As the CBI probe into the Saradha scam widens, more big fish are falling into its dragnet. Former Union minister Matang Sinh is now in CBI custody, and more high profile arrests are likely to follow soon. Sinh has reportedly revealed to CBI interrogators the mes of some key bureaucrats in Saradha boss Sudipta Sen’s payroll, who helped him set up and operate his chit fund business in Assam. Several senior bureaucrats of Assam and West Bengal are said to be under the CBI scanner now. Meanwhile the political tussle behind the probe is coming out into the open. Trimool leaders in West Bengal like Mukul Roy and Madan Mitra have been grilled by CBI sleuths, while the roles of several other party MPs are being investigated. As fingers point towards Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for her suspected nexus with Sudipta Sen, a delegation of Trimool MPs recently complained to Vice–President Hamid Ansari against the ‘targeting’ of party MPs in the scam. Earlier the Supreme Court had refused to interfere with the CBI probe, throwing out Trimool’s plea that the CBI was being used as a ‘tool’ by the rendra Modi government to destabilise Mamata’s rule and help BJP establish a foothold in West Bengal. The CBI on its part has complained to the apex court of facing ‘severe intimidation’ by the Trimool to scuttle its investigation.
Meanwhile the magnitude of the scam has risen to Rs 2,400 crore, as more shocking details of the CBI probe come to light. The number of affected investors in West Bengal, Assam, Orissa and other states has burgeoned from one lakh to 18 lakh. The Saradha firms devised elaborate techniques to hide the ture of the ponzi schemes they were operating. The CBI has located around 350 Saradha bank accounts, though the transactions therein are said to be a fraction to the magnitude of the scam. Many of Saradha’s small depositors were from Assam, eking out their livelihood as labourers, farmers, transporters or petty traders. All their hard–earned savings over the years have been wiped out, while the State government has hardly done anything to assuage their loss and pain. In fact, the probe by the CID and the Bureau of Investigation into Economic Offences of the Assam Police has been so tardy, that the Gauhati High Court last month had to order the Tarun Gogoi government to hand over all cases related to various chit fund companies and non–banking fince companies to the CBI without further delay. Reportedly there are 212 such cases involving at least 179 chit fund companies and NBFCs registered with the Assam Police. The High Court has asked the CBI to expedite the probe, book the culprits, seize their properties and work out modalities to return the savings of thousands of duped investors.
With the Supreme Court, Reserve Bank and SEBI taking a tough stand, chit fund companies and NBFCs are finding the going difficult in other parts of the country. But these groups continue to operate with impunity in Assam, running ponzi schemes by which money raised from one person is used to pay off another in a continuous process. Politicians, government officials and even sections of the media are bought off, as chit fund agents prowl the State to collect the savings of gullible people. These schemes inevitably collapse, as did Saradha, Unipay2U, Jeevan Suraksha, Rangdhali, Rising East, Phoenix, Sarathi, Euro, Mudra and many others. The chit fund operators disappear overnight, while their lakhs of depositors are left high and dry. It is estimated that around 130 chit fund groups are still active in Assam, but there is a huge conspiracy of silence in Dispur and the State administration regarding their activities. The State government did amend the Depositors’ Interests Protection (Fincial Institutions) Act , 2000, last year, in order to prevent the grant of anticipatory bail to those accused of fincial scams. But what is really needed is to bring the banking network to the doors of common people. Chit funds and NBFCs have long taken advantage of the reluctance of banks in helping illiterate people open accounts, particularly in rural areas. Post offices are also too thinly spread in the State to collect small savings effectively. The Tarun Gogoi government should sincerely popularise and implement the Jan Dhan scheme, to protect poor people by helping them all to open bank accounts.