Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee may be sleeping easy as she has “settled all the issues at hand” on the Saradha scam.

Saradha Group promoter Sudipto Sen has been booked and a Rs. 500-crore kitty has been created to make refunds to the depositors. However, no one is clear just how the refunds would be made and whether existing laws permit it. Mr. Sen’s bubble may have burst. But the travails of the lakhs of investors who had invested in the Saradha Group schemes are far from over.

Of great worry is the bigger threat now looming on the horizon for people who have invested in similar schemes of the many companies that have proliferated in West Bengal. If investors now shy away from parking their money, a game of nine-pins would begin and these schemes may also begin to fail. Operating from behind a shroud of secrecy, the Saradha Group had some 160 companies registered with the Registrar of Companies, of which a realty company was used to raise deposits that the SEBI has now concluded were ‘collective investment schemes.’ CIS need a registration from the capital market regulator and are governed by its regulations.

It is now learnt that some 11 companies were ‘active,’ with almost all of them barring the media outfits being used to raise money.

The Saradha Group has been around for over a decade now, putting its finger in many pies. But most of the staggering amounts estimated to have been collected from gullible investors are through its real estate company Saradha Realty Ltd.

SEBI received specific complaints from the Investigation Cell of the Department of Economic Offences two years ago in April 2010 about SRL collecting money from people, especially in rural areas of West Bengal.

A SEBI investigation found that the company was offering returns varying from 12 to 24 per cent and was collecting contributions ranging from Rs 10,000 to a lakh. It also had lump sum investment plans. The asset flaunted was a piece of land that it had on the city’s fringes, and the money was being collected on assurance of land allotment or returns on investment. The company never provided details of its land bank and in its reply denied all these allegations.

However, as SEBI sought to probe deeper, SRL employed delaying tactics submitting over 200 cartons of documents which SEBI later said were irrelevant. The regulator concluded in its order that the case was one of ‘collective investment scheme’ and not real estate business. It subsequently issued the order on winding up and return of investors’ money.

A Collective Investment Scheme is akin to an investment black hole, sucking in mostly hard-earned money from the weaker sections. An estimated Rs. 10,000 crore has been raised by such schemes, says SEBI. Although the regulator has issued orders against quite a few companies, these have very often been stalled through a challenge in the district courts. Frustrating the regulatory efforts, they get injunctions from one district after another.

Even as the Saradha affair blew the lid off sham deposit-raising companies, many others are placing advertisements in dailies urging the public to stay invested. Many of these companies have already had orders passed against them, but have challenged them in courts.

West Bengal has an unemployment rate of about 11 per cent. Poverty coupled with the unemployment rate has made the east and the north-east a fertile ground for unscrupulous fly-by-night operators.

Of the 86 companies against whom the Ministry of Corporate Affairs (MCA) received complaints for raising unauthorised deposits, a whopping 73 were from West Bengal. The MCA, as well as SEBI, are now launching a thorough probe into the affairs of a few other companies.

Political connections

In addition to the above factors, political connections have had a very major role to play. Enquiries reveal that many investors felt that the schemes had the blessings of the Trinamool Congress and could not go wrong. “It had the name of a person who we consider a Goddess (Saradha) to it, we saw how close the ruling party was with the group and only then we put our money in the group”, said a hapless pensioner who had invested Rs. 25,000 from his pension kitty.

SEBI, which is moving the government for a single regulator to tackle such companies, has also asked the government to amend the SEBI Act to clarify its legal position.

It is also frustrated that although under the SEBI Act, the appellate power is with the Tribunal and then the Supreme Court, district courts are issuing injunctions against SEBI orders.

(indrani.dutta@thehindu.co.in)

This article has been corrected for an editing error.