Whatever alchemy was to ancient civilisations, the gasoline pill is for the modern industrialised world that relies heavily on the automobile. Time and again, conmen have popped up with a magic pill or powder they claimed could turn water into petrol in various parts of the world. So, it was not surprising that in Tamil Nadu, a man shot to fame in 1996 with his homespun formula for a fuel made from a plant. But what distinguished him from the earlier global claimants to the ‘gasoline pill’ was that he took the state government, particularly then-Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, for a ride.
He captured the imagination so fully that there are people who still believe that the school dropout from a village near Rajapalayam could manufacture herbal fuel for automobiles, and that it was vested interest that was not letting him do it. The scientific establishment at first raised a premature hurrah over his herbal fuel, before calling his bluff repeatedly.
Who says people don’t like the story of an underdog, even if he was a con artist?
But it isn’t just the herbal fuel man who took people of TN for a ride. Here are a few of the other big cons that the state has seen, some of whom committed serious crimes.
Life of glitter, built on lies: Adikesavan
All that glitters is indeed gold if it is on Adikesavan, the Chennai man arrested in 2005 for cheating several businesspersons of crores of rupees, collected as commission for arranging huge loans from non-resident Indians. The former bank employee voluntarily retired after he was allegedly cheated of Rs 10 lakh by a friend from Delhi, who had promised to get him a loan of Rs 2 crore from an NRI.
So, what that friend did to him, he started doing to others by assuming a new persona for himself. An expert name dropper, he gave the impression to those who dealt with him that he had high-level connections that even reached the corridors of the Prime Minister’s office. The jewellery that he wore – a 100-sovereign gold necklace with a flashy pendant, chunky gold bracelets and extraordinarily big rings on most of the fingers – made him stand out and earned him a sense of importance in his locality, Vyasarpadi.
When police raided his four-story mansion in Vyasarpadi, they found rooms luxuriously decorated. Weapons used by his henchmen, who numbered around 50, six cars, which were high-end models at the time, were seized, along with 100 gold coins, 400 sovereign jewels, 10 passbooks, six cell phones and so on. The man, who would be around 70 years old now, celebrated his birthday with much pomp and grandeur — wall posters around town, a host of VIP invitees, cutting of a gargantuan iced cake, gifting of presents like swords and so on.
No more ‘takeover’: P Rajarathinam
In the media’s obsession over fugitive Indian businessmen like Vijay Mallaya and Nirav Modi, it ended up missing a story on the Westminster Magistrate Court throwing out a plea to extradite Palaniappan Rajarathinam who fled to the UK in the early 2000s. A red corner notification issued by Interpol in 2002 said that he was born in 1956 and hailed from Coimbatore.
Prior to that, the Indian media had introduced Rajarathinam as the ‘Takeover Tycoon’ to their readers in the early 1990s. His incredible story unfolded in newspapers, particularly the pink ones and magazines. The man, who started off with Rs 2 lakh borrowed from his father, went on a takeover spree, acquiring every company that he could lay his hands on. Most of the companies that he took over, like Tungabadra Sugars, Benares State Bank, Apollo Tubes, Madras Motor Group, Garware Paints, Annapoorna Foods, Synergy Finance Exchange and so on, were not doing well. Though some papers celebrated him as an astute businessman, there were always lingering questions around the source of his funds.
The answer came in the years after Rajarathinam’s fall as a businessman, which started in 1996 with SEBI tightening the screws. After years of silence, a British man by the name Peter Karl Edward Craig Jones told the media about how he lost his Kodanadu Estate in the Nilgiris. Rajarathinam had been in touch with the British owner of the estate since 1992 and pressurised him to part with the property. On multiple occasions, Jones had gone to Veda Nilayam in Chennai’s Poes Garden to meet with Rajarathinam and the Chief Minister’s aide, VK Sasikala.
When the law caught up with Rajarathinam, he was charged with breach of trust and cheating, among other things, prompting him to go underground in 1997. At the time, he had a host of unpaid clients, bounced cheques and ruined companies.
Not as sturdy as teak: Anubhav Plantations
‘The great plantation scam of the 1990s.’ That was how the media described the swindling of Rs 400 crore by Anubhav Plantations and its head honcho C Natesan. The company had introduced a seemingly lucrative scheme that promised huge returns for depositors who invested in the company’s promotion of certain plantation activities, including the growing of teak, in 1992.
Finally, in 1998, it was revealed to be a fraudulent Ponzi scheme that had duped thousands of investors. Natesan went underground and all four principal companies — Anubhav Agrotech, Anubhav Green Farms and Resorts, Anubhav Plantations and Anubhav Royal Orchards Exports — shut down suddenly, leaving depositors in the lurch.
Falling like nine pins: Finance companies
Around 1996, eight private finance companies fell one after the other in Tamil Nadu. Middle-class investors, mostly retired persons, found themselves on the streets after losing their meagre savings. Those were the days when newspapers were full of advertisements issued by mushrooming finance companies that offered huge rates of interests.
Sneham, one such company that went bust in September 1996, had offered a 33% interest rate and an additional 3% incentive. Public trust in the stock market was at an all-time low following the 1992 scam, so the eight companies — which together swallowed Rs 3,400 crore — had managed to attract people to their schemes by offering interest rates between 24% to 40%. The prominent finance firms that fell included Easwari Finance, Ramesh Cars, G N S Nidhi, Maxima, Devi Gold House, Thirumagal Finance Corporation, Laxmi Gold House and New India Investment.
For whose benefit?
A couple of years after the private finance companies failed their depositors, two benefit funds went bust in Chennai, again leaving lakhs of depositors on the streets. They were the Royapettah Benefit Fund (RBF) Nidhi Limited and Alwarpet Benefit Fund.
After a few high-profile borrowers defaulted, the funds suddenly failed to pay interest to their depositors. This led to losses that ran into crores. In the case of the RBF, the depositors would have lost everything as there appeared to be no assets left for the government to liquidate to pay back the investors. But an income tax official leaked details of the personal assets of one of its top honchoes to the media.
Having seen the private finance companies declaring their losses, the directors were almost prepared to show their losses and escape. But the publication of information on the properties owned by the top honcho helped the government find the assets and liquidate them.
This article was produced by TNM Marquee in association with ZEE5, and not by TNM Editorial.