April 19, 2013

Trinamool in chit fund muddle over Saradha links

By Saibal Sen, TNN | Apr 19, 2013, 01.31 AM IST

KOLKATA: The chit-fund mess threatens to blow up in the face of Trinamool Congress even as it battles public outrage over the murder of a police officer in Garden Reach and the vandalism of Presidency University. Four FIRs have been filed against Sudipta Sen, chairman and MD of theSaradha Group, which proudly flauntedTrinamoolRajyaSabha MP KunalGhosh as its Group Media CEO.

Ghosh couldn't be reached over phone and Sen has been missing ever since Saradha Printing and Publishing Pvt Ltd issued closure notices on its newspapers and infotainment channels (including Tara Muzik, Tara News, Channel 10, Bengal Post, Seven Sisters Post and Bengali daily Sakalbela), rendering over a thousand jobless on the eve of Poila Boisakh.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee said on Thursday that all efforts are on to arrest Sen. "He is somewhere in north India," Mamata said at Writers' Buildings, sparking speculation that he may have already been detained. Two of the FIRs against Sen were filed in Kolkata and one each in Agartala and Guwahati. There is also a court complaint against him by advertising firm Selvel.

Trinamool general secretary Mukul Roy is desperately trying to find private financiers for the closed Saradha Group media businesses. Failure is not an option for Roy because the chit fund row may do more damage to Trinamool than the outrage over the Presidency vandalism that has pushed the party on the back foot. The party is also in the spotlight because all the Saradha Group news channels and dailies had a distinct pro-Trinamool stand.

Media was only a part of Sen's flourishing empire, some of them allegedly relating to chit funds and multi-level marketing involving thousands of marketing agents and lakhs of depositors. The agents, facing heat back home, have been trooping to Trinamool Bhawan. Nearly 200 of them landed up announced on Wednesday evening, leaving party leaders scrambling. After a noisy demonstration, a few of them were allowed to meet Roy and industries minister Partha Chatterjee. With the company failing to meet its promised returns, the number of FIRs can shoot through the roof.

The Trinamool is rattled — it cannot afford another public outcry less than four days before Parliament resumes. It has launched a desperate firefight. Tara's general manager ( finance) Indrajit Roy told TOI from Delhi, "The plans to resurrect the (closed) companies are being guided by the chief minister and MP Mukul Roy. The problem is that Sudipta Sen cannot be reached. Unless he signs on the dotted line, nothing can happen."

There was a buzz all day that police in Dehradun and Salt Lake have taken action against Sen and a senior vice-president of the group but this could not be confirmed. Uttarakhand DGP Satyavrat Bansal told TOI, "I confirm that no one by the name of Sudipta Sen has been arrested or detained in Dehradun or elsewhere in the state." There were reports that a complaint had been filed against Ghosh, too, but Bidhannagar police commissioner Rajeev Kumar denied this.

The employees of Tara TV Network got a mail on April 15 that their services had been terminated. The employees of Tara, a 13-year-old company, decided to go public with their protests. There was no further intimation from the management but for Ghosh's sporadic social media posts, through which he informed about his resignation from the group and the takeover of Channel 10 by Rice Group (an education and infotech company). Another of his posts said that Sakalbela, too, will have a new buyer but details were not available. It is widely believed a similar proposition is being worked out for Tara as well. For Bengal Post, though, there is no such information.

The out-of-job Bengal Post employees are likely to file a police complaint on Friday against their employer for non-payment of provident fund and income-tax dues.

Sen has sent an undated three-page letter to the marketing members and leaders of SaradhaRealty India Ltd blaming "employees of the media house". "The biggest blunder I have done is to enter the media business where the maximum fund has been diverted to run media houses," says Sen in the letter, adding that he had a "different vision for the establishment of media" and to be "guaranteed protector for the marketing members". "During the last five years, except for a few marketing leaders, no one cautioned me against entering the media house. When I tried to shut down the media houses, the employees of the media houses started to hackle (sic) me like anything. They have damaged the reputation of the company, my personal reputation, my social prestige etc. They have not shown any sympathetic attitude towards the core management though from the beginning they were given solid pay package and all other logistic facilities," he writes.

