Most days, Raqib Sardar can be seen hanging around a tea shop at Sonarpur Railway Station in South 24 Parganas district, 30 km from Kolkata, looking for odd jobs. The 33-year-old leaves his home, in Uttar Bansra village in South 24 Parganas district, in the wee hours and returns only past midnight. Sometimes, he passes the hours at other railway stations or at a friend’s house. The day he dreads the most is Sundays.
This has been Raqib’s routine since 2013.
That was the year the Saradha chit fund scam broke, when, for the first time since the group floated its ponzi scheme in 2006, its cash inflow was lower than its outflow. By April 2013, investors and agents had lodged hundreds of complaints with Bidhannagar police claiming unpaid dues amounting to crores.
The son of a small paan shop owner, Raqib was an agent as well as investor in Saradha (as was the case with most agents of the group), as well as in other chit fund companies. “I had collected Rs 9.5 lakh from neighbours, relatives and friends for Saradha. I took my father’s savings of Rs 50,000 and invested. Since the company shut down, I am hounded like a dog,” says Raqib, welling up.
“People tried to ransack my house, they wanted their money returned. Even now, especially Sundays, locals come to my house, abuse my wife and parents. I returned some of the money from my own pocket, but it was too less. I live like a thief. Hop from station to station, change jobs frequently,” says Raqib.
On February 3, the Saradha scam returned to the headlines — but as a tussle between the state and Centre. In more drama than the case had seen in six years, over two days, a CBI team that had come to question Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar over the probe he headed was detained, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee sat on a dharna, Central forces took position outside the CBI office in Kolkata, the Opposition rallied behind Mamata, the Centre went to the Supreme Court, and even Shillong (where Kumar was questioned on Saturday) entered the picture.
In the days since, workers of political parties have rediscovered Saradha, with the BJP compiling a list of those who lost money in the scam, and the Trinamool Congress playing up the CBI’s renewed interest in the case as a “murder of democracy”. Raqib wants to talk about a death too. Of his uncle Qurban Ali Mollah, also a Saradha agent-investor. After the scam broke, he says, the 67-year-old hanged himself.
Raqib’s only son is now out of school while his brother lives separately. “My uncle found an easy way out,” he cries. “I have a son and cannot hang myself. I tried a number of times… could not find the courage.”
It was in 2008 that chit fund companies first mushroomed in West Bengal, later spreading to neighbouring Assam, Tripura, Jharkhand, Bihar and Odisha. Apart from big names like the Saradha Group and Rose Valley Group, many small chit companies too took money from depositors, promising fantastic returns like doubling money within five years. After the bubble burst in 2013, investigations were taken over by the CBI into the companies on the Supreme Court’s order.
The total money lost by investors in chit fund companies in the state is still not known, with the CBI and Enforcement Directorate estimating it at Rs 2,460 crore and Rs 30,000 crore for Saradha and Rose Valley scams alone. An estimated Rs 140 crore has been returned to investors. Six cases are on in the Supreme Court and 148 in the Kolkata High Court. Among those arrested were Rajya Sabha MP Kunal Ghosh, Srinjoy Basu and Transport Minister Madan Mitra. All are out on bail.
After the state government set up the Justice Shyamal Sen Commission to try return a portion of the money owed, many spent days in hope at Block Development Offices and police stations.
But like Raqib, most were unlucky — as The Sunday Express found travelling through three districts, South 24 Parganas, Purba Bardhaman and Hooghly, housing many of the Saradha agents-investors.
At Nabapalli village in South 24 Parganas, Qurban Ali’s son Ismail Mollah says they lost everything in the scam, with some of the depositors even forcibly occupying the family’s 1.5 bighas of land. The family, which is ostracised by neighbours, now survives on some zari work done by the women and the wages earned by the men from daily labour. Ismail has three brothers while his younger sister remains unmarried as the family doesn’t have money for the wedding.
“My father collected Rs 7 lakh from depositors. I do not know how much money he himself put in. When the company collapsed, he was chased by the villagers,” Ismail says.
To escape the people, Qurban fled to Mumbai. “On December 13, 2013, he hanged himself there,” the 35-year-old says. “At least his suicide spared our lives.”
The family has held on to the coffin in which Qurban’s body arrived from Mumbai — “for memory”. Kept in a corner of the thatched house with mud walls, it is now used for storage. Most of the space in the house is taken up by the zari work.
In Shakuntolla village of South 24 Parganas, 35-year-old Raima Bibi says her marriage broke up because of the rancour left by the scam. “I invested in Saradha in my daughter’s name in 2009. My husband Usman Mollah and I worked day and night, I as a field labourer and he as a rickshaw puller, to pay the premiums. I expected Rs 14,000 by 2013,” she says. After the scam broke, her husband and she fought regularly over the money lost. “We decided to live separately.”
