Depositors duped, but no succor
Yet another chit fund company has shut shop in Assam, with its top honchos decamping with the loot. Once again, there is a deafening silence from the State government and ruling party even as thousands of duped depositors cry for return of their hard-earned savings. The ease with which ‘Amrit Projects NE Ltd’ reportedly went about raising over Rs 300 crores from the State is distressingly familiar, the latest instance of the promoter-politician-police nexus which has made Assam a happy hunting ground for shady chit funds and non-banking fincial companies (NBFCs). Back in 2004, Amrit Projects set up main office at Ulubari in Guwahati, following up with branch offices in Dhubri, Kokrajhar, gaon, Sivasagar, Tinsukia and several other places. Typically, it wormed its way into the good books of the ruling Congress, announcing its intent to set up a power project in the State. On November 21, 2007, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi laid the foundation stone of the 10 MW biomass-based power plant of Amrit Bio-Energy & Industries Limited near Jagiroad in Morigaon district, with the then State Power minister Pradyut Bordoloi looking on. A plot of land measuring 55 bighas was allotted for the ‘Rs 100 crore’ project. It even found mention in the Congress manifesto for the 2011 assembly elections. However, nothing ever came up on that plot even as Amrit group agents fanned across the State raising money from depositors.
The Amrit ponzi schemes offered interest rates like 9.9 percent per month, 200 percent payback on deposits in five years, quick ‘money back’ policies and many other attractive baits. Gullible investors swallowed hook, line and sinker Amrit fixed and recurring deposits, discount bonds and preference shares for high-sounding schemes. The depositor base is said to have been 5 lakh strong, most of them petty traders and unorganized workers with small savings. After some of the initial depositors were allowed to withdraw funds partially under ‘money back’ facility, more depositors rushed in. The bubble burst only on August, 2014, when market regulator SEBI restricted Amrit Projects from raising money against securities. The company and its directors were also barred from accessing stock markets. Within a month, Amrit Projects shut down its main office at Ulubari; soon thereafter, all its directors fled the State. Locally recruited agents kept depositors at bay with assurances of ‘guaranteed payback after maturity’. Dispur remained blissfully uware (really?) as yet another ponzi scheme collapsed in Assam — this despite the Saradha collapse in April, 2013 which rocked the country. Even earlier, the chit fund issue had found mention during Assam Assembly debates after a string of chit fund operators like Unipay2U, Jeevan Suraksha, Euro, Mudra, Rangdhali, Rising East, Phoenix and many others closed down overnight.
It is therefore mystifying that the lid is being blown off the Amrit chit fund scam now, a full year-and-half after its sudden disappearance from Assam. All this while, Amrit depositors kept running from pillar to post, trying to contact company bosses in Kolkata to no avail, and then filing a PIL at the Gauhati High Court last year. Ordered by the court to probe the matter, the CBI has been taking its own sweet time to get going. But that is hardly surprising, considering that the CBI petitioned the Supreme Court last year against a Gauhati High Court order to take up 481 cases lodged in Assam against chit fund scams. The CBI’s argument was that it simply lacks the manpower and resources to probe such a large number of cases. If the CBI is so ‘overburdened’, why did the Gauhati High Court in January, 2015 direct the State government to hand over all chit fund related cases to the Central investigative agency? Well, the bench made it clear during the hearings that it was unhappy with the ‘not-so-satisfactory’ progress made by the CID and the Bureau of Investigation into Economic Offences (BIEO) of the Assam Police, which were probing the cases. Even if such economic offences are of complicated ture with cross-border money flows, why have our State agencies failed to take even basic steps to protect depositors? This is because chit funds cannot operate without protection from the political class, police and the local mafia, whose illicit funds these chit funds also help to launder. Forced to cry in the wilderness, duped depositors have nowhere to turn except the courts. The Tarun Gogoi government owes an explation to defrauded depositors why it gave so much mileage to the Amrit group by publicly associating with it. It also needs to take some concrete steps to give them succor as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has done for duped Saradha depositors.