Calcutta, April 21: The question of public funds being used to refund victims of Saradha alone was staring at the Mamata Banerjee government tonight after Calcutta High Court sought a report on claims of those allegedly cheated by other cash-collection firms.
The high court today asked the secretary of the Justice Shyamal Sen commission, which is verifying the claims of duped depositors, to file the report within a week. Justice Dipankar Dutta passed the order on a petition moved by a group of investors in a company called Premium who said they were not repaid.
The case has brought to the fore one question that was being asked ever since the chief minister announced a Rs 500-crore fund to defuse the gathering Saradha storm: whether the victims of one company alone — that too amid allegations of proximity to leaders of the ruling party — can be repaid using taxpayers’ money.
Another question — whether taxpayers’ money should be used at all to “subsidise” a scandal — was not raised by too many political parties, perhaps because they did not want to be seen as “anti-poor”. The chief minister had said the state fund would be used to refund only poor investors, and eventually a cut-off of Rs 10,000 was decided upon to choose those eligible for refunds.
If a non-discriminatory yardstick is applied, the state government will have little option but to refund “poor” investors duped by all companies, which will add to the burden of the already strained exchequer.
Enquiries this newspaper made after the court sought the report today more or less confirmed what has always been suspected: that the entire focus of refunds has so far concentrated on the Saradha victims and none duped by any other company had been refunded yet from the state fund. (See chart)
This, in spite of the fact that the commission is called the “Justice Shyamal Sen Commission of Enquiry (Saradha Group of Companies and other similar companies)”.
“So it stands to reason that depositors of all such fund mobilising companies should be taken care of. But, in reality, it is only the Saradha depositors who are being benefited,” a commission official said.
According to commission sources, around 5 lakh of the 17.3 lakh applications filed by purported victims had cited companies other than Saradha. However, no investor in a non-Saradha company has been refunded yet.
“Even though we lodged complaints, the commission is not paying attention to us,” said Anilava Saha, the lawyer appearing for the Premium depositors.
So far, 3.95 lakh Saradha depositors have been refunded after the claims were verified by the commission.
The plight of all poor investors is the same. But the key difference is that Saradha set off a political storm that buffeted the Trinamul Congress, following which the primary focus so far was to bottle that problem.
Over Rs 166 crore has been repaid to the Saradha investors till now. Although the commission is trying to auction Saradha assets, it has not been able to do so till now and the refunds have largely been made using public money.
In June last year, Calcutta High Court had said depositors should be repaid from the money collected by auctioning the properties.
After the high court directive, Justice Sen today said the commission would direct the managing directors of all defaulting companies to clear the dues of depositors who had lodged formal complaints.
“These companies are still functioning. So, why shouldn’t they be held responsible?” Justice Sen asked. “For those who had deposited for a term and their sum is yet to mature, we will ask them to wait.”
“The commission would deal with the non-Saradha cases as well as that of the non-Saradha victims in the same manner. But we need to tackle the Saradha cases first because of the sheer number of victims involved,” he added.
Trinamul secretary-general and minister Partha Chatterjee said tonight: “It is the Trinamul government that constituted a commission to ensure that the depositors who were cheated by Saradha and other similar companies get back their money. And the high court’s order has just backed our initiative.”
State BJP president Rahul Sinha asked from where the state would get the money to repay so many depositors.
Await decision: SC
The Supreme Court today declined to entertain a PIL that sought a stay on the Justice Sen commission. It, however, agreed to examine at a later stage the plea for a committee of representatives from the RBI, Sebi, CBI and the Enforcement Directorate to probe the functioning of 72 unlicensed chit-fund companies across the country.
The bench said: “We are going to pronounce soon our verdict (on another PIL seeking a CBI probe). You can go through the judgment to see if there are any lacuna. Thereafter, you can file an amended petition.”
The PIL was filed by Subir Dey who identified himself as a social activist and 19 others.