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Paytm case: A tech billionaire and the bumbling blackmailers

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Mumbai : The Indian state of Uttar Pradesh has a reputation as a rough place, with one of the highest levels of crime in the country. In May, a dozen local politicians received WhatsApp messages that threatened harm to their families unless they paid $14,000.

Yet even by local standards, an extortion plot that’s surfaced in recent weeks stands out for its sheer outlandishness. It’s the case of a celebrated startup founder, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, who allegedly was targeted by one of his most trusted lieutenants for millions in ransom. The billionaire entrepreneur created India’s most popular digital payments service called Paytm.

Local police have arrested Paytm vice president Sonia Dhawan, her husband and another Paytm employee for allegedly stealing Sharma’s personal data so they could extort money. The three are in custody at Luksar Jail in Noida, the New Delhi suburb where Paytm is headquartered. Authorities are hunting for a fourth person, who allegedly made ransom calls to Sharma. A lawyer for Dhawan and her husband denies they did anything wrong.

 

Key questions remain unanswered. Why would a nine-year veteran of Paytm turn against her boss when she had so much to lose? Were Dhawan and her suspected collaborators pressured to act against Sharma by the true culprits, as Sharma himself has suggested? What is the data the group allegedly stole? The investigation touches on one of India’s most successful entrepreneurs, whose backers include Masayoshi Son of SoftBank Group Corp. and Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

‘Everybody’s fascinated by this unraveling story,’ asked Sanchit Vir Gogia, founder and chief executive officer of Greyhound Research. ‘It involves a famous, very vocal person like Vijay Shekhar Sharma. Paytm’s done exceptionally well so there’s an emotional connection as well.’

Sharma, now 40, founded One97 Communications, the parent company of Paytm, in 2000 when fewer than 10 million Indians were online. He tried offering search services, ringtones and Bollywood movie songs before landing on the idea of digital payments. The business soared after the India government eliminated 500- and 1,000-rupee banknotes at the end of 2016, in a bid to end corruption. With the stroke of a pen, 80% of the country’s paper money disappeared.

“Overnight, we went from a new thing to a must-have,” he told Bloomberg News in a profile last year.

One97 is now worth $10 billion, according to CB Insights, making it the most valuable startup in India. Sharma’s empire also includes the online retailer Paytm E-Commerce Pvt, backed by China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.

Sonia Dhawan started working at One97 in January of 2010, according to her LinkedIn profile. Recently promoted to vice president of communications, she was well known in media circles in India, fielding press calls and arranging interviews for Sharma. She also liaised with government officials and overseas partners. Given her equity interest, Dhawan’s position would have likely grown increasingly lucrative as Paytm expands and heads for an inevitable an initial public offering.

“Hard work is glory, everything else is theory,” she wrote on her Twitter page.

According to police, she allegedly hatched the extortion plot with her husband, a property consultant named Rupak Jain; a colleague, Devendra Kumar; and a fourth person, Rohit Chomal.

The idea was allegedly to steal personal data from Sharma, with Dhawan’s access to his passwords and computers, and then use the data to get cash, according to local police. Dhawan, Jain, Kumar and Chomal couldn’t be reached for comment.

Sharma got the first call from his purported blackmailers in September. A man said he had Sharma’s personal financial information, and demanded the equivalent of about $2.7 million or it would be released to the public. The perpetrators had taken a hard disk containing the information, according to a four-page police document called a First Information Report.

“It’s a case of blackmail and extortion with stolen personal data and sensitive business plans,” said Manoj Kumar Pant, the police officer heading the investigation in Noida.

Still, these appear to be bumbling blackmailers. Sharma purposefully ducked the extortion calls four or five times as they tried to extract money and then insisted they deal with his brother because he was too busy. When Ajay Shekhar Sharma, who also works at Paytm, pressured the caller for details, the alleged extortionist simply blurted out the names of his three co-conspirators, according to local press.

Ajay Shekhar Sharma then filed a complaint with local police in October. They recovered a hard disk from Kumar, who confessed and implicated Dhawan and her husband, according to the police.

Sharma’s net worth is estimated to be close to $2 billion, making the extortion attempt more distraction than financial threat. A far bigger challenge for Paytm is holding off global rivals like Google Pay and WhatsApp Pay in a digital payments market forecast by Credit Suisse to grow to $1 trillion by 2023.

‘Paytm runs the risk of getting slightly maligned over its handling of data,” said Gogia.

Sharma didn’t respond to requests seeking comment for this article.

The case has fueled intense speculation about Dhawan’s purported motive, if she is guilty, and how she could have landed in jail with such speed. Prashant Tripathi, a lawyer representing the couple, said she hasn’t done anything wrong.

“She is absolutely innocent and has no connection with the theft of data or extortion,” he said in an interview, adding that she had been framed by professional rivals in the office. He wouldn’t explain why he hasn’t tried to get the couple out of jail ahead of any trial. “I await instructions from the Dhawan family,” he said.

The police and Paytm are at odds over what kind of data was stolen. While investigating officer Pant told Bloomberg News that the theft included the company’s business plans, Paytm insists personal data was nabbed. “Paytm would like to reiterate that all our consumer data is protected with the highest and most impenetrable levels of security,” it said in a statement.

