There’s a joke doing the rounds in Kolkata: Ask Alexa for Saradha.
Nearly a decade after it erupted and triggered an Ebola-type scare across Bengal, India’s biggest Ponzi Scam is going one step forward and four steps backward. A little over 500,000 people impacted by the scam remain unpaid, their cash (read savings) lost forever. Gullible farmers, fishermen and office-goers have lost close to $1.2 billion (₹ 8,570 crore) in the scam that erupted during the fall of 2010.
And now, the case is acquiring interesting hues.
The main accused, Sudipta Sen, promoter chairman of Saradha Group of companies, has repeatedly told judges he is guilty, cashless and should be punished. He has 293 cases against him and has spent a little over seven years in jail. And till date, the CBI has not been able to conclusively say where did the cash disappear. But punishment for Sen, claim highly placed sources in Kolkata, is far away because no one knows where the cases are heading. Sen is troubled with the courts because of this delay. His lawyers are troubled with their client. Sen’s lawyers have urged him repeatedly to clear his legal dues. And then he needs to pay the bail bond in case he wants bail from all the cases. That would be a little over ₹1.2 crores. Sen has not responded, he has told his lawyers all his properties and cash has been seized by officers of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and he has some loose cash for making phone calls. Jail authorities have confirmed Sen makes call to two handsets in Kolkata but refused to share details. Sen, who named his company after Ma Sarada, the holy mother and wife of Bengal’s greatest saint, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, has turned into a mental wreck, claim jail officials.
Sen has told the CBI that he paid many top policemen and politicians loads of cash to keep his company away from any investigations. He has confessed that cash given to top editors were meant to generate breaking news and launch channels and news magazine, and club owners took cash to fund teams by hiring footballers from Africa and parts of Asia. Sen has repeatedly said he is guilty and that he did splurge cash taken from investors. But he has not given any written statement — remember he was arrested seven years ago — till date to show where all he spent the cash. But he has repeatedly said he is guilty and cashless. In some courts, like the one in Barasat, he took help from the state’s Legal Aide.
But those in Kolkata who claim to have observed Sen from close say he wanted to be the state’s biggest money changer and styled himself as the state’s new Jagat Seth, a powerful banker who lived in Murshidabad, Bengal, during the time of its ruler, Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah in the early 18th century. What is interesting is that Sen, almost like Jagat Seth, would rarely show up in daytime and preferred all meetings in the night. He splurged cash as if there was no tomorrow, buying news channels, newspapers, magazines, hotels, resorts and football clubs. Yet, very little is known about Sudipta Sen. He is in his mid-fifties, a reclusive man, described by people as soft spoken and charming. Some say he is the son of a man called Bhudeb Sen, who used to run a chit fund called Sanchayani in the 1980s and which went bust 10 years ago. The Saradha chit fund was launched in 2006. It is rumoured that Sudipta Sen had plastic surgery done in the 1990s to change his looks.
Obviously, he was the apple of Trinamool’s eye because of his big-buck donations. In many places, Saradha agents employed wives of local police officers as representatives to prevent investors from raising an alarm against such dubious investment programmes. In cash-starved Bengal, Saradha’s growth was phenomenal. There was a time when many joked: “There is a bit of Saradha in everyone in Bengal”, the lines borrowed from the mid-90 SAIL advertisement. Sen, claim his former colleagues, loved to hear stories about himself. But eventually, Saradha collapsed.
CBI officers agree investments made by Saradha are lost cash but if the money Sen and his men sent abroad using hawala channels can be tracked, some cash could still return to India. But CBI’s job has been made tough by TMC politicians in Bengal who have reportedly egged on their party workers and the local police to remove files with vital links from Saradha offices. Before he escaped from Kolkata, Sen posted a letter to the CBI, saying two ministers from the governing TMC pressured him to pay them large sums in return for protection from government regulators.
Sen was initially saddled with 293 cases, and then the CBI clubbed 195 cases into 4 cases. As of now, there are 98 cases pending against Sen. The promoter-chairman of Saradha Group of Companies was given a three year jail term in 2014 but he is out of it, having completed the term in Presidency Jail. Sen is thinking smart. He knows in all the cases filed by the state government, he will get a maximum of seven years, which he has already spent in the jail. So he has hopes that he will be a free man by 2020. But then, the CBI has not had the last say on Saradha. Top CBI officers are still struggling to get details of Sen’s dealings with some of Bengal’s influential leaders. Sen has given the CBI a written statement and said he not only paid politicians but also top cops, but it does not include some “crucial information”. Sen has told CBI that he handed over his papers to the Special Investigation Team (SIT) of West Bengal Police but the SIT has not offered any clue to CBI about the existence of those information, allegedly concealed in a pen drive, handsets, laptop and a red coloured diary.
Till date the CBI officers have not been able to lay their hands on any of those material mentioned by Sen.
It is evident that Sen desperately wants the cases to get over so that he knows for how long he has to stay in prison, and if there is life beyond that. Sen has not been keeping good health, he has been in and out of hospitals while serving his jail term. But sadly, his demand has generated no response. The West Bengal government, Kolkata Police, West Bengal Police, West Bengal CID, CBI and ED are all silent. The last two named have said — unofficially — they will put a seal on the cases soon and file the final charge sheets. As many as seven charge sheets have been submitted by the CBI, there is one more to be submitted before the investigating agency will drop the lid on the cases. There are high chances that a few more legislators of the Trinamool Congress, officers of Kolkata Police, West Bengal Police and some influential people of the state could find their names in the charge sheet. This is one part of the case.
