the insurance amount. We are very distressed.”
Mr.Ramani said, “See, I had come here to freeze the documents. Now two senior surveyors will come by evening. They only will study the case and the claim.”
Someone shouted, “But I didn’t get any documents. How do I know my stock record has also been taken?” A few others said similar things.
Prakash asked them, “You must have submitted Weigh Bridge and mandi report to us. Also, when you brought the stock here, you must have been given a receipt even if you didn’t give any documents. We have a copy of that receipt that has been given to Insurance Company.”
The man said, “Sir, I never got any receipt. They did not make any when I had come, just asked me to keep the product inside and take it out when needed.”
Prakash began to answer but Mr.Ramani interrupted, and said, “Don’t worry if you haven’t got any document, or they haven’t issued any. Give in writing all that you have lost. You can give it to me now or later to the Surveyors who are coming today evening. But don’t claim more than what you have lost.”
He didn’t say more. It was enough to bring doubts to anyone putting false claims.
No one came forward to give anything to him. Ramani was an old hand. He had seen many fires in his lifetime and bogus claims. He took me aside and said, “You will face a lot of folks who want you to pay. Don’t give in to pressure. Just ask them for documentary proofs.” Then he asked me not to worry and left in his car. One straight and honest person like Ramani was enough to remove all despair.
Sooraj and Shafiq had arrived by train. There was no communication from Ravi. He had vanished. Prakash called up his family but got a response that Ravi had gone to Delhi and cannot come back.
The two surveyors were arriving by six in the evening. They had booked their rooms in a small hotel in Pipariya. I booked three more rooms – one for myself and Prakash, one for Tilak and Shafiq, and one for Sooraj and Raju Mama.
While we sat in the rooms and silently absorbed what had happened, the group gathered at the storage had moved to Sub Division Magistrate’s (SDM) office. Around fifty of them sat in a dharna in front of the office, demanding immediate payment from Insurance or by us. Around thirty were those who had kept their stock by borrowing from moneylenders, but the rest seemed to incite them and also claim they had lost. Some of them threatened to harm themselves.
The SDM called for me. Inside his office, I explained the Insurance status. He called up the Collector in Hoshangabad and explained to him. Then both of them discussed over phone. The SDM asked me to arrange for payments for those whose documents are not complete but Ravi had given receipts. For those making false claims without any receipts, he was not bothered.
I knew what to say but I still called up the Lawyer Verma ji, and took his advice. Then I told the SDM, politely, “Sir, to give cheques to anyone, I need a basis. You give me an official letter certifying that these folks have lost their stock and that we should pay now without waiting for Insurance proceedings. I will act as per your written instructions.”
His face went red with anger. He shouted, “I can immediately order your arrest.”
I knew he could arrest me on any false charges. I told him, “Sir, arresting me won’t solve any purpose. Let me try to get their claims be evaluated by the surveyors. Something may work.” Reflecting over it now, I suspect he probably understood ‘something’ as payoff, and then let the matter go.
He came out and told the protestors to make a list of claims and send it to his office. He assured them he would follow up with the Insurance surveyors. With that the chaos got over.
I came back to the hotel. The two Surveyors arrived in a car, from Bhopal. One was Mr.Rao, from Hyderabad, a white haired man, almost nearing seventy. He was thin and bald and very reserved. The other was Mr.Banerjee from Mumbai, a short stocky man in his late fifties. He had a peculiar habit- while hearing someone; he turned his head down and heard with intent. Both of them settled in their rooms.
Mr.Rao told me, “We want to finish our work by day after tomorrow. Please immediately inform all those who have not submitted the certified rates and weights for their stock to do so within next two days. After that, we may not accept it.” He meant the small farmers and traders who had come in last few days. Apparently, they had been briefed about everything by Mr.Ramani.
They told me that they will meet me next evening in the hotel. They wanted to be left on their own till then. I took their leave and settled for the night.
