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As the investigation into the Saradha chit fund scam threatens to reach the doorstep of the Trinamool Congress, the markets watchdog is learnt to have warned of a larger, more frightening scenario: similar Ponzi schemes run by at least five other companies in West Bengal, involving over Rs 4,000 crore of small investors’ money.
In its latest communication sent to the state government, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) is learnt to have recommended an immediate probe and steps against these five firms.
“The companies are in danger, so are the investors,” SEBI is learnt to have said.
“It is a pressure cooker bomb situation in Bengal now with scores of dubious financial institutions mushrooming and duping millions of investors with the lure of quick financial returns. One (Saradha) has gone bust, several other disasters are waiting to happen,” a top SEBI official told The Indian Express.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has acknowledged the receipt of one letter from SEBI regarding the Saradha Group, but has so far been silent over the other companies which, it is feared, may have raised even bigger sums from depositors.
On SEBI’s list of suspect companies is the Rose Valley Group, which has interests in realty, hotels and resorts, travel, media and insurance. A team of SEBI officials were learnt to have visited the company’s offices to inspect their books last week, but were allegedly denied entry.
The officials later complained officially that “government servants were obstructed to perform their duty”, sources at the Bidhannagar police commissionerate said.
Earlier, a team from the audit firm KPMG, who were commissioned by SEBI to conduct a “forensic audit” of Rose Valley’s accounts, too had allegedly been denied entry into the company’s premises. Panicky investors have been thronging the company’s offices across Bengal seeking refunds, leading to some violence over the past two days.
SEBI officials said they had held at least 12 meetings with officials from RBI and the Bengal finance department over the last two years, at which the chit funds were discussed. According to the minutes of these meetings, SEBI and RBI officials had repeatedly asked the state government to act against these companies.
Saradha Group CMD Sudipta Sen and his two associates Debjani Mukherjee and Arvind Singh Chauhan were on Wednesday taken to Kolkata after a court in Ganderbal, Jammu & Kashmir, allowed their four-day transit remand. The trio, on the run since April 10, had been picked up from a hotel in Sonamarg on Monday night.
In Bengal, police continued to search for properties belonging to the group, and interrogate company officials. Somnath Dutta, vice-president of Saradha Printing and Publishing Pvt Ltd, the company’s media wing which had several publications and TV stations, was questioned for several hours. Police sources said at least six sister concerns of the group were also under the scanner.
SEBI officials said that besides Saradha and Rose Valley, notices had been sent to the MPS Group, Sun Plant Group and Sumangal Industries, asking them to stop collecting chit fund deposits. The regulator has started criminal prosecution proceedings against 58 companies which have allegedly raised money in an “unauthorized manner”.
Rose Valley published advertisements in some newspapers on Wednesday, promising to repay all depositors, and asking them to have “trust” in the company’s “asset based” operations. Asked for a comment earlier, the firm had said: “Rose Valley Real Estates & Constructions Ltd... (has not) collected any money from the public... since 03/01/2011, even though we are not coming under the SEBI Act. None of our group companies is a chit fund, nor it deals in finance business.”
P N Manna, chairman of MPS Group, said, “We have orders from several courts to continue with our business. We have provisional registration under SEBI.”
Meanwhile, it emerged on Wednesday that Saradha’s Sen has sent a letter to SEBI, denying “that it (the company) is running any ‘collective investment scheme’”. The letter says, “The noticee (Sen) has further submitted that the company data are stored in servers in Boston in USA and is under control of the staff members and brokers.”
The Indian Express had on Wednesday reported details of Sen’s 18-page letter to the CBI, in which he alleged “blackmail” by influential people, including Trinamool Mps.