New Delhi: “The (West Bengal) state police has not been able to make any headway in the conspiracy angle, money trail and the seizure of the properties related to the scam,” these were the words of a Supreme Court Bench headed by Justice T.S. Thakur, when it handed over the investigation of the Saradha scam to the Central Bureau of Investigation on 9 May 2014. Almost five years have elapsed since then, but neither there is any trace of the huge money involved—estimated to be around Rs 20,000 crore belonging to more than 25 lakh people of West Bengal, Assam and Odisha—nor the apex investigative agency has been able to make any significant progress in unravelling the conspiracy involved, as it still grapples for answers.
The Apex Court’s order directing a CBI probe was the culmination of a PIL filed on 24 June 2013, seeking a CBI inquiry into the scam, a prayer that was vehemently opposed by the Bengal government. Official sources said that within days of the case being transferred to the agency, it filed 46 FIRs and was moving ahead with the intent to complete the investigation as soon as possible. However, a few months later, the probe lost steam primarily because of the continuing non-cooperation from the West Bengal police, which had initially handled the scam.
“The probe went slow after the FIRs were filed. No directions came from the top and it turned into a ‘regular’ case. It was in 2018 that it gathered pace again after senior officials from the headquarters gave a deadline to finish the investigation by November 2018 and asked for a time-bound submission of the status of the investigation. However, again the investigation went off track because of the controversy (CBI vs CBI) that erupted at the headquarters in September-October,” an official of the agency revealed to The Sunday Guardian.
As per the affidavit filed by the West Bengal government in Kolkata High Court and later in the Supreme Court, the value of the property acquired by Saradha Group, a consortium of over 200 private companies, through the chit fund money was an estimated Rs 40 crore against a total collection of Rs 2,460 crore that it got from the investors.
“The rest of the more than Rs 2,400 crore was shared among the promoters, politicians, bureaucrats and other people. From day one, the probe was focusing on this money trail, which was not very difficult to establish if done earnestly,” the agency official said.
A forensic audit report prepared by the Security Exchange Board of India (SEBI), which was also placed in the court, said that the investors in this chit fund were promised astronomically high returns by way of interest rates that ranged from 10% to 18%. As many as 221,000 agents were working for the group and were paid an unreasonably high brokerage of 30%, which became the driving force for these agents to collect as much as possible from gullible investors.
The report had further stated that the company never had any intention of doing any legitimate business activity and the group companies had opened more than 550 bank accounts for round-tripping transactions that were spread over several states including West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam and Tripura. It was one of eastern India’s biggest deposit-taking firms, which finally went bust in April 2013.
While hearing the case, the Supreme Court had also raised a question mark on the role of regulatory authorities like SEBI, Registrar of Companies and Reserve Bank of India within whose respective jurisdictions and areas of operation, the scam not only took birth but flourished unhindered. The initial probe done by the West Bengal police had named some of the officials belonging to these organizations, while giving reasons as to why their role needed to be investigated. It had found that regular payments as bribe were paid through middleman to some of those who were supposed to keep an eye on such ponzi companies.
“However, until now nothing has happened in this aspect and none of the officials has been questioned. It is as if the CBI has been sleeping all these years. The fact that the West Bengal police was not going to cooperate was known from day one. Rather than blaming the state police, the CBI should introspect on why it has not achieved anything significant in all these five years,” an official of the West Bengal police stated.
The response of the West Bengal government to the CBI probe can be gauged from the fact that the Central agency was not given even the bare minimum number of officers that it had initially sought from the state government to start its investigation into a scam of this proportion. When the CBI took up the probe and sought police officers from the West Bengal DGP to assist the agency, it was told that it would get only three deputy superintendents of police (DSPs), two inspectors, five sub-inspectors and 10 constables from the state police. The court later directed the state government to give a minimum of six DSPs, four inspectors, 10 sub-inspectors and 20 constables to the CBI on deputation.
“Nothing has happened, my money is lost. There are so many poor people who had invested their entire lives’ earning. Earlier the state police was protecting the accused, now the CBI has been keeping quiet all these years. It is an open secret that the majority of the chit fund money was used by a particular party in the 2011 West Bengal Assembly elections. The company stopped repayment of their liability to the investors post the 2011 elections as all of the money was given to political parties,” Somen Sarkar, who has a fish business at Sealdah in Kolkata and was one of the investors, told The Sunday Guardian.
The poor investors had no inkling that the Saradha group was all sham as even former Chief Ministers and Cabinet ministers of the state used to hang out with its promoters and would regularly attend their functions. Many of the people who were closely involved with the group, such as Kunal Ghosh, Madan Mitra, Srinjoy Bose and Tapas Pal later joined the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress.