Faridabad, New Delhi: India knows Baba Ramdev as a yoga guru who made his wealth through business ventures overlapping both material and spiritual worlds. But in the forested village of Mangar in the Aravalli Range bordering Delhi, Ramdev is better known as a real estate mogul.

“Babaji bought parcels of land in Mangar through his companies,” said a local realty dealer who did not want to be identified. “There are different companies that bought land here. We know they are all Babaji’s because the dealers involved in the purchase are locally known to be working for him.”

The realty dealer was right. The Reporters’ Collective investigation found that a number of shell and obscure companies linked to the Patanjali group, and mostly controlled and managed by Ramdev’s younger brother and close business associates, have been buying and selling lands in Mangar, located in Haryana’s Faridabad, for the last decade.

Corporate groups and rich individuals are known to deploy shell companies -- hollow firms that exist only on paper – some legitimately and many for illegitimate purposes. Shell companies can help hide the real beneficiaries of the transactions they undertake and avoid paying taxes. They can be used to move illegally earned money through layers of transactions and give them a veneer of legitimacy through banking channels. They are often used by the rich to hide their actual wealth from citizens and governments. The Indian gov’t stated in Parliament in February this year that in the last three years it has eliminated more than 1.2 lakh such shell companies that did not file their financial statements with the government.

Patanjali group-affiliated ones escaped the government’s radar, it turns out. Our investigation found that some of these companies linked to the Patanjali group did not do any business of making or selling any goods they officially claimed they would. Instead the Patanjali group used these shell firms to buy large tracts of land in Mangar, the forested village in the Aravalli mountain range that does the duty of Delhi’s lungs.

These shell companies routed back proceeds from the sale of these lands in Mangar to other firms in the Patanjali’s empire, which bought more lands in other parts of Aravalli hills.

The Collective’s investigation searched corporate and land records from more than a decade and a half. It helped unravel the ownership and investors of a web of dubious shell companies and connect the dots to the actual buyers of land – the Patanjali empire. Ramdev built up the empire even as he vociferously endorsed Narendra Modi’s promise to end black money, campaigned heavily for him and championed the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare between 2011-14.

Mangar and other parts of Aravalli are alluring for real estate players. Faridabad, where Mangar is located, is part of a patchwork of booming cities called the National Capital Region, making it a fertile ground for builders. Large tracts of forestlands in Faridabad have been kept out of conservation laws, creating opportunities for real-estate players such as Ramdev’s Patanjali group.

But between the wood and the axe of real estate developers stood the Supreme Court order that aimed to protect unprotected forested lands like parts of Aravalli. Under the landmark 1996 order of the court, whether a government recognised a patch of land as forest or not in its records, if it met the dictionary definition of a forest, it would be protected regardless of who owned the forest patch.

Over the years, Mangar and the unprotected parts of Aravallis close to Delhi have been playing cat and mouse with the businessman out to snap up the forested land.

While Patanjali purchased tracts of land in Mangar before the BJP came to power in Haryana and at the centre, documents reviewed by The Collective show that the governments post-2014 period have made it better for the group’s business prospects in the Aravalli ranges.

The yoga guru recently received good news from the Union government as well. In August 2023, the Centre effectively undermined the apex court’s safeguards. It amended the Forest Conservation Act that ended the legal protection for forestlands such as those in Mangar and other parts of Aravalli.

Given that extensive expanses of land in the Aravalli had not been officially designated as forests, this modification stripped away their protection under prevailing forest conservation laws. Consequently, these territories now stand exposed to commercial exploitation. It has been previously reported by Hindustan Times how several real estate firms own land in the forests of Aravallis and will benefit from the amended Forest Conservation Act.

A review of the latest available digital land records of Haryana and corporate filings shows that the Patanjali group has held over 123 acres of land in Mangar village through a dozen companies and a trust.

This number could be even higher. We couldn’t ascertain Patanjali Group’s full expanse of real estate deals in Mangar as of publication because land records are not promptly updated upon sale of land.

Illustration: Patanjali firms and trust that have land in Mangar as per the latest available Haryana digital land records

The Reporters’ Collective sent detailed questionnaires to the registered emails of this web of companies, copying them to Patanjali Ayurved Limited’s Chief Operating Officer (COO). S K Tijarawala, who acts as Baba Ramdev’s spokesperson and National Head of Aastha TV, was also copied on all the mails. Questionnaire was also sent to Acharya Balakrishna. 

We got uniform, copy-and-pasted responses from one-third of the entities involved in Mangar land trades. Others did not respond despite reminders. The shell companies marked a copy to the Patanajali Ayurved COO and Tijarawala on their boiler-plate responses, reaffirming that all these entities report to Ramdev’s Patanjali group and are not independent entities that just happen to be run by Ramdev’s friends and family.

The response was short and simple: we have done no wrong. 

Shell game

Patanjali’s shell firms followed a similar modus operandi in purchasing plots across Mangar. The Collective traced the inflow of funds and their expenditure in one such firm, Patanjali Corrupack Private Limited, since its inception. And tracked how these monies were used to buy and sell land in Mangar forests.

Baba Ramdev’s brother Ram Bharat and closest business associate Acharya Balkrishna, who is the co-founder and managing director of Patanjali Ayurved, set up a company called Corrupack in 2009. The two claimed the company was set up to manufacture packaging material. Against the shares they together put in Rs 1 lakh in the company as capital. The company was registered in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, Ramdev’s home ground. Going by the latest corporate filings Balkrishna owns 92% of the company and Bharat the rest. 

But in the past 12 years of its existence, the company has not done a single rupee’s business it was set up for. Instead, it has been buying and selling lands in Mangar through money funnelled into the firm.

