May 10, 2013

West Bengal: The Trinamool's 'cheat' fund nexus

Reported by Sreenivasan Jain (with inputs from Alok Pandey, Niha Masih) |

NDTV, Updated: May 05, 2013 00:20 IST

Kolkata: The Mamata Banerjee government is facing an escalating crisis, with fresh proof emerging every day of Trinamool's links to the fraudulent chit fund company, run by the Saradha Group.

Ms Banerjee's party denies it, but it's not likely to convince those like Julie Patua, an agent of Saradha, or her clients.

Ms Patua is one of lakhs of Saradha agents who sold bogus schemes that promised huge returns on small investments.

To avoid regulators, these schemes were shown as sale of plots of land or travel packages.
As proof of its intentions, Saradha would give every agent a hefty catalogue, full of pictures of non-existent companies and mega projects. The clincher - pictures of their top management led by Kunal Ghosh, Trinamool Congress MP, a key Mamata aide and CEO of Saradha's media empire.

On Saradha-run television channels, the group's investors say, they have seen Ms Banerjee giving away ambulances donated by Saradha, to be used in the troubled Naxal-prone Junglemahal region.

Or of Ms Banerjee at the inauguration of the takeover of Urdu newspaper Kalam, by Saradha.

Hardly surprising then that when Saradha went bust, thousands of agents and depositors banged at the doors of the Trinamool and Ms Banerjee.

The greatest anger is against Mr Ghosh and Srinjoy Bose, another Trinamool MP and owner of the newspaper Pratidin, who partnered with Saradha chief Sudipta Sen in September 2010, to set up a string of newspapers, magazines and TV channels.

Both Mr Ghosh and Mr Bose claim they had no idea that they were tying up with a questionable chit fund company.

An improbable claim given that Mr Ghosh, who was editor ofPratidin, had co-authored a string of articles against Saradha and other fake chit funds on the front pages of Pratidin - just three months before the deal with Mr Sen was struck.

In a letter that he wrote to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) while he was underground last month after his group collapsed, Sudipta Sen has claimed that those articles were used to blackmail Saradha into funding a pro-Trinamool media empire, a charge denied by Mr Ghosh.

In May 2012, Mr Bose exited the tie-up with Saradha, since, he says, by then Saradha's cheques had started to bounce.

But Kunal Ghosh stayed on, rising through Saradha's ranks to become first Group CEO, and then Executive President of Saradha Media as recently as in January 2013.

Despite this, he claims ignorance of the group's fraudulent businesses. His ex-employees are not convinced and have filed an FIR against Mr Ghosh.
But the Trinamool-Saradha links seem to have gone much beyond just using the company to fund a friendly media empire. As is now emerging, the lines between the party and the company had blurred, making it hard to tell who was feeding off the other.

The most powerful example is Madan Mitra, Transport and Sports Minister, who was seen at a Saradha agents' meet in Kolkata's Science City, heaping lavish praise on Sudipta Sen.

Mr Mitra claims he had appeared as a courtesy. But Saradha agents like Reba Mitra say that Madan Mitra was president of their employees' union.

For her 2009 Lok Sabha election campaign, Shatabdi Roy, the actress and Trinamool MP from Birbhum, used Somnath Dutta, Vice President of the Saradha Group as her campaign manager.

In another video, she is seen thanking Sudipta Sen for making her brand ambassador of the Saradha group.

Given the public anger, some in the Trinamool claim they spoke up earlier.

Like Somen Mitra, MP from Diamond Harbour, who says he wrote to the Prime Minister in May 2011 about the menace of dodgy investment companies. Except that Mr Mitra was himself seen at a Saradha agents' meet. He claims he was invited since Saradha was very active in his constituency.

In just a matter of three years, the Saradha-Trinamool links extended all the way to the ground, with Trinamool cadre doubling up as agents and vice versa.

This allowed the Saradha group to rapidly expand its base in the rural hinterland, collecting crores of rupees from the marginal and the poor, with no concrete proof that it was being ploughed into profitable investments.

From time to time, agents and investors were shown tracts of undeveloped land. Julie Patua says she was a shown a plot of land and told the company had 4,000 acres in all.

Or there were outright bogus investments, like a defunct two-wheeler factory on the outskirts of Kolkata, brought to life only to impress visitors.

Under fire for its inaction, the Trinamool claims it needs special laws to act against fake chit funds, now finally passed in haste this week by the Assembly.

Some say this is just an excuse; that existing laws have enough powers to act against fraudulent companies. In neighbouring Assam, which doesn't have special laws, the police have registered 246 FIRs against such companies. They have already frozen 106 bank accounts of Saradha, land assets and recovered Rs. 25 crore in deposits and Rs. 90 lakh in cash.

But it is not clear if the Trinamool is learning from its lessons. Sitting in the office of the Saradha's Urdu publications, is builder-developer Asif Khan.

He is vague about his antecedents, saying he is a businessman and the Trinamool's point person in Uttar Pradesh. Mr Khan, who may well be the Trinamool's next Sudipta Sen, says he has been brought in by party leader Mukul Roy to "help" ailing Saradha publications.

But the CPM says he is proof that the ruling Trimaool continues to seek funds from shady sources to maintain control over the media.

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