Kolkata: As lakhs of investors in West Bengal lose their savings in a chit fund scam following the collapse of the Saradha Group, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been shifting the blame on the Left. This even as heat builds on Trinamool Congress MP Kunal Ghosh who headed Saradha group's media unit. But he claims it was a while back when he was working as a journalist.
Advocate Basabi Roy Chowdhury filed a PIL in the Calcutta High Court praying for a CBI probe to bring to book all involved in the alleged scam. Her counsel Subroto Mukhopadhyay said the petitioner also prayed for the arrest of Kunal Ghosh. The demand for the arrest of Saradha Group Chairman Sudipta Sen, who remains at large, is also growing.
Saradha Group is one of the largest chit fund companies in eastern India. It has also diversified into construction, realty, tourism, hospitality, agri-businesses and media. As capital market regulator Sebi started taking actions against chit fund companies for flouting rules, which raised concerns over safety of public money, pressure on the group's finances mounted.
Thousands of journalists left jobless; depositor commits suicide
Crisis in the group was brewing since January, which forced it to recently wind up at least 10 media organisations - newspapers and television channels - that it had launched or acquired since 2010. Over 1,000 journalists and non-journalists have been rendered jobless.
Meanwhile, with Saradha Group's debacle, its depositors have been left in the lurch. While many have been protesting, some of them even attempted suicide. A 50-year-old woman, who had deposited money in chit fund company Saradha Group, on Sunday succumbed to her injuries after she set herself on fire, while a man tried to poison himself, even as political parties traded charges over the scandal. Urmila Pramanik, a resident of Baruipur in South-24 Parganas district, who had invested Rs 30,000 with the chit fund company, set herself on fire on Saturday evening at her home after coming to know that the company had gone bust.
She was taken to Baruipur sub-divisional hospital with serious burns and later shifted to Chittaranjan Hospital in Kolkata where she died on Sunday. Lakshman Ghorui of Diamond Harbour consumed poison, but his condition was stable, police said.
Saradha group Chairman at large
One of the directors of the 'chit fund' company Saradha Group was on Saturday arrested. "We have arrested Manoj Kumar Nagel who is one of the directors of the company from Bidhannagar. We are also looking out for their chairman Sudipta Sen by keeping a vigil at airport and other places," a senior police official at Bidhannagar Commissionerate said.
The West Bengal government has already ordered Sen's arrest. With a huge default in repayments, the Saradha Group is virtually on the verge of collapse. Mamata said that the Bidhannagar police station, CID and the Kolkata police tried to act against Saradha Group chairman Sudipta Sen, but he escaped.
Asked whether the Trinamool Congress, her party, would take action against two MPs for their alleged links with the Saradha group, she said "They were not MPs when they were there. Law will take its own course. Our government is transparent. If anyone commits an offence, action will be taken against him." Stating that inquiries were being made against many former CPI(M) ministers and also many journalists, she said without naming party Rajya Sabha MP Kunal Ghosh, who has since resigned as Saradha group media CEO, "If the MP has done any wrong, law will take its own course."
Political blame game
The CPI(M) has accused the Trinamool Congress-led West Bengal government of supporting chit fund companies, saying the Left parties had been warning the Centre for the past few years that these firms were "looting" poor people in the state. "While Left Front legislators from West Bengal had met the Prime Minister in August last year, a delegation of Left MPs had met him again in December. Both delegations had submitted memoranda to safeguard the interests of small investors being looted by these chit-fund companies," CPI(M) leaders Sitaram Yechury and Basudeb Acharia told reporters here.
"Most of these companies have close relations with Trinamool Congress. While one MP is the brand ambassador of the Saradha group, another two are closely associated with it," Acharia said without naming any of them. "Why did the Centre not take any action earlier? It is simple. Trinamool Congress was a major partner in the UPA coalition," he said.
Mamata Banerjee has rejected allegations that the TMC leadership should be held responsible for the debacle and has blamed the Left and the Central government instead. On Monday, she instituted a high-level inquiry and deputed a special investigation team into it.
Mamata told reporters after a high-level meeting that an SIT under the DGP would go into the fiasco and a high-level inquiry under the Commission of Inquiry Act was being instituted. The chief minister also said that a draft for promulgating an ordinance having more teeth to restrict operations of chitfund companies was prepared.
She said that she had telephonically requested President Pranab Mukherjee, who inquired about her health on Sunday, to see that the bill passed by previous Left Front government seeking to restrict chitfund operations, was returned to enable the state government to incorporate more stringent provisions to deal with such illegal activities. "If the bill forwarded by the Left Front government to the Centre in 2009, is returned within 24 hours, then our government will immediately promulgate the ordinance to that effect," the chief minister said.
"Laws that the Left Front government had proposed, had some flaws in it and the chitfund business mushroomed during the Left regime," she alleged. Stating that strong laws were needed to curb the illegal activities of chitfunds, Banerjee said since their operations were governed by central laws and not by the state government, "the onus lies with the central government."
Expressing concern at the situation, she said "for quite a few years, some chitfunds were deceiving poor investors promising high returns. This has been continuing since the '80s in this state."
(With additional information from PTI and IANS)