Sudipto Sen, the chairman of the Saradha Group of Companies.
Sudipto Sen, the chairman of the Saradha Group of Companies.FILE Photo | PTI

11 years on, Bengal's Saradha chit fund victims await justice amid LS polls corruption discourse

Over a decade has passed, yet the quest for justice for these victims remains unfulfilled, their lives forever altered by the deceit and betrayal of those they had trusted with their lifelong savings.

KOLKATA: For the past decade, 52-year-old Rishin Majumdar has been working two shifts, trying to repay a hefty Rs 30 lakh loan he took out to compensate the investors of Saradha Group, where he once served as an agent.

"After the Saradha group collapsed in 2013, people who invested money through me wanted it back. I was beaten, and even my family members were not spared. I was then forced to take a Rs 30 lakh loan from a local money lender. I lost Rs five lakh in the chit fund," Majumdar said.

His story is a familiar one among lakhs of people who fell victim to the multi-crore chit fund scams that rocked West Bengal in 2013.

As corruption scandals like school recruitment scams take centre stage in the Lok Sabha polls in West Bengal, the enduring and hopeful victims of the 2013 chit fund scams—one of the state's largest financial scandals since independence—are still waiting for justice after more than ten years.

The chit fund scam in Bengal saw several companies, most notably the Saradha Group, exploit the trust of investors with promises of high returns. At its peak in 2012, as many as 200 chit-fund companies operated in Bengal.

Over a decade has passed, yet the quest for justice for these victims remains unfulfilled, their lives forever altered by the deceit and betrayal of those they had trusted with their lifelong savings.

Ashok Barui from Ballygunge and Sailen Pal from Baruipur represent the faces of this scandal. Despite their education, limited opportunities led them to work as agents for these chit-fund companies, persuading thousands to invest their hard-earned money.

Their story mirrors that of many others in Bengal, all chasing the dream of swift wealth, only to be left in financial ruin.

"I had collected Rs 20 lakh from neighbours, relatives, and friends for the Saradha group. I took my family's savings of Rs 1 lakh and invested. Since the company shut down, I was beaten up. I returned some of the money from my pocket, but it was too little," said Sailen, son of an auto driver, who worked as an agent in the Saradha group.

Investors and agents of these ponzi schemes were spread across the state, with a significant number from South Bengal, particularly from the eight Lok Sabha constituencies in North and South 24 Parganas, which will go to the polls on June 1.

Till 2013, an estimated two crore depositors were affected by the ponzi schemes involving companies like Saradha and Rose Valley groups. Despite investigations by the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate, the total amount lost by investors remains unknown, with estimates suggesting it exceeds Rs 30,000 crore.

"My father invested his lifelong savings after retirement, but everything was lost. During elections, parties promise that the case will be solved soon, but nothing happens," Purnima Kundu said.

The BJP in the last Lok Sabha polls had promised that the culprits would not be spared and the defrauded investors would get back their money.

A member of the Investors & Agents Suraksha Manch highlights the tragic toll, "Several agents and investors died by suicide after losing their lifelong savings."

Asim Chatterjee, convenor of Chit Fund Sufferers Forum, said it is ironic that both the TMC and the BJP talk about corruption and try to create a narrative of their fight against corruption.

"The TMC tried its best to stop the CBI probe and fought a lengthy court battle, whereas the BJP politicised it for their political gains," Chatterjee, a former firebrand Naxalite leader of the Seventies, told PTI.

In 2014, after the Supreme Court ordered a CBI probe into the Saradha scam leading to the arrests of several high-profile TMC leaders and ministers.

A former CBI officer, who was part of the initial probe into the chit-fund scam, lamented that the investigation made very little progress after 2016.

"But by 2017, most of them were out on bail. Only Sudipto Sen, chairman of Saradha group of companies, is in jail. The investigation, even after a decade, has made very little progress," he said.

Congress leader Abdul Mannan, who was instrumental in building the Saradha chit fund case against the TMC along with lawyer and CPI(M) MP Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya at the Supreme Court, said, "The understanding between the TMC-BJP hampered the investigation."

"We tried our best so that depositors and agents get justice. But BJP used it as a bargaining chip against TMC and the probe was compromised," he said.

CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty accused "the TMC government of obstructing the process of selling properties from chit funds like Saradha and Rose Valley to repay swindled depositors."

"The TMC benefited from the scam, in the name of a Special Investigation Team, mismanaged the probe and wiped out evidence," he said.

The TMC, however, claimed it is for the BJP to answer why the probe is not yet complete.

"The BJP used this investigation to malign us. But in reality, the BJP has leaders who were involved in this scam," TMC spokesperson Santanu Sen said.

BJP leader Samik Bhattacharya refuted the allegations and said, "The BJP is committed to fighting against corruption."

Political analyst Biswanath Chakraborty said although the Saradha chit fund scam has been synonymous with corruption accusations against the TMC, it is fast fading away from public memory.

"The investigation into Saradha scam has now turned into a farce as people don't believe it. There is a perception that both TMC and BJP have compromised the probe for political gains," he said.

The New Indian Express