GROUND ZERO | Kolkata

The vaccine scamster of Kolkata

Supporters of Left parties participate in a demonstration against the vaccination scam in Kolkata.   | Photo Credit: PTI

A hoarding in blue and white bearing the logo of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) hangs outside an office located on the third floor of a building in Kasba. Unlike the dingy, cramped offices that define the KMC, this space, in a building referred to as the UCO Bank building, on Rajdanga Main Road, has a cheerful look. It is festooned with balloons in the official colours of the West Bengal government, blue and white. The hoarding lists in exhaustive detail the activities carried out by the civic body: ‘Urban Planning and Development’, ‘I&PR’ (Information and Public Relations), ‘Urban Management’, ‘Environment and Heritage Department’. And so on.

These are all not what they appear to be — signs of a celebration; they are, in fact, the only remains of an audacious vaccination racket that has been carried out from these premises. In charge of the scam was a stocky man aged 28, Debanjan Deb, who had been masquerading as an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer for about a year. The fact that Deb managed to dupe businessmen, officials and people and carry out a racket while posing as a government servant has left the Mamata Banerjee government red-faced, investigating officers astounded and the people scared.

The vaccine scamster of Kolkata
 

Acts of deceit

Deb had mastered more than just the art of putting up a fake hoarding. He had learned to use government logos and letterheads, email from fake government accounts, and even create bank accounts that sounded official to those interacting with him. While Deb mostly masqueraded as the Joint Commissioner of KMC (the post was vacant then), he also sometimes posed as the Secretary of the Information and Cultural Affairs Department.

Deb looked like an official in every sense to an untrained eye. He used a Toyota Innova SUV, bearing the registration number WB06R-0999. The car was fitted with a blue beacon light, the symbol of power. It also had a flag, and logos and stickers representing the Government of West Bengal. Deb’s Salt Lake residence had an ‘IAS Officer’ plaque on the gate. A 50-m area around the house was declared as a ‘no vehicle zone’.

Deb’s social media profiles provide a glimpse of how he created and cultivated this fake identity. The bio of his Twitter account (@DebanjanDeb07) describes him as a ‘Public Servant’. He first posted from the account as a ‘public servant’ in October 2020. Among his initial posts was a photograph of him greeting the former Mayor of Kolkata and Chairman of the Board of Administrators, KMC, Firhad Hakim. Between October 2020 and April 2021, when he stopped tweeting, Deb posted several photographs with prominent personalities including Ministers and MPs of the Trinamool Congress. He retweeted information from the account of Egiye Bangla, the digital interface of the West Bengal government. Many of his posts were about RT-PCR tests carried out at different centres of KMC and other activities related to managing COVID-19 in the city. A few tweets were also about the Central government. He put up about 50 tweets and retweets between October 2020 and April 2021, each designed to give the impression that he is a government servant. On Instagram, Deb’s account describes him as a ‘Film Lover, Music Lover, Food Lover and an inveterate traveller’.

 

Blowing the lid off the scam

For months, Deb organised awareness drives on COVID-19 and distributed masks and sanitisers. He took bribes from businessmen. He operated the vaccination scam from the heart of the city — no one suspected anything amiss. His latest fake COVID-19 vaccination camp would have gone unnoticed too had it not been for Trinamool Congress MP Mimi Chakraborty. Deb and his team invited the actor-turned-politician to the ‘vaccination camp’ organised at the Kasba office where Chakraborty decided to take a vaccine shot. Deb did not miss the opportunity to sit next to her and be photographed. He seemed calm and composed — the videos and photos clicked at the event betray no emotion.

But Chakraborty grew suspicious when she did not get a message after receiving her shot. “I was told that I would receive it shortly. I immediately asked my office to enquire whether the people present at the site had received registration messages. The people present there said they had not received any such message,” she said. Chakraborty said she had agreed to go to the camp as she was told that people with disabilities were being vaccinated there. She brought the matter to the notice of the city police immediately. Deb was arrested the same evening.