She shows the small notebook in which she kept a record of her deposits, a page she opens showing a deposit of Rs 100 on November 20, 2012. Raima’s daughter Nilufa is now 20 and, Raima worries, still unmarried.
Neighbour Khaon Ali Sardar is also hanging on to his papers. Clutching them as he sits outside his house, Khaon Ali says he had mortgaged a portion of the 2 bigha land owned by his six-member joint family for Rs 40,000, which he invested in Saradha. “They told me I will get Rs 1 lakh in five years. Now that land is gone and so is the money. My brother too lost money. We have no savings left.”
Raima and Khaon were among those who tried their luck at BDOs and police stations to get their money back. “Some got a small portion. But like most, we were unlucky. We just got pushed around there,” says Raima.
A scam and worse
Two crore largely poor or lower middle class people duped of Rs 2 lakh crore, and six years later, all that has been returned is around Rs 140 crore. Despite the few big arrests of politicians, who are all out on bail, clearly justice has been far from served in the 2013 scams involving chit funds in West Bengal. But the manner in which the CBI acted last week against the Kolkata police chief, and the pre-election timing of its move, have allowed the TMC government to make it a case of political vendetta.
About 8 km away, in Ghatakpurkur bazaar in South 24 Parganas, Niranjan Sardar, 47, sitting in his small stationery shop, pleads with The Sunday Express for help in getting back his money. He lost Rs 3,600 in Saradha and owes the Alchemist Group Rs 7,800.
“The Alchemist one matured this year. I went to their office and begged for the money. They said CBI investigation is on and renewed my policy. I had taken the money from my savings account in the bank to invest. It is big money for people like us. I have a three-year-old daughter,” he says.
Subir Dey, convenor of the Amanatkari O Agent Suraksha Mancha, which has been trying to get money returned to the victims, says, “In our estimate 234 chit fund companies operated or operate in Bengal.” While the Calcutta High Court set up committees too to get money back to the people after selling properties of 54 of the companies, Dey says it isn’t that simple. “It is difficult to identify properties of the owners, and there are no buyers. We wrote to Mamata Banerjee and met BJP leaders and demanded that the government buy these properties. Nothing happened.”
Police refuse to say anything other than that “the CBI is looking after the cases”. Justice (retd) Sen, who was tasked by the state government to oversee return of money and wound up in October 2015, told The Sunday Express, “I sent a detailed report to the CM. I don’t remember the exact amount disbursed.”
It’s noon, and opposite Curzon Gate in Bardhaman town in Purba Bardhaman district, a TMC meeting is on. District leaders and Minister for Animal Resources Swapan Debnath sit on a small, makeshift stage, with over 100 TMC workers squatting around.
Curzon Gate is a landmark of the town, built to mark Lord Curzon’s visit in 1904.
Calling the Supreme Court order directing that the Kolkata police chief be questioned but not arrested as a moral victory, Mamata had asked party leaders to hold meetings in street corners over the issue. There is only a small window available, before a loudspeaker ban comes into force for the secondary and higher secondary exams starting soon.
Today, one by one, speakers come forward to hail Mamata and lambast Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the CBI-Kolkata Police stand-off. “Mamata Banerjee is not only leading the Opposition against the autocratic misrule of the Modi government, but she will be the kingmaker after the Lok Sabha polls,” declares Debnath, the TMC MLA from Purbasthali South seat in the district.
He tells The Sunday Express, “When did Saradha happen? 2013. It was our government which arrested people. Now why, after so many years, is the CBI suddenly so proactive? This is because of the Lok Sabha polls.”
Mamata argued the same during her dharna in Kolkata over the CBI action.
About 4 km away, the BJP is functioning from a small makeshift office at a crossing. A three-storey building is planned eventually, but for now an asbestos-covered structure is to serve as the party’s main office in the district for the Lok Sabha elections.
Piles of sand lie at the entrance, and one has to climb over them to enter, past BJP flags, placards of leaders, and workers sitting in plastic chairs. Inside, district leaders say the chit fund issue has started to build up.
“We have asked all booth-level workers to collect details of victims of the chit fund scams, both the depositors and agents. We will approach the district magistrate with their names. This will be the start of a prolonged agitation. As our national president (Amit Shah) has said, we will see to it that the money is returned to the victims after we come to power,” says Shyamal Roy, district Yuva Morcha president of the BJP.
Says Sunil Gupta, the district party secretary, “Everyone has seen how a chief minister tried to shield an accused police officer in the Saradha scam. Apart from small public meetings… we are relying on social media, WhatsApp groups and group meetings.” Gupta also claims that the district police is not giving permission for most of their meetings — a charge the BJP has been making.