The other part revolves around the former Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar. Now Kumar, ADG (CID), once on the run from the CBI had spent many tough nights under cover at the homes of his friends and relatives, has a new job. Kumar is now the Chief Secretary of Bengal’s Information Technology Department, a post traditionally reserved for IAS and not IPS officers. The move triggered instant speculations within the corridors of Nabanna, the blue and white coloured state government headquarters close to the Ganges. Some bureaucrats said posts meant for IAS should be reserved for them because those in the IPS are groomed differently, and they have a different mindset. Worse, IPS officers headed for such non law and order posts need clearances from the Central government and such clearances are given only for three months. In Kumar’s case, no such rule was followed in Bengal. State Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, did not allow the speculations to reach the newsrooms of television channels in the city. And now, for some strange reasons, Kumar is no longer in the headlines. No one is even discussing the fact that CBI could call him a co-accused for allegedly shielding the corrupt and allegedly destructing evidence against the city’s powerful politicians, corporate captains, football club owners and media gurus. In short, no one knows where the investigation is heading in the Saradha Ponzi Savings Scheme, a devious combination of financial illiteracy and political protection.
Consider some of the points emerging out of Kumar’s conversation with officers of the CBI. Kumar — head of the SIT — has admitted there were some flaws in the probe conducted by the SIT. He reportedly admitted that bulk of the investigation took place at the neighbourhood police station and the SIT did not have a complete grip on the investigation, conducted by Arnab Ghosh, a senior office officer now posted in Malda bordering Bangladesh. But he also made it clear that he was not responsible for the lapses and he was led astray by a number of officers working on the case. Kumar also said he had drawn up a list of influential people who were to be questioned for their alleged role in the Saradha scam and submitted the same to the Supreme Court. But then the CBI took over the case and nothing was heard about the envelope. Now, the rumour doing the rounds in Kolkata is that Kumar was brought in because of his unflinching loyalty towards the state government. The investigation — claim highly placed sources in Kolkata — went for a toss while SIT continued its probe. Crucial evidence went missing, files, laptops, handsets and pen drives with vital information collected from Sen’s office also went missing.
The other crucial angle in the case revolves around former TMC MP and journalist Kunal Ghosh, who also spent a fair amount of time in jail following his arrest some years ago on charges of laundering cash collected from gullible investigators. Ever since he has been released, Ghosh has launched a web channel and has been singing like a canary, opening cans and cans of worms to highlight the extent of cash that was collected by Ponzi operators in Bengal and its neighbouring Jharkhand and Odisha states. When the CBI officers got Ghosh and Kumar face to face for a meeting, Kumar could not answer a host of issues raised by Ghosh. These issues were about those very missing documents, handsets, laptops, diaries and pen drives of the Saradha group. Now Ghosh has informed the CBI that it was at the behest of the SIT that the documents were allegedly destructed to save a number of influential people in Kolkata. Kumar has denied the charge but could not answer how could documents collected by officers of the SIT could go missing from the custody of Kolkata Police. What’s interesting is that Ghosh even agreed to do a narco test on himself and Kumar but the latter rejected the offer.
In the last one decade, an estimated 25 people have committed suicides in West Bengal, including agents of Saradha and Rose Valley chit fund companies. There are high chances that more investment firms will collapse, the West Bengal Association of Small Savings Development Officers has even warned of riots in the days to come. The Securities and Exchange Board of India, or SEBI, says the scams have resulted in at least $5.5 billion (₹39,241 crore) in losses and affected 3.3 million people in West Bengal, making it one of the biggest financial fraud cases in India. As per the national Serious Fraud Investigation Office (SFIO), 53 companies are in default, the largest of which is the Saradha Group which promised returns as high as 100% in three years in order to lure deposits from villagers of West Bengal, who lacked easy access to banks. SEBI said several ponzi operators have confessed using the cash to acquire villas in Jordan and Dubai, invest in oil businesses in Qatar and acquire rights of diamond mines across Africa. But to trace the Rs 6,000 crore Saradha raised from gullible investors is becoming a very tough exercise for the CBI officers. Much of the cash, the officers reckon, has already been wired to Asian and European tax havens.
The CBI has probed many. Some answers have come, others have not. Former Bengal sports minister, Madan Mitra, says he has nothing to hide but has had difficulties in answering the Trinamool top brass as to how his son got a Ferrari from Sen and whether he took cash from Sen to repair temples in his constituency, Bishnupur. Mitra also did not say whether he took cash from Sen to organise a soccer match involving Argentine superstar Lionel Messi. In Kolkata, veteran actress and director Aparna Sen — now a staunch critic of PM Narendra Modi — has not answered whether she actually spent some ₹3.5 crore to renovate her office and took a salary of over ₹800,000 when her last drawn salary was ₹200,000. Rathikanta Basu, former I&B secretary, also must answer how he managed to sell his Tara channels to Saradha for a little over ₹65 crore when the market value was less than ₹15 crore. Manoranjana Gupta, a journalist turned entrepreneur, must answer whether the Assam channels she sold to Saradha were actually worth ₹40 crore.
It’s been 10 long years.