Former firebrand Naxalite leader Ashim Chatterjee is once again leading the people of West Bengal. Unlike the last time, however, Chatterjee’s efforts are not aimed at overthrowing the government. Instead, he wants justice for the common man who lost his savings to the lure of quick returns promised by the Saradha group, which ran a Ponzi scheme in the state.
Chatterjee is the founder of the Chit Fund Sufferers’ Unity Forum, a platform formed in September last year, five months after Saradha went bust and admitted it was unable to pay back its depositors. He took up arms against the thrift-finance companies on the insistence of a couple of duped agents of Sunmarg Welfare Society, another financial company proscribed by the Reserve Bank of India in the wake of Saradha’s fall. Educationist Sunanda Sanyal, once a staunch backer of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress, has extended support to the forum, as has a clutch of Left and Congress leaders. It claims to represent 60,000 people who lost their money in the dodgy investment scheme run by the Saradha group.
Chatterjee’s task became easier on April 9, when the Supreme Court ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to inquire into the Saradha scandal while it simultaneously looks into other Ponzi schemes in states such as Odisha, Tripura and Assam. It was a setback for the West Bengal government, which had been opposed to a central probe into the scam amid talk that some leaders of the ruling Trinamool Congress were associated with the financial fiddle that has affected over 1.7 million people.
Now that CBI will be in action, in addition to a separate inquest already being carried out by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) for the past few weeks, Chatterjee sees hope for the defrauded people. But he first wants a solution that is akin to the one conceived of in the case against the Sahara group and its head, Subrata Roy, by the Supreme Court. Says Chatterjee, “As decreed by the Supreme Court in the Sahara case, the Kolkata High Court should also order the chit funds to deposit half of the money collected by them as the bail amount. This can be used to repay the duped investors.”
The Saradha case has been an embarrassing millstone around the neck of the ruling party. It also became a political weapon for the party’s opponents in election campaigning. In all his rallies in the state, Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party, brought up the topic, even hinting at collusion between the discredited financial firm and Chief Minister Banerjee. Modi alleged at his rallies that Sudipta Sen, chairman of Saradha, had bought Banerjee’s paintings for Rs 1.8 crore. He also criticised the state government for having failed to put the Saradha chit fund culprits in jail, conduct a probe and ensure the poor got back their money.
Modi’s strident tones have left Trinamool Congress workers anxious. “The Left parties have also been raising their voice about this over the past year, but they have no credibility with the people after 34 years of misrule,” admits a senior Trinamool Congress leader. “But Modi is different. When he says something, it becomes a national issue.”
The Left front and state BJP, Trinamool Congress ‘s opponents, have welcomed CBI’s intervention and said the probe would confirm what has been alleged all along – that the Saradha group had links with the Trinamool Congress. However, as Dipankar Dasgupta, former professor of economics at Kolkata’s Indian Statistical Institute says, “All political parties are making a lot of noise, but they are not taking up the cause of the investors.”
The state government did set up a commission under Justice Shyamal Sen to investigate the matter in April last year and provided a corpus of Rs 500 crore as payout to depositors. But, while the total amount collected by Saradha was more than Rs 2,000 crore – Rs 2,500, according to the latest calculation of ED – the Sen panel has refunded only Rs 167 crore so far. When the Supreme Court ordered CBI to probe the scam, Banerjee chose to respond with bravado. At an election rally on April 9, she said, “My government’s money will be saved. So far, we were compensating the depositors. We have already repaid 400,000 depositors. Now, CBI will have to do it.”
ED has arrested Sen, his wife, Piyali Sen, attached property belonging to the Ponzi company and taken into custody Kunal Ghosh, suspended Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha member. Ghosh had headed the media arm of Saradha and edited the group’s daily, Sambad Pratidin. His interrogation has led to the questioning of some other Trinamool Congress leaders, including Arpita Ghosh, the party’s candidate from the Balurghat Lok Sabha constituency.
An irate Banerjee had responded to the ED investigation by questioning the timing of the probe and tried to implicate Congress leaders in the melee. “Chidambaram babu, I have heard that your wife’s name is there in the Saradha complaint. I have seen the FIR copy,” she had said, referring to Nalini Chidambaram, wife of Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram. In response, Chidambaram said that his wife’s association with Saradha had been in the professional capacity as a lawyer.
A fortnight ago, Ghosh told journalists that Madan Mitra, state transport minister and a key aide of Banerjee, should have been summoned by ED. In fact, old video footage shows Mitra at a function of the Saradha group in 2009, where he is heard praising the discredited Sen. “I am thankful to Sudipta Sen,” Mitra says in the footage. “He has proved himself, spreading his business empire outside Bengal… I am proud that the Saradha group has its roots in Bankura’s Bishnupur from where I was elected to the Assembly.” Ghosh also told journalists that “the chief minister is trying to save those involved in the Saradha scam.”
What is worrying the politicians now are reports appearing in sections of the media that ED may have found a “documented” money trail of Rs 700-800 crore among some top state politicians and officials of the defunct group.
WHERE PONZI SCHEMES FLOURISH
The West Bengal government is facing criticism for its inability to address the issue of poor people investing their savings in dubious companies which are thriving in the state.
Jatan Kumar Pramanick, a retired government employee, deposited close to Rs 9 lakh in a company called Shivam Cultivation around a year ago, tempted by the promise of Rs 70,000 as interest in just four months. As Saradha unfolded, the owners of this company fled, and remain absconding till date. “I took money from my son and my relatives. I can’t even show my face to them now,” says Pramanick. Pramanick’s voice remains unheard.
Several money-pooling companies continue to do business in West Bengal, though the number of people who put money in them has fallen.