I went to my room, and instructed Prakash and Sooraj to start typing and printing letters, while Raju Mama and Tilak went for delivering them. Somehow, either I could not trust Prakash to deliver these diligently or expose him to these folks. His fear had become apparent.
All this activity got over by midnight. There were 30 letters to be delivered but all were within five miles from the hotel.
Though we had taken three rooms, all six were quietly settled in one room that night – three on the bed, one on the sofa and two on the floor. I don’t know about others, but I was not grieving. I was still in shock, as this kind of event was not in my imagination. As an accident, we would have accepted it easily, but we all knew about the sabotage possibility.
Morning brought more hope for future. The surveyors left at nine, for the site. They had requested us not to be around. We checked out of the hotel and went to Raju Mama's farm. I gave my cell phone to Sooraj to answer, so did Prakash. We expected numerous calls all day from nervous farmers, fraudulent goons, reporters and others.
All were still quiet till we settled down there. Raju Mama ordered tea, and asked me, “Who could have done this?”
Prakash was irritated and said, “Raju Mama, at least you don’t meddle now? I think Dau Patel has done this.”
I intervened, “It is over now. No point getting upset.”
Then I continued, “Raju Mama, it doesn’t matter who did it. We will speculate only and even if we knew, what can we do? Besides, there is a fair chance it was an accident, a short circuit or some other ignition.”
Prakash said sarcastically, “You will also call Ravi's disappearance, sudden stock increase and Dau's previous interference as mere coincidences.”
Now I told him in strong voice, “You may be agitated, but let me tell you our real loss is going to be due to your ignoring processes while taking stock in. There is no point in thinking what role outsiders or chance played, when we haven’t been disciplined.”
I wanted to say more, but I stopped. There were many more errors of the past: Raju Mama bringing Lucky Sardar to meet us, Prakash mentioning it in front of Dau, and many more.
Tilak wanted to say something, but I put both my hands up to make everyone hold back. Of all of us, Prakash was the youngest and probably most affected by this fire. I told him, “Prakash, let us focus on insurance now and learn from this experience. It will be handy next time.”
Prakash nodded in agreement. Today, as I look back, I think he was very troubled, almost like a child, not believing that one could move on. Before starting on this entrepreneurial journey, he had not experienced even minor turbulence in life.
By dusk, we had moved back to the hotel to meet the surveyors. About five folks had been able to arrange weight documents and quality certificates. Most of them were real small farmers and had got these certificates hand written and signed by their village representatives.
The small traders in Pipariya had not been able to manage it; instead they had jointly sent a letter through a lawyer stating that they were not liable for producing these proofs. Once the stock had been received at the facility, it was our liability. Any rejection of insurance claim was our fault. They claimed thirty lacs from us.
Mr.Rao and Mr.Banerjee had arrived. They called me and Prakash to their room. They seemed to have lightened up. When they had arrived, their suspicion had been on us. But after a day's investigation, they had realized our plight in this scenario. Mr.Rao said, “Bharat, our work is done. We have also taken your FIR copies from the police station. Here is the list of documents we have. Do you have anything more to report or submit?”
I gave him the documents received today, along with the lawyers' letters. He studied the stock certificates, and asked Prakash to make copies and submit. He dismissed the lawyers' letters, and said, “You will get such fraudulent claims but do not entertain them or forward to us. If investigated and found bogus, even your other claim can be withheld by the insurance company.”
I informed him that there were some small traders who could not furnish any proof but had our stock receipts; their claims were genuine. It amounted to around fifty lacs.
Mr.Rao said, “See, you or me calling it genuine doesn’t matter. When we submit the loss assessment report, every rupee to be paid out has to be justified legally. If you get stuck at each point, the whole settlement shall go for litigation, and may take years.”
