Bengal’s Bonzi shell cracks up Panic strikes other schemes

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  • Published 21.04.13

Calcutta, April 20: The “Bonzi” edifice, Bengal’s version of the fraudulent Ponzi scheme that conned US investors a century ago, is shaking at its foundations.

The panic set off by Saradha defaulting on payments has spread to similar schemes run by other firms and triggered protests and attacks on company offices in several parts of the state. (See map on Page 6)

These schemes’ mostly small-time rural investors have begun to panic about the safety of their hard-earned money and are calling up their agents seeking premature withdrawal or visiting company offices to find them locked.

A farmer in Canning who didn’t want to be named said he was worried about the Rs 90,000 he had deposited with two firms.

“A sum of around Rs 50,000 is due to mature in two years and the rest in five years. I’ve been worried since hearing about Saradha,” he said.

“I want to withdraw my money immediately but my agent said it cannot be done. I don’t know what to do.”

Subrata Gharami, a collection agent for Saradha and other firms, said he had been flooded by calls from anxious subscribers. “I have informed officials of the other firms but they are saying it’s not possible to close the accounts at this stage and return the money,” the Baguiati resident said.

The Telegraph is not naming these firms since they have not been booked by investigating agencies as of now.

The ransacked Saradha Group office in Murshidabad’s Behrampore on Saturday. Picture by Chayan Majumdar

Although Saradha and other firms running similar schemes are being loosely called “chit funds”, their operations actually mirror the Ponzi scheme, named after conman Charles Ponzi.

In such schemes, the operator pays returns to investors from the deposits paid by subsequent investors rather than from any profit. Such schemes usually entice new investors by offering abnormally high short-term returns, whose continuation requires an ever-increasing flow of money from new investors.

Economist Dipankar Dasgupta described the Bengal phenomenon as a modified Ponzi scheme.

“There are generally no real business operations in a Ponzi scheme. In Bengal, as far as we know, these firms have parked some of their funds in assets like real estate and media. But it’s not possible to realise such high returns for the investors through normal business operations; so these firms soon realised that they needed to run a Ponzi-like scheme,” he said.

Dasgupta warned that the Saradha experience could trigger a run on other firms running similar schemes, “not necessarily because of their internal problems but because of depositors seeking premature withdrawal”.

Saradha’s investors may not be as lucky as the depositors of the private-sector Global Trust Bank, which collapsed in 2004. Since banking is regulated by the RBI, the bank was taken over by the public-sector Oriental Bank of Commerce and all the depositors got their money back.

For Saradha’s investors, Dasgupta said, “a long court battle is likely and the compensation may not be full, as we saw with Sanchayita (which defaulted on payments to investors in 1970s Bengal)”.

Officials said no chit fund was operating in Bengal now, going by the definition provided by the Chit Funds Act, 1982.

Chit funds — or “chitti” or “kuri”, as they were known in the 19th and 20th centuries —hardly exist now. According to the original concept, a person (the operator) — it could be a homemaker — entered into an agreement with a certain number of people that every one among the latter would contribute a certain sum by way of periodical instalments over a fixed period.

Each subscriber would be entitled to a lump sum, his or her turn decided through lots or an auction, and the operator would repay the sum.

Chit funds were invented as a contingency device but were misused over time. Eventually, regulations became so tight that most big chit funds ceased to exist and firms with strong credentials diversified into the finance or loan segment. “The RBI has mandated that 70-80 per cent of the money mobilised by chit funds has to be invested in government securities. The business is highly regulated and monitored. What we are seeing in Bengal are not chit funds but cheat funds,” said Sudip Bandyopadhyay, MD & CEO of Destimoney Securities, from Mumbai.

Director held

A Saradha director, Manoj Kumar Nagel, was arrested last evening. “We questioned him and found his complicity in the company’s irregularities,” deputy commissioner Arnab Ghosh said.