Luxury comes at a price for Puzhal prisoners

On September 3, 2018, a warden at Tamil Nadu’s biggest central prison, Puzhal jail, was caught with ganja hidden in his innerwear when he reported for duty.

He was smuggling it to a Pakistani spy -a National Investigation Agency (NIA) suspect – lodged there, who paid for it at a premium price. The warden has now been placed under suspension.

Photographs from a seized mobile phone from a prisoner provided proof of the sheer luxury afforded to certain prisoners.

Investigations revealed that prisoners could purchase all sorts of comforts – food, clothes, cosmetics, phones – at a very high price.

Though there had been reports of rampant corruption inside prisons in the state, this is the first time that photographic evidence has been accessed by the media.

Sources said that certain inmates who were lodging in the high security block controlled the entire operations inside the jail.

These ‘influential’ inmates could get items ranging from mobile phones to sun-glasses, sports shoes and even tasty food.

Some procured rice and vegetables and not only cooked for themselves but sold the fare to other inmates who craved homemade food.

A spread of food items in hot packs inside the jail. The variety of food is offered to certain prisoners who pay for the privilege, while others are given only rations. Source: DT Next

“The inmates who cooked inside the jail made a killing by selling it to the other inmates,” a source revealed.

Though jail officials claim that cellphone signal jammers are installed on the premises, sources noted that none are functional.

“Even if one or two work, those jammers are not designed to block 4G phone signals. Most inmates lodged there use the latest phones,” the source added.

“One prisoner used to allow others to make calls on his phone but charged a hefty fee – much like a PCO (public call office) booth,”

From the photographs, it is clear that several prisoners talk openly on mobile phones. “They casually pose for photographs and with phones in their hands,” the source said. When contacted, senior jail officials at Puzhal avoided answering queries on the subject.

A little over a year ago, a report by then DIG (Prisons) D Roopa kicked up a storm by revealing video footage of AIADMK (Amma) leader VK Sasikala inside the Parappana Agrahara Central Jail that showed she was provided special facilities, including an exclusive kitchen to prepare her meals, in violation of prison norms.


Beedis to branded goods, the inside story of Puzhal’s barter economy

The common perception of jail life, largely fuelled by films, paints a picture of uniform-clad prisoners, leading an austere life of repentance with steel utensils.

However, the set of images from a Puzhal prisoner’s seized mobile phone sent shockwaves across society because it showed a very different side of prison life.

The images showed cheerful prisoners chatting on mobiles, enjoyed good food, and wearing branded clothes and sneakers that many tax-payers can ill-afford.

An inmate in a polo shirt and branded sports shoes. Source: DT Next

In one of the pictures made available to DT Next, a prisoner was seen feasting on a huge meal served in a casserole dish, a far cry from the steel plates that regular prisoners eat on.

“It looks like they are happily living in a resort. It is not clear how such activities are allowed inside the high security block inside the prison complex,” commented a senior government official.

An investigation by this newspaper into how these ‘A’ class prisoners got access to all these comforts revealed a thriving economy inside jails, one that survives on a combination of barter and bribes.

According to sources, the situation was different a couple of years back.

Most wanted items inside prison:
– Mobile phones
– SIM Cards
– Phone chargers
– Ganja
– Cigarettes
– Good home cooked food
– Pen drives with X rated movies
– DVD players
How goodies get inside jail
– Friends or relatives help smuggle ganja, SIM card or pen drives inside bread, or chargers are hidden in toiletries.
– Pay bribe to prison staff, who would make sure that it reaches the prisoner.
Prevailing ‘jail rates’

– A small packet of ganja priced at Rs 100 (US$1.40) in Chennai, would cost Rs 2000 inside jail
– Mobile phones could cost Rs15,000 to Rs35,000 premium
– Food can cost from Rs300 onwards for a meal

In simpler times, only favours were exchanged among the inmates, and beedis (thin cigarettes wrapped in leaves) were the currency of choice.

It used to be very difficult to ‘earn’ a beedi inside the jail and one needed to ration their smokes wisely to garner favours inside. But time and technology has changed everything.

“Beedis may be still a form of currency for regular prisoners, who don’t have connections to flaunt, or money to spend. However, there are some inmates who have influence, and those are the ones who make themselves quite comfortable inside the prison,” revealed a government source.

