High-level panel to probe chit fund scam

Kolkata, April 23 (IANS) A high-level commission formed by the West Bengal government to probe the chit fund scam will start work soon, a senior minister said here Tuesday.

The state cabinet Tuesday ratified the decision to set up the commission headed by retired Calcutta High Court Judge Shyamal Sen.

The commission will probe financial irregularities of the chit fund funded by the Saradha Group that went bust, affecting lakhs of depositors – mainly in small towns and rural areas – who had parked their hard-earned money with the company.

“It will primarily look into the activities of the Saradha Group and similar companies,” said state Industries Minister Partha Chatterjee.

“The notification in this respect will be issued fast,” the minister said, and appealed to all those who have allegations against the group or other such companies to approach the commission. “The commission will also come out with newspaper advertisements on this,” he said.

Set up under the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952, the panel will have four other members, one of them a retired Indian Police Service officer. The other members would be from the corporate world, public life, besides an economist, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had announced Monday.

Banerjee had also said the state government was ready with the draft of a strong bill to bring to book those duping the people. But the legislation could not be introduced as the central government was yet to return an old bill passed in the state assembly and sent for presidential assent during the erstwhile Left Front regime.

“The old bill was faulty and not strong. Then president Pratibha Patil had written to the Left Front (LF) government in 2006 to withdraw the legislation and send a fresh one with some changes. But the LF government did not withdraw it though they sent a new law,” Banerjee said.

“We cannot enact a fresh law unless the old legislation is returned. We have requested the central government to return it, if possible within 24 hours, so that we can tackle the situation. I have also spoken to President Pranab Mukherjee on this,” the chief minister said.

Chatterjee blamed the LF government for the situation arising out of the Saradha muddle.

“During its long rule, the LF had not done anything to control the menace. Now we are facing the consequences,” he said.

The Trinamool Congress government has been facing the heat over allegations about its links with the Saradha Group. While a Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha member headed the group’s media unit, some other leaders were also said to be associated with the company.

The group’s offices downed shutters across the state over the past few weeks after defaulting in repayment, triggering violence. Several offices of the company were ransacked and its agents beaten up. At least three agents and depositors reportedly committed suicide.

Agents and distributors have demonstrated outside Banerjee’s South Kolkata residence, at the state headquarters of the Trinamool Congress and outside houses of some party leaders and ministers in several parts of the state.

As capital market regulator SEBI and the Serious Fraud Investigation Office of the union corporate affairs ministry started taking action against chit fund companies for flouting rules, which raised concerns over safety of public money, pressure on the group’s finances mounted.

Crisis in the group was brewing since January, which forced it to recently to wind up at least 10 media organisations – newspapers and television channels – that it had launched or acquired since 2010. Over 1,000 journalists and non-journalists have been rendered jobless.

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