Mr.Rao then asked Prakash to go and bring the copies. Then he ordered tea and latched the door, sat next to me and said, “I am advising you as an elder, not in my official capacity. You and your team is the future of this country. We want you to do well. Whatever the insurance pays, accept it quickly if it is fair and legal. We will take your inputs, as long as you remain honest. Whatever we don’t find legal, you anyways won’t have a liability to pay to anyone. Just move on as soon as possible.”
I nodded. I knew he was genuine, but the problem of rejected claims was on my mind. The fraudulent claimants were going to trouble makers.
Then Mr.Banerjee spoke, “We haven’t received the police report from the Thana. We don’t need a closure report. If they conclude that it is sabotage, then we will need to stop our proceedings and wait for the police investigation to complete. The insurance policy does not cover criminal acts.”
He didn’t say it but I knew it had to be negotiated. I just hoped that no one was influencing it.
Prakash came back with the photocopies. Then Mr.Rao said, “From our side, work is over. We will leave early tomorrow morning. Please fill up a detailed claim form and submit it. You can courier the police report to us.”
While handing over the claim form, Prakash asked, “Sir, how long will it take?”
Mr.Rao answered, “Assuming you give the police report to me soon, we will be able to send our detailed report in three months. Then it is up to the insurance company. But going by standard practice, I have seen the large claims being settled on the last day of fiscal year. In this case your claim might be paid by March 2009.”
Prakash was unhappy. He said, “Sir, why can’t they pay us as soon as this is finally assessed?” Mr.Rao just smiled and said, “This part you will have to deal with your agent.”
Being familiar with finance industry, I knew this. It was neither legal nor illegal, it is how industry worked and it created a huge float for the fund managers. While in Mumbai, I never felt bad about it, but today we were on the distressed side. It looked like a crime.
Mr.Rao and Mr.Banerjee, then gave me a warm hug. Mr.Rao told me, “Do not ponder over the event, you focus on getting the claim. Just move on as fast as it can be.”
Then we bid goodbye. It was a good experience for me, in that distressful time. There was no favor or payoff expected by them, though I had heard many percentage stories about insurance surveyors.
Next morning, there was a gathering of claimants at the hotel. There was a small lawn next to the hotel where folks had gathered. I briefed the gathering about the progress so far.
Then, one of the fraudulent ones got up and shouted, “But this document stuff does not apply to four of us here. We have also lost thirty lacs due to your fault.”
I told him, “If you can provide any proof of your having bought or stored that stock, we will pay to you even if Insurance Company does not pay. You can tell the same to your lawyer who has sent the letter.” Thanks to yesterday’s investigation, I knew it was not possible to produce fake documents. It would have incorporated backdated vat payments, mandi records and freight payments and toll gate payments.
He tried to arouse the true claimants, but my logic had more weight. They left satisfied. Once all of them left, the four fraudsters came to us. Then one said, smiling and staring at Prakash, “Boss, you may buy time, or even go back to Bhopal or wherever, but we will not leave you if our money is not paid.” That was enough to leave a lifelong mortal fear in Prakash. Then they dispersed.
Raju Mama, Tilak and I went to the police station. It was 5 minutes walk from the Hotel. It was almost one pm. The Thana Inspector, Mr.Patile, had gone out on field rounds. We sat on a wooden bench in front of his office. He knew Raju Mama. It was a common practice for folks like Raju Mama to invite a Thana Inspector or such officials for dinner, or to send them gifts, once in a while.
After an hour’s wait, Mr.Patile arrived in his jeep and went straight to his room. He was a dark, stocky man with spectacles, half bald and with thick moustaches. I sent in a slip with our names. His sentry called us in after fifteen minutes. I and Raju Mama went in.
On seeing Raju Mama, he said, “Raju, you didn’t tell me before that you were also associated with the storage project.” Raju Mama, with folded hands replied, “Sahab, it was being done by my niece. But now nothing is left.” He introduced me.