According to the official, the modus operandi is quite simple.

The prisoner befriends a jail staffer, or sometimes connects with a corrupt staffer. The prisoner strikes a deal with the staffer, and payment is made to a family member of the staffer through the prisoner’s outside contacts.

That way, the prison staffer does not come under scrutiny. “The prisoners almost always just wants a mobile phone. Once they get hold of that, they start controlling payment schedules through Whatsapp instructions,” the source said.

Through contacts, they can get food, phones, a TV, toiletries, and sometimes comfortable bedding.

Inmates posing for a picture inside Puzhal jail. One of the inmates is on a mobile phone that is banned in the jail. Source: DT Next

However, not all the goods are used for personal consumption. Some inmates run food and grocery businesses from inside the prison, while others merely barter their ‘gifts’ for favours or even protection.

Another business run by inmates is to rent out mobile phone chargers for those who have their own cell phones. One-time use of charging is priced at Rs 100 (US$1.40).

“One prisoner used to allow others to make calls on his phone but charged a hefty fee – much like a PCO (public call office) booth,” said the source.

A parallel economy inside Puzhal prisons may be new to outsiders. However, those who have experienced it first hand say that it is just another form of corruption.


‘Police’ Fakruddin, a prisoner lodged in the high security block in Puzhal prison complex, was till recently running a private mess inside the prison, allegedly earning hundreds of thousands of rupees by selling food to other inmates at a very high premium, according to sources.

‘Police’ Fakruddin, a suspect in terror cases. Source: DT Next

Details on his prison business emerged during a search, when jail officials seized at least 20 kg of biriyani rice, few kilograms of vegetables, at least 5 kg dal, some deodorants and two television sets from the cell of extremists Bilal Malik and Panna Ismail, two of Fakruddin’s associates.

“He was selling three meals a day for Rs. 1,000 to other prisoners. It used to be a good mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food and he had good patronage,” sources added.

With the help of three or four other inmates, cooking for 15 to 20 people was not a difficult task for him. And it was rather easy for him to get regular customers who were ready to pay the price he was asking for.

After remaining underground for many years, Fakruddin, a high profile criminal, was arrested in Chennai five years ago in connection with cases including planting a pipe bomb to eliminate BJP leader L K Advani during in Jan Chetana Yatra in the year 2011 near Madurai.

Since then, he had been running a ‘food business’ by procuring rice, vegetables and meat from the outside and cooking them up with the help of a select few inside the prison.

In the last few years, his stature within the prison walls grew, and because of his criminal background and money from the ‘food business’ no other inmates dared question his authority. He and his two associates used to get a daily supply of milk for their personal consumption.

While jail officials confirmed that Fakruddin and his associates Panna Ismail and Bilal Malik in the prison were cooking their own food, they played the food mess business.

“He was cooking own food. We have closed five stoves, which were used by them,” a jail official informed on Wednesday.
Fakruddin had recently been shifted from security block to Puzhal prison II.


After the Puzhal prison inmates’ pictures were splashed on media sites, Tamil Nadu prison officials have been in damage control mode and are imposing more restrictions inside the jails across the state. “There will be more checks and inspection from now.

There will be restrictions on visitors and more importantly there will be regular shuffle in roster of prison warders and chief warders. Sensitive blocks will be handled only by staff with integrity,” noted A Murugesan DIG, prisons.

In one of the pictures made available to DT Next, a prisoner was seen feasting on a huge meal served in a casserole dish, a far cry from the steel plates that regular prisoners eat on.

Officials feel that because certain staff connived with few inmates, the image of the prison department has been completely ruined.

“We are now in the process of correcting correctional staff,” one official pointed out adding that transfer of 17 waders and head chief warders from Puzhal prisons was just a beginning.

Officials admit that the problem of mobile phones being smuggled inside is rampant, and several inmates use phone quite openly.

The images from the seized mobile showed several selfies being taken among ‘prison buddies’, which shocked many, including the senior prison officials.

However, the officials assure that this is a wake-up call, and they are fixing all the lapses.

This story by V P Raghu was originally published on DT Next on September 13, 2018.