About 17 km away, things are quieter at the CPM’s office in Sograi Bazaar in the district. In a small room, the party’s district secretariat member, Uday Sarkar, and secretary of the area committee Kausar Ali admit that the CPM had let the chit fund issue drift away.
“We were the first to take up the issue, but it is also true we could not hold onto it and it withered. Now we will take up the issue again… We tried to bring some of the victims to our recent Kolkata rally,” says Ali.
Explaining why the TMC won a second term in 2016, despite the chit fund scams, Sarkar says, “After 2011, the agents of such companies sided with TMC leaders, who supported the chit funds. People believed since TMC leaders are on that side, their money would not be lost. After the scam broke, people believed that the TMC government would get their money back. But now the depositors and agents are angry.”
Senior Congress leader and MLA from Champdani, Hooghly district, Abdul Mannan, who had moved the Supreme Court seeking a CBI probe in the chit funds scam, says, “All this is drama. It is a pre-planned game of Mamata and Modi to divert attention… The BJP and TMC are not serious about helping the chit fund victims.”
Of the nine Lok Sabha seats in the districts, the TMC holds all. Of them, Bardhaman Purba used to be a CPM stronghold, but in 2014, the TMC won with 43.5 per cent votes. While the CPM was second, the BJP got 12.93 per cent of the votes. In all the nine seats, the TMC won by more than 40 per cent of the votes in 2014.
On hearing that some media persons have arrived, a small crowd has gathered carrying papers of the different ponzi schemes that duped them, at Ajir Bagan near Bardhaman town.
Among them is Basumati Patra, who invested her life’s savings of Rs 2 lakh in Saradha. After the scam broke, her son had to drop out of school while her daughter left her graduation course mid-way. “I cannot afford the expense. My husband is unemployed and I sell saris door to door,” says the 42-year-old.
Not far away, at Nilpur, 62-year-old Bandana Roy, an agent for multiple chit fund companies, is leading a similar crowd. “I sold my house for Rs 6 lakh to pay some of the depositors. They said they would burn my house… Every day my son and his wife abuse me as depositors target them too.”
Breaking down as she stands surrounded by depositors, she adds, “I have written several letters to the CM, to ‘save us all’.”
Pandua is about 56 km from Bardhaman town, in Hooghly district. Here, late in the evening, the usual hangers-on have collected at tea shops and the Tinna crossing. Talk inevitably leads to the Centre-state stand-off and the coming Lok Sabha polls.
In one of the tea shops sits Narayan Mondol (66), a former Indian Army havildar. Most of the people one sees around are “victims of one or other companies”, he says. “Using most of my retirement money, I invested over Rs 1 lakh in a company called Aspen in 2011. By 2013 it was all gone. I have an unemployed son and a wife to take care of.”
Running around to tend to his customers, the frail owner of the tea shop, 65-year-old Anukul Majumder, is a victim too. He invested Rs 70,000 in a chit fund company in 2011, and was to get Rs 1.4 lakh in 2016.
“My wife has cancer. I am neck-deep in debt and borrowed money to pay for her treatment. I do not go home but sleep here in this shop,” he says.
The work, Majumder adds, keeps his mind off worries. “I do not think you can help me or anyone else can. I wish I die soon.”
SIX long YEARS
April 6: As the scam breaks and agents, investors flock police stations, Saradha owner Sudipto Sen writes a confession to CBI, alleging he paid off politicians
April 7: Hundreds of Saradha collection agents assemble before TMC headquarters in Kolkata demanding action and their money returned
April 22: Mamata government sets up an SIT to look into Saradha and other chit fund scams; forms Justice Shyamal Sen Commission for return of money to investors, earmarksRs 500 crore for the same
April 30: West Bengal Protection of Interest of Depositors in Financial Establishments Bill (2013) passed, making non-payment by deposit-taking firms anon-bailable offence
April 24: Sudipto Sen arrested from Kashmir
Nov 23: TMC Rajya Sabha MP Kunal Ghosh arrested by SIT
May 9: Supreme Court asks CBI to probe Saradha and other chit fund companies
Sept 9: CBI arrests TMC vice-president and former DGP Rajat Majumder
Nov 21: CBI arrests TMC Rajya Sabha MP and owner of a Bengali daily, Srinjoy Bose
Dec 12: Transport Minister Madan Mitra arrested
Feb 3: CBI team arrives at Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar’s house, Mamata Banerjee starts dharna
FEB 5: Supreme Court orders Rajeev Kumar to appear before CBI but he is not to be arrested
FEB 9: Rajeev Kumar questioned by CBI in Shillong