Ponzi scheme in West Bengal flames out, embers linger
Suicides, thousands of duped investors, hundreds of laid-off journalists, bickering politicians, protests slack regulation, one suspected mastermind arrested: it’s Ponzi scheme time in West Bengal, and it looks likely that little will change after the drama ends.
The latest fleecing of poor and middle-class investors brought in an estimated $730 million, according to media reports, though public interest litigation filed in the Calcutta High Court by one lawyer says the amount is as high as Rs. 300 billion. ($5.5 billion) The head of the Saradha Group and accused mastermind of the scheme, Sudipta Sen, was arrested in Kashmir on April 23 after two weeks as a fugitive. He has maintained his innocence, and reportedly threatened suicide, saying he might not be able to repay investors.
Sen started out as a small-time property dealer in the late 1990’s in Kolkata. His Saradha Group in the past decade had interests in real estate, tours groups and newspapers and television stations, and eventually owned nearly 100 companies.
Data from India’s Ministry of Corporate Affairs reveals interesting details. Many were incorporated in a one-week period in January 2011. They shared an address: 455 Diamond Harbour Road, Behala, Kolkata. They each listed working capital of Rs. 5 lakh each ($9,196). Their email addresses were the same. India’s market regulator, the Securities and Exchange Board of India, began investigating the Saradha Group in 2010.
Three years after its investigation began, SEBI on April 23 ordered the company to pay back investors in three months. It has threatened to start a criminal case if investors don’t get their money back, according to NDTV. West Bengal sought Sen’s arrest, and the Congress Party has asked for a federal law enforcement investigation.
Here is how Saradha allegedly presented the scheme, according to NDTV: glossy brochures, abnormally high returns of 15 percent to 50 percent, an estimated 250,000 to 350,000 people investing their money and bringing others on board for 15-percent to 40-percent commissions. Starting amount for investment: as little as 100 rupees ($1.83). Also: promises of land and holiday packages. The scheme collapsed, NDTV said, as some policies matured and the group couldn’t pay up.
The responsibility for stopping such schemes lies with the state government, not the regulator. See this excerpt from an article in The Hindu Business Line. While SEBI investigates “Collective Investment Schemes,” the paper reported, state governments regulate the “chit funds,” or group savings funds that the Saradha Group used in this case. And the investigation has taken plenty of time to get anywhere.
West Bengal politicians have taken less action, and are accusing each other of ignoring the problem instead. The Left Front blames the Trinamool Congress for helping this group to flourish, while the government of Chief Minister and Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee castigates the Left Front for allowing “cheat funds” to exist. Trinamool has proposed a 10 percent tax on cigarettes to raise money for a Rs. 500 crore (
$9.2 million — actually $92 million. Editor’s error.) investor relief fund.
“All political parties are involved, at least parts of it — that is, individuals. … They are of course to blame,” said economist Avirup Sarkar of the Indian Statistical Institute. “In West Bengal, lots of people have gained from such schemes and they have made fortunes. Their names will come out eventually. Now we see the usual blame game between political parties. That is not going to change the situation. Poor people have lost money and that is not going to come back.”
Nor are their jobs. At least 10 Saradha Group-owned newspapers and television channels in West Bengal and the neighboring state of Assam have shut down in the past month. Did the journalists know that they were financed by a Ponzi scheme?
“Yes, we knew,” said one newspaper journalist who lost his job when the papers closed. He declined to be identified to avoid souring his future job prospects. “But they were paying good money, and we never thought that they would wind up the media organizations so soon.”
Others – poor people – reportedly killed themselves after losing most of their money in the scheme. What drew them to it in the first place? Sarkar said that the typical reason is financial illiteracy. And a journalist who works in the Burdwan district of West Bengal, where two people killed themselves because of the scheme’s failure, said that the temptation is too great to resist.
“Poor villagers find it much easier to invest in these schemes as they do not require too much documentation work, unlike opening a bank account or an account with the local post office,” said the journalist, who declined to be identified. “Also, the high interest returns are a lure.”
While the Saradha story has made plenty of headlines, it is far from the only Ponzi scheme that has surfaced recently. In March, India’s corporate affairs minister Sachin Pilot told Parliament that there have been complaints against 87 companies across India over Ponzi schemes. As many as 73 of those were from West Bengal. Ten were Saradha Group accusations, leaving another 67 to tackle. With the time it took to figure out that anything was wrong, it seems like defrauding investors may remain a safe bet for a while.
(An employee counts Indian currency notes at a cash counter inside a bank in Kolkata June 18, 2012. Reuters photo: Rupak De Chowdhuri)