The report went on to become one of the biggest newsbreaks in the state and was followed up by several national publications and TV channels. There had been a lot of talk of VIP prisoners who get special privileges by greasing prison officials’ palms but it was impossible to get proof. Determined to crack the case, the reporter relentlessly followed the story with sources inside and outside the jail. There was a massive impact on prison administration in Tamil Nadu after the article was published. Withing hours of its publication, the head of the prison department carried out an inspection at the Puzhal Central jail premises. The jail authorities seized a several contraband items including mobile phones, TVs, cooking vessels, a large quantity of biriyani rice, other ingredients stored illegally in prison by inmates with the connivance of jail staff, during a series of searches carried out after the story was published. The story also resulted in the transfer of over a dozen jail staff and at least four prisoners appeared in the pictures published by DT Next, were shifted to other jails.

Secret Policing? The Quint Finds Hidden Numbers on Electoral Bonds

In a major exposé, an investigation by The Quint revealed that electoral bonds have hidden alphanumeric numbers printed on them to track down the link between donors and political parties. The apparent out manoeuvring by the government poses a critical question – with the introduction of electoral bonds, are we being subjected to secret surveillance in the name of more ‘transparency’ in political funding?

Electoral bonds were introduced by the government to make donations through a banking channel to political parties by individuals and corporates.

The government said that electoral bonds would curb “the conventional practice of funding the political system in cash and undertake these expenditures in cash”.

They were promised to be anonymous as no one other than the donor themselves were supposed to know which political party they were contributing to.

Sold every quarter for the first 10 days of the month, electoral bonds can be procured from designated branches of the State Bank of India alone.

The Quint’s investigation revealed that while the public will remain clueless about who has donated to which party, the government has access to those details, collated through alphanumeric numbers on the electoral bonds, which are invisible to the naked eye.

An electoral bond purchased by The Quint Source: Arnica Kala/The Quint

The purchaser of the bond is therefore misled into believing that he/she cannot be tracked as no number or name is written on the bond apart from the date of issuance.

This adds to the government’s already burgeoning repository of data, which now may not only have details of our bank accounts and financial transactions, but also our likely political preferences.

The Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s previously assured citizens that political donations via electoral bonds will remain anonymous.

Following the purchase of two electoral bonds worth Rs 1,000 (US$13.95) each, The Quint got forensic tests done to find out whether these bonds carry any hidden letters or numbers.
The first bond was purchased on 5 April 2018 and the second one on 9 April 2018.

The image of the hidden number on the electoral bond as seen under UV Light Source: Arnica Kala/The Quint

Both were purchased at State Bank of India (SBI) branches designated to issue electoral bonds.

The test was conducted at one of the most reputed forensic labs in the country. The lab report revealed the presence of unique alphanumeric numbers on both bonds.

An electoral bond purchased by The Quint Source: Arnica Kala/The Quint

The electoral bond issued on 5 April carries the hidden and unique number OT 015101, while the one issued on 9 April has the unique number OT 015102.

The lab report revealed the hidden serial number was “visible on the right top corner of the original document showing fluorescence when examined under Ultra Violet (UV) Light”.
Naturally, this demands some answers from the government and the State Bank of India, which issues the electoral bonds.

Is someone playing Big Brother here?

Our investigation stands in stark contrast to the Union Finance Minister’s views on electoral bonds.

Mr Jaitley had earlier said “how much each donor has distributed to a political party would be known only to the donor.”

Meanwhile, a top-level State Bank of India official said that the number is merely a “security feature.”
“We don’t believe this code is a tracking mechanism. This was put in those papers as a security feature only,” he added.
The official thus confirmed the presence of unique alphanumeric characters on electoral bonds.

The SBI also issued a second statement, saying: “The number is a security feature and the design and security features have been incorporated at the request of SBI. The process of issuance and payment has been designed in such a manner that the bank will not have any record of the above number either for the donor or political party. Only the count of denomination-wise bonds issued and paid is captured in the records. There is no way to connect which donor has made donation to which party. The bank can share only KYC/AML-related records of donor to an authorised investigating agency or the courts under the relevant laws. Bank is not authorised to share the details with any other government department or agency.”

If the existence of these unique hidden numbers is for security purposes only, then why aren’t the existing watermarks on the electoral bonds enough?

