PNB fraud: Brady House’s first brush with CBI

Mumbai: At Brady House in Mumbai, Punjab National Bank’s (PNB) women employees leaving the premises walk hurriedly with their faces covered, while many people who enter the building are quick to clarify that they do not work with the fraud-hit lender.

On Tuesday, the PNB branch on Veer Nariman Road serving mid-corporates reopened, a day after it was shuttered and searched. It no longer bears the look of the make-shift jail it did a day earlier, when customers were kept out of bounds and investigators swooped in.

The chatty old security guard, seemingly in his late sixties, has more work than usual. The gate to Brady House is not locked but nobody enters the building without his permission.

“We now need an access card to go inside,” a Tata Group employee jokingly tells his colleague. Tata Group, Brady and Morris Engineering Co Ltd, ICICI Bank and Famy Care also have their offices on the other three floors of the four-storey building. The colonial structure, a stone’s throw from the Reserve Bank of India on Mint Road, probably witnessed its first raid by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on Sunday.

“I have been working here since 1983 and have seen nothing like this before. They (CBI officials) came around 7 pm on Sunday evening and summoned some of the bank employees. When they left on Sunday, they sealed the branch,” the security guard says. As he narrates what transpired the previous evening, he is interrupted by another man leaving the building — “Chacha apna pagaar badhwao. Nirav Modi ko itne crore de diye. Aap ko ek lakh to de sakte hain (Uncle, ask them to increase your salary. They have given several crores to Nirav Modi. I am sure they can give you at least a lakh a month),” the man tells him.

The CBI officials sealed the building on Sunday evening to search the branch premises and question employees in relation to the $1.77 billion fraud at the state-run bank that surfaced last Wednesday. With the branch undergoing renovation for a while, PNB’s signage is put up on a scaffolding. For a casual visitor quick to draw conclusions, it would appear the branch is near closure.

The scaffolding and huge windows, however, offer an opportunity to climb up and get a limited view of the happenings at the branch. The AGM’s room is clearly visible. Two officials came and took seized the central processing units of the AGM . A total of 10 computers CPUs were seized .

An accent wall in crimson reads ‘mid corporates’ in golden blocks, referring to business category the branch serves. A bespectacled woman employee in her early thirties is seen assisting an elderly CBI official with documents. He pats her head in fatherly affection.

Surely, it was not a regular day for her at work. Employees at the branch were allowed brief tea breaks. Rarely did any employee come out alone. A group of three women who stopped by to take a quick look at what was happening at the branch gave their verdict. “Money will not come back. What’s the use of this investigation now? (Nirav) Modi has already fled,” one of them said.

The search which went on till late Monday evening concluded in three arrests in connection with Rs11,400 crore fraud involving diamantaire Nirav Modi. The three arrested include Bechhu Tiwari, chief manager, forex department; Yashwant Joshi, manager, forex department; and Praful Sawant officer in export department.

Meanwhile, Nirav Modi has asked the banks to support his efforts to repay debt and has blamed PNB for tarnishing its image. According to Press Trust of India, Modi has written a letter to the bank, a copy of which PTI said it has seen, pegging the money his companies owe to the bank at under Rs5,000 crore, far less than the reported Rs11,400 crore.

The reputation of India’s second-biggest public sector lender has taken a beating. Fitch Ratings on Tuesday placed Punjab National Bank’s (PNB) viability rating on a watch with negative implications, a move that reflects possible downgrade. Currently, viability ratings stands at “BB”.

The Brady House branch has reopened. It will be a while, however, before the dust settles on the case.livemint