 

“During the enquiry, several irregularities were noticed. It was revealed that the vaccination camp was running without any permission from the Kolkata Police, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation or any other government department. It also came to light that Deb is not an IAS Officer...,” reads the affidavit filed by the West Bengal government before the Calcutta High Court. Deb was detained and arrested on June 22. A couple of days after Deb’s arrest, Kolkata Police Commissioner Soumen Mitra broke his silence and described the actions of the accused as “inhuman”. “It can be nothing more than the workings of a distorted mind,” he said.

The ‘vaccines’

Once Deb was arrested, one of the biggest challenges for the investigators was to trace how he had procured COVID-19 vaccines. Once they recovered vials bearing the labels of ‘Covishield’ and ‘Sputnik V’, they began to examine whether the vaccines were genuine.

On hearing about the racket, hundreds of agitated people, who had been administered vaccines at the Kasba office, started to come forward claiming that they were feeling unwell. The KMC rushed a team of doctors on June 24 to check on these people. Scores of them came to get themselves checked, complaining of headache, body pain and general discomfort.

“I have been feeling unwell ever since I heard that the vaccines could be fake. I have headache and nausea,” said Kaushik Das, a security guard at the Kasba New Market area. Das and several others who queued up at the KMC health facility were also worried about how they would get their second dose as they had not received the vaccination certificate after their first dose.

The first list prepared by the civic body suggested that 102 people, mostly shopkeepers at the Kasba New Market area, not far from Deb’s office, were among the vaccinated. A medical officer of Borough XII, who was present at the camp, said that none of them had any serious symptoms. Most of them were suffering from panic attacks, he said.

Meanwhile, a team from the State Forensic Science Laboratory collected the vaccine vials from Deb’s office. The results came as a shock. The report of the forensic team said that the ‘Covishield’ labels had been pasted on glass vials of Amikacin Sulphate, used to treat serious infections caused by bacteria such as meningitis, while the ‘Sputnik V’ labels had been pasted on vials containing Triamcinolone Acetonide, which is used to treat inflammation, allergic reactions and various skin conditions.

The investigation turned a page when the police found that Deb had organised as many as six camps at his Kasba office between June 11 and June 22 and one camp at City College on Amherst Street on June 18. A total of 802 people had been administered these injections at these camps.

Fake accounts, orders, letters

How was Deb able to pull off such an outrageous operation? Not only did he organise seven ‘COVID-19 vaccination camps’ in the city in just 10 days but he also employed several people to work for him. Some of the people questioned claimed that they were recruited by the KMC and were paid regular salaries. A few of Deb’s employees said they took a test and even paid a bribe to Deb, who had posed as the Joint Commissioner of KMC, to get the job.

Some of the employees said that their salaries had been credited from an account called ‘WB FINCORP’, which appeared to be official but was not. The account was similar to the KMC hoarding outside Deb’s office at Kasba — it looked credible. The police have seized five accounts of Deb and two other accounts: M/s WB FINCORP and M/s KMC Planning & Development UPD Kasba.

 

The fact that Deb managed to open an account in the name of the KMC in a private bank surprised Hakim even more than his own photograph with the accused that Deb had tweeted. “How can someone open a fake account of the KMC with fake documents,” Hakim wondered. It turned out that Deb had used fake holograms of the KMC to get bank accounts in its name. For getting holograms for fake work orders, Deb had provided fake acceptance letters and approval letters from the ‘KMC’ to a businessman in the Dalhousie area.

As the investigation gathered pace, the police arrested some accomplices of Deb. Among those arrested was Kanchan Deb who had posed as a high-level official of the KMC. Kanchan is Deb’s cousin. Soon after his arrest, Kanchan spoke to the media about how he was unaware of the things that Deb had done. He also falsely claimed that he and his family got vaccinated at one of the vaccination camps organised by Deb. Another accused, Sarat Patra, was arrested for impersonating a medical officer and injecting people at one of the camps. Days later, Deb’s security officer, Aurobindo Baidya, was arrested. Deb had hired a private security guard who was instrumental in getting several people from the Sonarpur area to get vaccinated at the camps in Kasba.

By the end of June, the police had arrested nine people in connection with the vaccination scam. The Kolkata Police have set up a special investigation team comprising 17 members of the detective department. The investigation is being supervised by the Joint Commissioner of the Kolkata Police.

The motive

The obvious reason for Deb’s elaborate plan seems to be financial gains, said investigators. Deb, they said, was disposed towards criminal activities even during his college days. A Zoology teacher, who liked acting, said that Deb had once duped him on the pretext of securing a ‘technician card’ for him to get work in the Bengali film and television industry.

Also read | New vaccination SOP in place in Bengal after fraud unearthed

The son of a retired Deputy Collector of the State Excise Department, Deb graduated in Zoology from Charuchandra College in Kolkata. He later got admission for a Master’s course in Genetics at the University of Calcutta, which he never completed. According to his close friends and family, he appeared for the Civil Services Examination in 2014 and failed to crack it.

Once the scam was out in the open, several businessmen alleged that they had also been duped by him. Most of them had been promised tenders to supply COVID-19 essentials and other medicines to state-run facilities. Deb forged documents to make them appear as though they had been issued by the Government of West Bengal. He used fake stamps, fake seals and impressions, and operated from fake emails ids and bank accounts created in the name of the KMC. Not only in Kolkata but businessmen about 500 km north in Siliguri also said that Deb had taken money from them and promised to set up an office of the Tea Board in north Bengal.

A team of doctors check a victim of the vaccination scam at City College, Kolkata.

A team of doctors check a victim of the vaccination scam at City College, Kolkata.   | Photo Credit: PTI

“From the scrutiny of the bank account traced till date, it has been revealed that there has been a transaction of ₹2.80 crore (approx.) in the said accounts and a considerable portion of the said money have been found to be siphoned off in different accounts,” reads the affidavit filed by the Kolkata Police in the Calcutta High Court. The police also pointed out that Deb, using forged documents, had deposited a sum of ₹77,13,000 in the accounts. According to Atin Ghosh, MLA and member, Board of Administrators, KMC, Deb even took a little over a lakh to vaccinate about 100 employees of a non-governmental organisation.

A major embarrassment

The scam created ripples in the political circles in the State. While distancing her government from the issue, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee described the accused as being “worse than a terrorist”. She said, “You should not publicise the names of cheats, thugs and impostors. If you don’t take his name and ask about the impostor, then I will respond.... How can someone display such audacity. This has nothing to do with the government.”

Deb’s duplicity brought major embarrassment to the State government. Days after his arrest, a bust of Rabindranath Tagore in Kolkata’s Taltala area, which was unveiled on February 26 this year, was located with the name of the impostor IAS officer on the plaque. The plaque had the names of a local MP, an MLA and a former Mayor of Kolkata, among others. The civic officials tried to cover his name with black ink. When that didn’t work, they finally destroyed the plaque on June 25 in the presence of several television news cameras.

The Opposition parties, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had a field day as the controversy continued to make headlines for days. Party members hit the streets, clashed with the police during a march to the KMC, and organised a law violation programme in Kolkata, where several leaders courted arrest. BJP leaders wrote to the Union Health Ministry seeking its intervention in the issue. By the first week of July, the Enforcement Directorate had started a probe into the scam.

Fake vaccination racket | Kolkata Police arrest protesting BJP leaders

A number of writ petitions were filed before the Calcutta High Court demanding a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The High Court said in its observation that the inquiry “does not show that there is any deficiency in the conduct of this investigation, the facts do not warrant investigation by the CBI”. In its July 9 order, the court said that Deb along with his collaborators have been “able to deceive a large section of innocent people, lure them to take vaccination from him at a serious risk to their lives”.

The story of Deb has had a snowball effect. In the last week of June and first two weeks of July, many impostors operating across the State were caught. They included a man claiming to be the CBI counsel, a youth claiming to be a CBI officer, and some pretending to be Crime Investigation Department officers and officers of the State Police. One of them even pretended to be a member of the National Human Rights Commission. All of them had a modus operandi similar to Deb’s — they spun their own webs of lies and operated fake social media profiles.

While investigations continue, the city police are busy keeping a watch on the roads and noting down the numbers of vehicles that have beacons on top.


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Printable version | Sep 26, 2021 11:06:55 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kolkata/the-vaccine-scam-artist-of-kolkata/article35371805.ece

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