It’s a lazy afternoon in the dank, cramped courtyard of one of the busiest brothels in north Calcutta’s Rabindra Sarani. Business is slow in Sonagachhi, as the red light area is popularly known, as a group of heavily made-up women of indeterminate age attends a handful of “customers”. Others chatter noisily in various corners of the rickety, two-storeyed house.
But ask them about how the Rs 1,200-crore Saradha scam has affected their lives, and the inmates will angrily tell you how their hard-earned money has vanished without a trace in the Ponzi scheme. And they will tell you in no uncertain terms that they are ready to teach the “Saradha agents” a lesson for luring them into investing in the schemes.
Take Pinky, a woman in her late 20s who has been living in Sonagachhi for the past 10 years. She invested Rs 25,000 through an agent, in a 15-month scheme, hoping to double her money. Her scheme was to mature in the next two months. But before she could receive the promised return on her investment, Saradha boss Sudipta Sen was arrested. Says Pinky, “My agent is still telling me that I would get the money back after six months.”
And if she doesn’t get her money back, she wants to go to the agent’s house and snatch his brand new LCD television as compensation. “He bought it with a hefty commission from Saradha,” she exclaims.
Another sex worker, Piyali, says she and three of her roommates have lost about Rs 80,000-90,000 in Saradha schemes. Sipra, a matronly woman who is in charge of a host of young sex workers in the house, has lost around Rs 1,50,000. In a nearby house, where sex workers from Nepal are based, Chameli and Tara have almost given up hope of recouping their investments of Rs 3 lakh and Rs 5 lakh respectively.
Thousands of people in West Bengal have been reduced to financial ruin, thanks to the Saradha scam. However, what is not being dwelt upon is the fact that sex workers were a huge segment of Saradha’s basket of victims. It is estimated that more than Rs 2 crore was mopped up by Saradha agents from sex workers. “As we conduct our door-to-door survey, this figure could easily shoot up six times in the next few days,” says Santanu Chatterjee, manager, Usha Co-operative, dedicated to the banking needs of sex workers.
Sex workers elsewhere in Bengal have not been spared either. “In Titagarh (in North 24 Parganas), sex workers from its sole red light area have lost around Rs 27-28 lakh,” says Archana, a Titagarh member of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a non-government organisation that works for sex workers’ rights.
Sex workers have always been easy targets of Ponzi schemes. In the early 90s, schemes floated by companies such as Sanchayini, Overland and Verona defrauded lakhs of people in Bengal of their money. At that time too sex workers were some of the worst sufferers.
“It will be wrong to say that all sex workers from Bengal have fallen prey to Saradha,” says Smarajit Jana, chief advisor, Durbar. “But certainly a sizeable portion has been hit.”
Needless to say, Pinky and her friends in areas such as Sonagachhi, believed to be home to more than 11,000 sex workers, have little understanding of how Saradha bosses ran their shady operations. They have no inkling of how state and Central authorities are tackling the debacle, if at all. All they know is that they have been duped by unscrupulous agents. Most of them are afraid to lodge complaints with the police as they fear they could face harassment and discrimination.
According to Rita, a Sonagachhi-based sex worker who also works for an NGO, on an average, a sex worker can earn Rs 3,000-4,000 a day. “Local agents from, say, Saradha knew who earned what and targeted us accordingly,” she says.
But there are others who earn as little as Rs 3,000 per month. “For this section, the Saradha scam has spelt doom,” says Jana.
It was Usha, headquartered in Nilmoni Mitra Street in north Calcutta, which got a whiff of a brewing chit fund scam way back in 2008. Around that time, co-operative officials detected a sharp decline in investments in Usha schemes (The society offers loans at minimum rates, recurring and fixed deposit schemes and short-term daily savings schemes at around 10.1 per cent interest). Many sex workers were also found to be withdrawing their deposits from the co-operative at that time.
Usha’s officials found that some of their own collectors had joined Saradha as agents and they were luring depositors away from the society with a promise of high returns. “We immediately sacked eight such collectors,” says Shatabdi Saha, deputy manager with Usha. “We also conducted door-to-door campaigns, cautioning the girls against companies selling shady schemes, but to no avail,” she adds.
Yet Usha and Durbar carried on with their awareness campaigns through newspaper ads and local cable TV channels, urging women not to invest in Saradha and other similar companies. “We also petitioned local MPs and MLAs in 2010 warning them of an impending disaster,” says Jana of Durbar. “But no leader did anything about it.”
Organisations such as Durbar along with Usha have formed legal cells to help sex workers in Sonagachhi and other areas recover their money. But this might be an uphill task because in most cases documents given to them by Saradha agents wouldn’t hold any water in the courts.
Take Sunita, an emaciated Sonagachhi sex worker in her forties, who withdrew her savings from Usha to deposit about Rs 10 lakh with Saradha Tours and Travel. The agent has vanished, giving her only a receipt for Rs 10 lakh that shows that she had gone on a five-day, four-night tour of Bangkok. The receipt makes no mention of the fixed deposit scheme in which she was asked to invest. “I am contemplating suicide — I have two daughters, who need to be married off, and a son,” says Sunita, who comes from Bongaon to work in Sonagachhi.
In some other cases, agents have taken back whatever receipts they gave the sex workers, promising easy recovery of money invested, thereby obliterating all evidence.
Chatterjee of Usha reveals that in the Sanchayini-Overland-Verona scams, the court battles continued for a long time and some sex workers who invested as much as a lakh in those companies got back as little as a few hundred rupees just recently. There is no reason to suppose it will be any different this time.
Clearly, for the sex workers of Bengal, any redress from being cheated by Saradha may be a long time in coming.