Last week, Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) named 331 listed companies as suspected “shell companies”—companies that exist for the purpose of financial manoeuvring—and asked stock exchanges to initiate action against them. As many as 141 of these were registered in West Bengal, followed by 53 in Maharashtra and 35 in Delhi.
A more granular look into their registered addresses shows that of the 284 companies for which pin codes could be ascertained, 37 were formed in just one of the over-19,000 pin codes in India: 700001, in Central Kolkata. This area has long been known to be a thriving hub of lawyers and chartered accountants who specialize in creating so-called “shell companies”. And while Kolkata has ceased to be the epicentre of such a business, which has spread to other cities such as Mumbai or Delhi, several thousand shell companies continue to be registered in the city.
Since January 2010, about 688,000 companies have been formed in India. Of these, 13,274 companies (not necessarily shell companies alone) have been formed in just this pin code in Kolkata, making it the most thriving pin code for company formation. It’s followed by pin code 110092 in East Delhi, with 11,000 companies. The top 15 pin codes for company formation since January 2010 account for about 11.5% of the 688,000 companies. Many of these are thriving commercial locations, such as Gurgaon, and many of those companies are engaged in genuine businesses.
But the number of companies formed by month in pin code 700001 in central Kolkata is almost an alternative history of the Indian economy, one that bears little relation to the “official” story. Monthly data since January 1991 shows that, in 11 months, the share of this pin code in total companies formed in India has exceeded 5%. In one month, March 2012, its share rocketed to 11.6%, when 1,440 companies were formed here, just prior to the notification of new income tax rules that would have affected how shell companies did business.