Mr.Patile made a signal for both of us to sit down as he read some files brought by the sentry. Without looking up, he asked, “What will you have- tea or coffee? In my budget, I can only offer you that.” I politely declined but ordered a glass of water.
Once done with the files, Mr.Patile asked, “What can I do for you?” Raju Mama said, “Sahab, please treat it your family matter. We need the initial police investigation report.”
He asked, “Why do you need it? I haven’t completed it yet.” He knew pretty well, but wanted it out of us.
I said, “Sir, We are distressed just like many others. The insurance claim assessment won’t start unless we submit that, hence we need the report.”
Then he said, “But the question of claim arises only if it is not sabotage. How can I say that till I complete my work?”
Raju Mama said, “Sahab, please do our work. Besides, how can we ever know if there was sabotage?”
Patile said, “Raju, it is not so easy. Just the evening before the night of fire, the guards on roster had made adjustments for that night. Also in last few days, why were you all keeping stock without product and rate certification? Then your employee Ravi resigned a few days back, and now most of the labor staff has run away after the fire. I need to ponder over all these points.”
Raju Mama insisted, “Sahab, you have all the powers. You know everything; nothing concrete will come out of all investigations, only we will suffer for years.”
He didn’t say anything; just signaled to me to wait outside. Raju Mama remained inside.
After fifteen minutes Raju Mama came out, “Bhaiya, three lacs will be required.” I protested, “Raju Mama, this is too much.”
Raju Mama said, “He won’t come down; says he also has to pay to higher officials. His report would close all future queries. He says you all would benefit by three hundred lacs. So three lacs is nothing. Bhaiya lets finish it.” Raju Mama stressed on it.
It was sad that Patile saw the loss claim as our profit. But that is how he thought. There was little to argue.
I told Raju Mama to go and confirm to Mr.Patile. Now Raju Mama said, “We will go to him with money only. Let him keep guessing if we will come back or not. For now, I will just tell him that we are trying to arrange it – it’s a large amount given this loss.” I agreed.
By next afternoon, Raju Mama arranged the cash from his family and friends. I gave him a personal cheque for withdrawing the amount later and returning it.
Raju Mama gave the cash to Mr.Patile, and obtained the preliminary report. To make it a very long report, Mr.Patile had mentioned the location of the storage in details, then the names of persons who filed the FIR and the contents of FIR. Then it gave a list of folks who had kept their stock there and whom all he had questioned. Then it described the scenes during and after the fire and details like how many times the fire tanker came. It had a two line conclusion on the final page, for which he had demanded the amount. The report did not suspect any human sabotage based on initial observations. It suspected an electrical fire. It was immediately faxed to the Insurance office.
In evening, we planned to start towards Bhopal. I wanted to take Prakash along, but he wanted to immediately leave by train for his home town for a few days.
Around 8pm, when we had travelled for about an hour and were about to drop Raju Mama, I received a call from Prakash. He had boarded a train. He burst out, “These guys won’t leave me or you if you don’t pay thirty lacs. I am running away. Don’t try to get in touch with me hereafter.”
I put the cell on speaker mode and said, “Prakash, don’t be childish. We will settle the issues. You don’t have to live in fear wherever you are. You may work elsewhere but we will need you sometimes. You are signatory on many legal and claim documents.” He was not listening. He just said, “To hell with you all.” Then he switched off.
Tilak vented out his long withheld views, “The asshole pisses in his pants whenever anyone threatens him. He fucked us up in Dau’s house also. Bhaiya, believe me or not, he is the guy who sold us at each stage.”
I and Raju Mama did not agree. Raju Mama said, “No Tilak Bhaiya. He gave his everything to this project, but he was foolish. I suspect Ravi more.”
We stayed at Raju Mama’s farm at night. There was a feeling of finality in my heart. I was not going to be back here soon, not at least for any project work.I never saw Prakash after that day. He exchanged emails for a few months, but then he was always bitter. Soon all communication stopped with him.