Located on the borders of Cuttack and Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha constituencies, Hatimara Sabara Sahi of Dansara is a tribal village where every household has lost its savings to a chit fund company. However, asked if this will be a primary voting issue, villagers said they will not even vote in the third phase of elections on April 23.
Behind the villagers’ decision are death threats and goons keeping a constant vigil around the area.
Pramodini Das (58), a local ASHA worker, said, “I lost Rs 2.5 lakh of my own savings. As the agent of Artha Tatwa company, I had to face the wrath of villagers who had deposited money with me. For weeks in 2013, every morning a group of locals would come to my house and shower threats and abuses.”
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Her troubles are far from over. On Friday, 11 men arrived on four motorcycles while she was talking to some families cheated in Hatimari, and threatened her. “We will douse all of you with petrol and set you afire. Go back immediately,” they said.
The villagers, who had come out of their homes with the deposit slips from Artha Tatwa, fled to their homes. Later, locals decided not to report the matter to the police citing fear for their own safety.
According to chit fund activist Madhusudan Biswal, who also witnessed the death threats to Pramodini, the goons belong to the Congress Banki Assembly unit. “One of the reasons chit fund is not the biggest issue is because you can find complicit politicians across parties. That is why Hatimari has no pucca roads, no Swachh Bharat toilets, one PM Awas Yojana house and yet chit fund companies reached where local administration could not,” he says. Congress spokespersons were unavailable to comment on the allegation.
Activists pointed to other reasons behind the chit fund issue not developing into a major poll plank ahead of the 2014 and 2019 elections. Anuradha Subudhi, another chit fund activist, said, “Our organisation, fighting for duped small investors, approached many opposition leaders in villages and tehsils. They refused help saying that they get their petrol money and other perks from the same source.”
The BJD manifesto for the 2019 polls does not mention the chit fund case in which 40 lakh people, mostly from SC and ST communities, are believed to have been duped. Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has given tickets for Assembly polls to the sons of two chit fund case accused — BJD MLAs Pravat Tripathy and Prabhat Biswal.
Patnaik has also nominated Balasore MP and chit fund scam accused Rabindra Jena as Lok Sabha candidate. BJD spokesperson Sasmit Patra did not comment on the issue.
The BJP has promised in its manifesto a Special Investigation Team and speedy reimbursement to chit fund victims. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have referred to the scams in their rallies in Odisha. But BJP has been accused of keeping the matter confined to campaign speeches while the CBI goes slow on seizures and arrests.
Jayant Das, who has led the chit fund agitations in the state, said, “BJP has not actually lent its support for a state-wide movement because for nine years they were in coalition with BJD. In fact, BJP held the important portfolios (state departments), such as Surama Padhi (Cooperation), concerned with regulation of chit fund companies in Odisha.”