Sen also blames a new software system for the financial mess, saying it allowed anyone with the company user ID to print receipts from anywhere.

Chit-fund ties may cost Trinamool Congress dear

By Saugata Roy, TNN | Apr 19, 2013, 01.12 AM IST

KOLKATA: The honeymoon is over. Trinamool Congress is bracing for a bruising payback for its bonhomie with chit-fund companies.

With thousands of small investors - especially in semi-urban and rural areas - heading for doom, the Mamata Banerjee  government faces perhaps its gravest crisis ever.

For seven years, chit fund companies thrived in Bengal, mopping up thousands of crores as short-term deposits from people expecting unbelievable returns.

The bubble is about to burst bringing back memories of the Sanchayita chit fund crisis of 1980 in which about a lakh depositors lost Rs 120 crore.

The tell-tale signs are similar. About 1,200 employees of the Saradha Group media outfits - Bengal Post, Sakalbela, Azad Hind, Tara News, Tara Muzik and Tara Bangla - are out of job. And chit fund agents, on the run from angry depositors, are mobbing senior Trinamool leaders to bail them out.

The journey that began in 2011 with Saradha Group sponsoring dozens of motorcycles and ambulances that chief minister Mamata Banerjee flagged off in Jangalmahal has come a full circle.

Journalists rendered jobless by the closure of Saradha media businesses have appealed to the government for help. "In the last three years, we got the Form 16 only once. Our salaries are pending for over three months," a former Bengal Post employee said.

Saradha Group agents also knocked the doors of Trinamool leaders - Mukul Roy and Partha Chatterjee - complaining that they had to flee home because the company couldn't repay depositors.

Sensing the public mood, industries minister Partha Chatterjee said on Thursday: "Chit fund managers are safe as long as they protect the interests of the agents and the depositors." Chatterjee asked the journalists to give their problems in writing so that the government can intervene and chief minister said all efforts are on to arrest Saradha CMD Sudipta Sen.

The assurance may be too little, too late for the ruling party that milked these media houses to garner public support. All these channels and newspapers took a pro-Trinamool stand to get government advertisements. The government subscribed many of these pro-poribartan newspapers for state public libraries. Chit fund companies also reciprocated by bailing out ruling party leaders in difficult times. For instance, they helped a senior minister when he ran out of funds to felicitate the Brazilian Masters in an exhibition football match in December 2012.

The meltdown started after Trinamool MP Somen Mitra wrote to the corporate affairs ministry about the mushrooming of chit fund firms that he called "unprincipled companies". "It was the first letter. I wrote to the Sebi chairman later. I do not remember the dates," Mitra told TOI on Thursday. The Centre chose to go slow, possibly out of political considerations because Trinamool was then the biggest ally of the Congress in UPA-II.

Chit fund firms took advantage of this political situation to expand their business. Some diversified into several sectors from real estate to tourism. For instance, Saradha Group added at least 11 verticals, including media retail, realty, construction, exports, cement, hospitality, agro, publication, financial management, travel and education.

The Group got a boost after it inducted Trinamool MP Kunal Ghosh as Group Media CEO. Ghosh has since quit Saradha and left an alarming parting note on the social media: "We are passing through difficult times. Enemies have joined hands. Sometimes I feel they are out to kill me...I will fight to the last. But if something happens to me, I have left behind the names with a person I know". He was unavailable for comment.

A section of the Saradha Group, who felt cheated, pointed fingers at CPM state secretariat member Rabin Deb with whom Sudipta Sen was in touch before making forays in the media.

"Sen had come to us like many others because the Left Front was in power then. I didn't assure him anything. In fact, the media expansion was done much later. I met some of the employees over their grievances. That's all. Ask those who were hand-in-glove with the chit fund owners and are now trying to pass the blame on me," the CPM leader said.