Sushmita Talukdar, a 42-year-old home-maker, switches off the television whenever she comes across a news report on the investigation into the Saradha scam. She has lost all hope that justice will be done in the scam that tore her family apart. Sitting at her home in Sonarpur, Ms. Talukdar emphasises two dates — March 17, 2013 and March 21, 2018 — that changed her life forever.
On the first, hundreds of people gathered in front of her house, demanding that the money her husband Pawan Talukdar had collected from them as an agent of the Saradha Group be returned to them. The couple had to flee their home with their son and remain in hiding to escape the wrath of locals. They returned almost a year later when there was a death in the family. On March 21, 2018, the body of her husband was found on the railway track near Sonarpur station.
“Almost six years have passed. What are we to understand [about] who is guilty and who is not? My life has changed forever,” Ms. Talukdar said. Before the death of her husband, Ms. Talukdar was a home-maker and now runs a business of Ayurvedic products for a living.
Basudeb Mal, another agent of the Saradha Group living in the same locality, knew Pawan Talukdar well. Hundreds of agents in Baruipur and Sonarpur area of the State’s South 24 Parganas, who collected money for Saradha and other deposit-seeking companies, ended up like Pawan Talukdar, he said.
“Some are dead, some remain in hiding and others are trying every means to repay the investors. What have we to do with the investigation or the Centre-State tussle that’s going on? All we want is to redeem ourselves of the sins of collecting money from people. We never knew that we would end up like this,” Mr. Mal said.
Mr. Mal also repeats one date that he thinks has significance in his life. On April 16, 2013 he, along with hundreds of investors and agents of the Saradha Group from different parts of the State, reached the residence of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata and erupted into protest. “I remember carrying a poster: ‘Didi amader bachan (Didi save us)’.”
The Saradha scam came to the fore in April 2013, when company chairman and managing director Sudipta Sen fled the State, leaving behind an 18-page letter. The letter had names of the then Trinamool Congress MP Kunal Ghosh and other political bigwigs. A flurry of political and administrative activity started from the third week of April 2013, with an inquiry commission headed by Justice (Retd.) Shyamal Sen and a Special Investigation Team by the West Bengal police, all being set up by the State. Sudipta Sen was arrested on April 23, 2013, from Kashmir, and Kunal Ghosh in November the same year. The collapse of the Saradha Group sent ripples across the neighbouring States of Odisha, Tripura and Assam, and in certain cases, the State governments handed the case over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
With the collapse of the Saradha Group, the operation of other deposit-seeking companies, including that of Rose Valley, which had allegedly raised about ₹15,000 crore (five times what the Saradha Group had raised) came under the scanner. On May 9, 2014, days before the State went to the Lok Sabha poll, the Supreme Court handed over the entire investigation into Saradha and other deposit-seeking companies that had raised money illegally from the market to the CBI.
The investigating agency filed the first chargesheet in October of the same year, accusing Sudipta Sen, his close aide Debjani Mukherjee and suspended MP Kunal Ghosh. Since then, the agency has filed six more supplementary chargesheets, the last in January 2019 naming Nalini Chidambaram. Those arrested by the CBI in Saradha scam include former West Bengal Director General of Police and Trinamool Congress leader Rajat Majumder, former Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha MP and owner of a Bengali daily Srinjoy Bose, and the then Transport Minister of West Bengal Madan Mitra. All three are out on bail.
After the CBI took over the probe, the Shyamal Sen Commission, set up by the West Bengal government to return money to the investors quickly, winded up its work. The State government has set up a corpus of ₹500 crore for returning money to the duped investors by imposing a tax on tobacco, but the commission could distribute little over ₹140 crore to duped investors.
Subir Dey, convenor of the Amanatkari O Agent Suraksha Mancha, a platform of agents of different deposit-seeking companies, said the investigation in these scams, including Saradha, should be independent of returning money to those who have lost it. “The properties of Saradha and other chit fund companies are all there. The need of the hour is that both the Centre and the State governments should acquire these properties at the earliest and start the process of returning the money to the poor, who have lost their life’s savings,” Mr. Dey said. Scanning across documents at his office in Kolkata, Mr. Dey said that more than 200 people had committed suicide after being duped.
Nira Naskar, 58, from Bariuipur Puranadarpaa village, made a living by doing odd jobs. He finds it difficult to recall the dates on which he invested the money but he is sure that he had put all his life savings of ₹2 lakh in the Saradha Group’s deposits. He now survives on what his two sons give him.
There are several stories like Mr. Naskar who have lost all their savings to the Saradha Group. Askar Mollaha, a vegetable vendor of Jalalabad in Canning, lost ₹40,000 and sees no hope of getting his money back.
Tarak Dey, secretary of the Suraksha Mancha, said 20 lakh people are victims of the Saradha scam, and with all the deposit-seeking companies put together, the number could go up to crores. With the recent developments around the questioning of the Kolkata Police Commissioner by the CBI, representatives of the forum are going to step up their movement, demanding the return of money to all the duped investors.