The company can legally lease or buy land to support its main business activity of manufacturing and trading in packaging material but not to run a real estate business. In this case, it did not carry out its main business, but only dealt in Mangar’s lands.

A year after its incorporation, the bank account of Corrupack began to swell. In 2010, Acharya Balkrishna gave the company Rs 2.99 crore. Soon came another tranche of Rs 2.42 crore advance from Gangotri Ayurved Pvt Limited and Rs 5.6 lakh from Aarogya Herbs (India) Pvt Limited. Balkrishna owns majority shares in the two companies. Aarogya herbs itself held 28 acres of land in Mangar.

Screengrab of Patanjali Corrupack’s FY 2010 filings showing sharing application money it got from Acharya Balkrishna and two Patanjali-linked companies.

In effect Balkrishna, the Patanjali Ayurved Limited’s managing director and Baba Ramdev’s right hand man, had transferred over Rs 5 crore to Corrupack. They claimed the money was given as advance against more shares that Corrupack would offer to Balkrishna directly and through his other two shell companies. 

This simple ‘give money and take share’ is, in genuine cases, a milk run and should be closed in a few weeks. But over the years neither Balkrishna nor these two other shell companies got shares against their purported ‘share application money’ put into Corrupack.

Red flags go up when a company drags issuing shares in return for the money advanced. It’s questioned for its dubiousness. To close this loophole, The Companies Act, 2013 mandated that shares should be allotted within 60 days or the advance refunded soon after. Illegally taking advance in the name of share application money attracts a penalty of up to Rs 2 crore.

In Corrupack’s case, the shares were never given. Over time the share application money was either shifted to “other current liabilities” section of the accounts or dwindled down.

The company also got some unsecured loans – money given without any collateral – from other Patanjali empire companies. It got Rs 6 lakh each from Cheneena Impex Pvt Ltd, Prarekha Exim Pvt Ltd and Smitasha Impex Pvt Ltd. 

Patanjali Corrupack admits on its records that these companies are “related parties” in which “key management personnel or their relatives can exercise significant influence”. This meant these too were among the lesser known nodes of Baba Ramdev’s business empire.

We could also confirm that all these three companies are shareholders in Aastha Broadcasting Network Limited, which runs Ramdev’s Aastha channel, as per the latest corporate filings. 

Saddled with the money supplied by the Patanjali network, Corrupak became a real estate dealer. Within a year, plots owned by the firm in Mangar went up from 59.74 acres to 70.92 acres.  These had been purchased at a total of Rs 4.9 crore, records show.

To give you a sense of the land's potential for builders, one acre can house approximately seven buildings, each with ten 2BHK apartments.

Screengrab of Patanjali’s FY 2011 filings showing its land holdings.

Corrupack kept getting a slush of funds from other Patanjali entities, including Patanjali Parivahan, Devam Ayurved and Divya Yog Mandir Trust, Green Apple Security Systems, Patanjali Food and Herbal Park. Some of these company records explicitly say that the money was advanced to Corrupack for purchasing lands, not for any business the company had always claimed it would undertake.

In total, by the end of FY 2011, the company had collected Rs 6.74 crore as advances and ‘application money for shares”.

In the next fiscal year, the company began selling its land. It earned Rs 15.16 crore and paid back the unsecured loans of three companies, show records. Corporate records do not allow us to ascertain the profit the Patanjali shell company made from the sales of these specific land parcels. 

Patanjali’s financial shell game of funneling funds in a company and then moving it around indistinguishable entities, all the while, evading scrutiny, continued.

Corrupack received another unsecured loan of Rs one crore from another company, ABC Global Pvt Limited, and made advances worth Rs 8.8 crore to five entities. One of them was a company called Gaurisuta Building Solutions Pvt Limited, which also trades in Mangar lands and is yet another company under the Patanjali corporate empire.

Over the years, Corrupack would invest moneys it generated from land deals, building on top of questionable advances, in other Patanjali Group companies. For example, in FY2013, the company bought 60,000 shares of Sanskaar Info TV Pvt Ltd for Rs 90 lakh. Sanskaar Info TV runs the popular Sanskaar TV channel. It also advanced money to Aastha Bhajan Broadcasting Pvt Limited, in the name of share application advance. In FY2015, Corrupack similarly bought 33,119 shares in Patanjali Ayurved worth Rs 51.47 lakh.

Screengrab of Corrupack’s FY 2015 filings showing investments it made in Patanjali Ayurved Limited and Vedic Aastha Bhajan Broadcasting Private Limited.

Up until the company’s most recent corporate filings for FY 2021, it persisted with such transactions but did not do any of its core business of packaging material. Yet, it had amassed a reserve of Rs 15.57 crore. And, at the same time, the latest records show the company continues to hold 1.28 acres in Mangar, and stands to potentially generate more profits.

Patanjali Corrupack on its part, in its boiler-plate response to detailed questionnaire asking why over a decade the company had not done any real business that it claimed to and instead moved monies around the Patanjali empire to buy and sell lands in Mangar:

“Patanjali Corrupack Private Limited has undertaken the investment in accordance with the stipulations of the law. Furthermore, we have diligently adhered to the applicable laws and regulations governing land acquisition to ensure full compliance. The acquisition of the land aligns with the legal framework, and all procedures have been executed with meticulous attention to legal requirements.”

The response ignored specific questions to say, “We are committed to upholding the highest standards of legality and ethical conduct in all our business endeavors.”

(Part 2: Patanjali Corrupack is just one of a clutch of such shell companies of the Patanjali group which operate as shady real estate dealers, feeding off and supplying money into the larger more well-known companies of Baba Ramdev’s empire)

Aggam Walia, a former intern at The Reporters’ Collective, contributed to the research and reporting of this story.