Sharma has made it clear he doesn’t think the whole story of the blackmail attempt has been told. In a brief conversation with the Economic Times last week, Sharma said his lieutenant is probably innocent and a ‘conduit of someone else’s bigger plan.”

‘I don’t know how many more people were involved in this sad conspiracy,” he said. “I am shocked and surprised at things that happened and some claims or theories being pitched. I am sure with support of police and everyone involved we will uncover the details soon.’


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Business

India can’t achieve 9-10 per cent GDP growth without agri-revolution: Kant

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New Delhi: India cannot achieve 9-10 per cent GDP growth without revolution in the farm sector, Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant said.


Addressing Mahindra Samriddhi Agri awards, he said there is a need to boost investment in the agriculture sector as well as to introduce new technology and market reforms.


Kant also stressed on scrapping Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee and some old laws like Essential Commodites Act, which restrict movement of farm produces.

 


However, he said agriculture is a state subject and the central government has limited role in it.


“In India 50 per cent of our population is dependent on agriculture. If India’s GDP has to grow at 9-10 per cent for the next 30 years, then it cannot be without bringing revolution in the agri sector,” Kant said.


He also emphasised on eliminating middlemen in marketing of farm produces to boost farmers’ income.


Kant expressed confidence that farmer income will be doubled by 2022.
He said there is a need to spread good agriculture practice and success stories of farmers across the country.


“The second revolution in agriculture will come from technology and marketing,” Kant said.


Pawan Goenka, Managing Director, Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd,, said: “The contribution made by our farming community is a manifestation of this new age of farming which we celebrate through our annual awards”.


As part of Mahindra Agri Village (MAV) programme, he said the company has worked closely with more than 50 villages.


“Our Prerna initative has empowered nearly 2,000 women farmers over 40 villages, through the introduction of gender-neutral farm tools for reducing farm drudgery, and dissemination of knowledge and essential capabilities,” Goenka said.


Mahindra Samriddhi Krishi Shiromani Samman (Lifetime Achievement Award) 2019 was conferred upon E A Siddiq for his immense contribution to Indian agriculture. The award was handed over to recognise his contribution of enhancing productivity of paddy (Both Basmati & Non Basmati).


The group gave awards in total 11 categories.

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Mukesh Ambani bails out Anil in Ericsson payout case day before SC deadline

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Mumbai: Billionaire Mukesh Ambani stepped in to bail out younger brother Anil Ambani by helping him repay Reliance Communications’ (RCom’s) dues to Ericsson. The last-minute rescue spares the younger Ambani a three-month jail term for contempt of court.


RCom cleared the entire dues to Ericsson India to purge the contempt of a Supreme Court order. The debt-ridden company had already paid Rs 118 crore of the Rs 550-crore dues. In addition, the company had paid around Rs 3 crore in penalties to Ericsson.


“My sincere and heartfelt thanks to my respected elder brother, Mukesh, and Nita for standing by me during these trying times and demonstrating the importance of staying true to our strong family values by extending this timely support,” said Anil Ambani in a media statement. RCom had time until Tuesday to make the payment, failing which Anil Ambani, its chairman, would have had to serve a three-month jail term, according to the court’s order.

 
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Probing Amazon, Flipkart for alleged violation of foreign exchange law: ED

Press Trust of India

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New Delhi : Investigation has been initiated against e-commerce giants Amazon and Flipkart for alleged violation of foreign exchange law, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) Monday informed the Delhi High Court.


A bench of Chief Justice Rajendra Menon and Justice A J Bhambhani noted the submissions of the ED that a case has been registered under provisions of the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) against the two companies and disposed of a PIL which has alleged that the e-commerce giants were violating foreign direct investment (FDI) norms.


The court had earlier sought response of the central government, Amazon and Flipkart to the plea which has sought a probe into the alleged FDI violations.

 


The ED, in its reply filed through central government standing counsel Amit Mahajan, has said the “department has already registered and initiated investigation under the provisions of FEMA against the two companies to ascertain whether they have been contravening any provisions of FEMA or contravening any rule, regulations, notification, direction or order issued in exercise of the powers under FEMA….”
The agency also sought dismissal of the petition.


The petition by an NGO, Telecom Watchdog, also asked for initiation of legal proceedings against the two e-commerce companies under the FEMA for alleged violation and circumvention of FDI norms.


The plea, filed through advocate Pranav Sachdeva, has claimed that Amazon and Flipkart have created multiple entities to circumvent the FDI norms and route the hot-selling stock at cheaper rates.


The petition has contended that according to Press Note 3 of 2016, which regulates FDI in e-commerce, entities like Amazon and Flipkart are not to exercise ownership over stock, nor directly or indirectly influence price of goods and services sold on their marketplace.


It claimed that by creating name lending companies, Amazon and Flipkart buy branded goods in bulk at discounts from manufacturers and render small sellers uncompetitive by a wide margin, thus influencing the prices in violation of the FDI norms.


“As a consequence of this FDI norms violation, smaller sellers are unable to participate in the fast growing e-commerce sector,” the plea has contended, adding that due to subsidised prices on such platforms, small sellers are unable to sell in the brick-n-mortar world too.


Besides, the plea has also claimed that the two e-commerce firms have created several other group companies in the chain to divide discounts and losses.


“Exchange offers, EMI costs and bank offers are funded completely or substantially by Amazon and Flipkart and constitute a clear influence on price in violation of FDI norms,” it has alleged.

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