As a result of the series of stories exposing how the electoral bonds scheme is making the system of political donations opaque rather than transparent, a Public Interest Litigation was filed in the Supreme Court on March 5 demanding a stay on the scheme.

The Supreme Court took cognisance of the petition and issued notices to the Election Commission of India and the Government of India.

Since The Quint’s article was cited by the petitioner’s lawyer in the Supreme Court, the Government of India was compelled to accept that a unique hidden alphanumeric serial number exists in the electoral bonds, although their defence was that it is an in-built security feature.

However, a former Reserve Bank of India director said that he has not even seen such ‘security features’ on currency. He also pointed out that the government could have used a watermark as a security feature rather than a unique hidden serial number that enables tracking of the bonds.

This story by Poonam Agarwal was published on 12 April 2018. Read more on The Quint’s website here:

Published on April 12, 2018, The Quint’s Poonam Agarwal broke her story on hidden alphanumeric numbers printed on electoral bonds. The scheme began to unravel after she decided to purchase a bond, with the permission of the editors, which appeared to have no serial number or space to mention the donor’s name. The government had previously declared that there was no serial number on the electoral bond. The team then decided to do a forensic test on it to check whether the government was telling the truth. Purchasing a second bond helped to prove that the serial numbers were unique. This surfaced the troubling idea that the Indian government was tracking donors. She believes that the purchasers of the bonds should be kept transparent. She said: “There is no need for the government to hide the names of these donors.“Why keep it anonymous? They want to hide names that might be questionable later so the anonymity of the donor should not be there. The process of buying the bond will be fair if anonymity is removed.”.

Say no to Hartals

Hartals are a common problem that is unique to Kerala.

The local name refers to a total shutdown of civic activities caused by strikes, including the halting of vehicle movements.

In past years, the state had commonly witnessed around 100 statewide hartals annually. In 2017 the number of hartals reached nearly 120 for that year.

These strikes flared up in numerous districts, taluks (an administrative division) and panchayat levels (units of local administration).

The state was in a dire position, as the monetary and other losses amounted to millions of rupees.

The fatal and non-fatal damage caused by hartals were also innumerable.

Coming to be known as the graveyard of industries, Kerala was losing crores (tens of millions) to the exchequer.

Even court interventions could not prevent the country’s biggest human rights violation caused by these hartals.

The supporters of the strikes resorted to taking the law into their own hands and many patients were reported to have lost their lives due to their late arrival to hospitals.

Though many voluntary organisations and civil right forums had campaigned against hartals for the last two decades, no change had happened because of the political patronage hartal supporters received. All most all hartals were declared by political, religious or other such organisations.

T. V. Anupama, an Indian Administrative Service officer, also spoke out against hartals. Source: Metro Vaartha Photo Library

Their substantial influence could be seen in July to August 2018, when Kerala suffered a terrible deluge.

It was the worst flood Kerala had experienced in nearly a century. Over 483 people died, and many went missing.

About a million people were evacuated. One-sixth of the total population of Kerala had been directly affected by the floods and the Union government had declared it a Level 3 Calamity.

Even though the rebuilding of the state demanded highest priority, various political parties still found a reason to paralyse reconstruction efforts by declaring Hartal based on scanty  grounds.

To counter this, Metro Vaartha, the morning Malayalam newspaper published by the Vaartha News Network Limited, decided to launch a campaign during October 2018 to fight against the Hartal menace.

The paper released a news package on hartals, comprising of stories, editorials and comments from readers and the civil society.

This led to a revolutionary turn of events.

Shop venders, industrialists and the common public jointly decided not to support the hartals from that month onward.

Even some of its supporters resisted ensuing national strikes and shared their concerns about their affected livelihoods during the days of the strike.

They demanded that leaders let them go free from the strike.

People from fields of tourism, education, transport, hotels and even auto rickshaw employees were also against the strike.

On 7th January 2019, the Kerala High Court stepped in and passed an order banning flash hartals. Source: Metro Vaartha Photo Library

However, it is still hoped that political and trade union organisations may one day display the integrity to support these people who said ‘No to Hartal’.

This is the time to recognise that, it is impossible to bear any more hartals that are totally destructive to the entire state of Kerala.

