Marriet Pinto is a resident of Mangalore in coastal Karnataka. She joined one of the schemes of PACL, formerly Pearl Agrotech Corporation, in 2005. In December 2007, she bought 1,001 square yards of land in an undisclosed location in Rajasthan for Rs 15,000 from Chailbihari, a resident of Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. Both Pinto and Chailbihari were not present in Delhi where the sale deed was executed. Suresh Sinha, a Noida-based senior assistant of PACL, held Pinto's power of attorney, while one Manoj Kumar signed the deal on behalf of Chailbihari. Kumar also helped Rajina Begam of Perambalur, Tamil Nadu, buy 0.084 hectare of land in Madhya Pradesh for Rs 15,000.
Pinto and Begam are among the 19,284 PACL customers who got a piece of land registered under their name. Apart from these, PACL has over 12 million customers to whom land was allotted but no sale deed was executed. According to its statement to the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) on August 11, it had another 46.3 million customers to whom land was yet to be allotted. Eleven days later, Sebi whole-time Member Prashant Saran asked PACL to wind up operations and repay investors in full within a period of three months. The amount to be repaid is Rs 49,100 crore - more than double the Rs 24,000-crore that the Sahara group has to give back to its investors.
The company did not respond to the questionnaires emailed to it by Business Standard. However, after news had broken out about the investigation, the group CEO, Jyoti Narayan, had told the media in July that the firm was a real estate developer and had never indulged in any collective investment scheme to double or triple the money deposited by investors. And, soon after the group was asked to refund the money to investors, PACL officials, speaking to television channels, said the company planned to move the Securities Appellate Tribunal against the Sebi order. They added that the interests of investors would not be jeopardised.
On perusal of the case of Agrahari Kusumlata (out of a sample of 500 customers), Sebi noted that the customer was not made aware of the location of the plot till the stage of issuing of the allotment letter. In Kusumlata's case, it was allotted after four years. That is not all. It was also seen that even after the allotment of land, PACL reserved the right to change the location of the land. The "letter of allotment of plot" also stated that the original title deeds would be retained by the custodial services company of PACL and that the customer would only get a certified copy of the sale deed.
Another important clause in the letter said that PACL reserved the right to change the location of the land and allot another land at a location different from what was given in the first instance. "This kind of right is never seen in a pure real estate transaction. The change of location unilaterally by PACL without referring such proposal to the customer could be seen as a means to force a customer to 'opt out' and move away with the returns promised by it, rather than allowing a customer to hold on to the site for which he makes the payment," Saran observed in his order.
One complicated aspect of the case is the land holdings it claims to have. It has purchased over 303,000 acres of land between 2005-06 and 2011-12. However, only 17 per cent, or about 53,890 acres, was bought in its own name. An overwhelming 70 per cent, or 214,000 acres, is held through general power of attorney, and the remaining through associate companies and subsidiaries. PACL in its reply to Sebi has disclosed these associate companies are controlled by its friends and those of its management.
In many cases, the associate companies are floated by PACL agents who have grown big enough to handle the business on their own. According to people familiar with the operations, PACL's 3.3 million agents are arranged in a hierarchy of 12 ranks based on their customer base. A Rank-12 agent, the highest level, can have anywhere between 60,000 and 70,000 agents under him. These big agents are allowed to own the land, corresponding to the money they collect. PACL pays its agents handsomely, Sebi found: out of the money collected, nearly 20 per cent goes to paying agents. Agents have received over Rs 8,500 crore in commissions from PACL over the years, according to the market regulator. This loose-federation model of operation has led to much litigation as some rogue agents have sold off the land and pocketed the money. Disputes running into several thousand crores have been recorded in the balance sheet of PACL.
For people like Pinto who actually got land allotted, albeit in places they have never been to, Sebi found various gaps in the claims. The regulator pointed out that the date of purchase of land by sellers and the date of sale deed were too close for PACL to have undertaken any serious development. "For example, in the case of Pinto, the land was purchased on June 18, 2007, and was transferred in the name of the customer on December 08, 2007 - just after six months. This shows that PACL pools the money for the purchase of land and does not do any development of the land," Saran said in his August 22 order.
|PACL’S 15-YEAR JOURNEY|
Also, Pinto's 1,001 square-yard plot is part of a larger piece of land measuring 140 bighas, while Begam's 0.084 hectare was part of a 5.016 hectare land parcel. PACL thus sold only a portion of land to its customers out of one huge piece of land which bears a common khasra/ survey number. "In the schedule of the property, only boundary details with serial number of the adjoining plots have been given. The schedule does not specifically identify the plot given to the customers. The sale deeds do not have the diagram depicting the demarcation of the plots sold/map for the ease of identification of the plot. The above findings are in contrast with the submission of PACL that the plots are adequately described in the sale deeds," Saran noted.
Though Sebi has analysed the case threadbare, the details took a while coming: by any standard, 15 years is a long time. In 1998, Sebi first cracked down on collective investment schemes including PACL and its sister concern, PGF, both promoted by Nirmal Singh Bhangoo. PGF, the older and bigger of the two, succumbed as the Punjab & Haryana High Court upheld the Sebi order. However, PACL, which was based in Jaipur, survived as it got a reprieve from the Rajasthan High Court which ruled against the Sebi order. PACL was able to convince the Rajasthan High Court that it was not running a collective investment scheme. Since then it has been a long haul for Sebi, which had been trying to pin it down.
Ironically, PACL grew in leaps and bounds after the Sebi crackdown, which is said to have handed it a monopoly as most other such schemes did not survive. Sebi's campaign got an unexpected help from public-interest litigation initiated by some citizens of Gwalior led by Dharmvir Singh in 2011. They complained about numerous schemes that had been floated with dubious promises and were collecting money from people. In March 2011, the court ordered the government to submit an action taken report. This triggered a series of orders and raids ordered by the collector of Gwalior in May-June 2011. Several offices, including those of PACL and its associates, were raided and sealed. This brought PACL in the media's focus.
The real size and scale of the company's operations came to light when some reports suggested that its land bank was bigger than the city of Bangalore. These developments gave fresh ammunition for Sebi to knock the doors of the Supreme Court. In February 2013, Sebi finally won an appeal which gave it a go ahead to try PACL under the collective investment schemes regulations. This triggered an 18-month long tug-of-war between the company and the regulator which included repeated delays to requests of personal hearings, inspection of Sebi records, change of dates, non-availability of lawyers and some witnesses falling ill. Sebi allowed the company and its directors all these opportunities before passing its August 22 order.
By the looks of it, another long fight awaits the regulator and investors like Pinto as PACL is determined to explore at legal options first at the Securities Appellate Tribunal and then the Supreme Court.