Though the authorities were silent initially, they have been forced to open their mouths. Many organisations went to court seeking a ban on hartals.

The Police Chief of the state came forth with some directives to be followed by the supporters and organisers of the hartal.

The High Court of Kerala issued a notice to the Government of Kerala asking them for reasons why it cannot be banned.

On January 2019, New Year Day, Metro Vaartha again reminded Kerala of its priorities and requested that all refrain from announcing hartals.

On 7th January 2019, the Kerala High Court stepped in and passed an order banning flash hartals.

The Court held that any group who wishes to call for a hartal should declare it seven days prior and any citizen could approach the court, challenging the hartal during this  seven-day notice period.

The order was passed by a division bench of Chief Justice Hrishikesh Roy and Justice AK Jayasankaran Nambiar on a Public Interest Litigation filed by the Kerala Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Slowly, the hartals dwindled in numbers and in March 2019, the battle against them was won as the hartals finally ceased for good.

This story is a compilation of a series of articles published by Metro Vaartha from October 20 to 26, 2018.

In 2018, Kerala faced more than a hundred hartals – strikes that put a standstill to public lives – during the last year, causing a loss of more than Rs One lakh crore (US$ 14 billion). Metro Vaartha daily successfully carried out a campaign in October 2018 to create awareness among the public about the ill-fated over flow of Hartals. A series comprising of stories, an editorial and numerous comments from readers and the civil society were published by a team of reporters from Metro Vaartha. The aim was to inform the general public and various segments of society about these unwanted strikes and their harmful and counterproductive nature. On 19 October 2018, Metro Vaartha carried a Page 1 story titled “So far 78 Hartals this Year” followed by a strong Editorial on its front page. The response from the public was overwhelming and the paper received the whole hearted support of the general public, who were initially reluctant to come forward. Apart from civic and social groups, industrialists, professionals, educational institutions, business men and local merchants came forward to speak out against the hartals. Many business organisations also declared that they would not participate in hartals and keep their establishments open during the strikes.

Probing Modi’s decision to buy 36 Rafales at a higher price

In April 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the purchase of 36 Rafale off-the-shelf aircraft jets from France as part of a inter-governmental defence agreement.

This decision turned out to be controversial as the Indian Air Force had sought 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft for its strategic needs.

Previously the Rafale aircraft was chosen among shortlisted candidates by the Indian Air Force and an agreement was being worked on for the sale of 126 aircraft (108 to be built by India’s HAL and 18 to be bought directly from France).

Modi’s announcement in April 2015, which led to the deal, changed the contours of the earlier proposed agreement and resulted in a political controversy over whether the new deal was more costlier than what was being agreed upon.

The six-part series by N.Ram published in The Hindu between January and April 2019 is a comprehensive look at various aspects of the controversial fighter aircraft purchase deal between the Indian and French governments.

The article focuses on a series of issues related to costing of the aircraft, procurement process, offset agreements among others, based on official and sourced documents.

Throughout the life cycle of the deal and beyond, the political opposition in India had raised questions about aspects of the deal which had led to parliamentary discussions on the issue. Several aspects of the deal were however either not revealed or not clarified by the government.

Each article by N Ram broke down arguments over whether the deal had secured the best interest in terms of cost and future strategic interests besides focusing on whether well laid out guidelines on defence procurement procedures were met. It also brought to light the dissenting positions of defence officials who found fault with some aspects of the deal.

The investigative stories by N Ram explained these aspects in a clear and detailed manner that allowed readers to understand the complexity of the procurement process, and to make informed assessments of whether the deal fit the guidelines that were set for defence purchases in India.

The articles were accompanied by detailed documentation and graphical information on overall and component costs, comparison between projected aligned costs and final offer; notes by defence officials with their positions on aspects relating to the deal and a concise break-down of this information.

Areas related to self-reliance in defence production, strategic affairs, procedures in public finance were covered extensively in order to bring out these articles that added substantially to public discourse. While some of the revelations in the series of articles were already published by other outlets, the distinguishing factor was the comprehensive and thorough look at various ends of the deal helping the readers to be better informed.

The full article package is hosted here.

This story is a compilation of a series of articles by Narasimhan Ram published by The Hindu from Jan 18 to April 9.