With the WB government bailing out Saradha, we have set a dangerous precedent and reached a new low in accountability
In mid-April, the Saradha group, a Ponzi scheme in Kolkata, went down, taking the savings of poor people from across the state. This will not be a surprise to readers of Moneylife. Our regular readers know that we have been badgering various authorities—from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to the prime minister’s office (PMO) to the ministry of corporate affairs (MCA) to do something about multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs) and Ponzis. We have pointed out that:
• Unregulated chit funds, pyramid/Ponzi or MLM companies are able to lure people to part with several thousand crore rupees each without any regulation, investigation or supervision.
• A massive group, like Sahara, with its logo emblazoned on the shirts of cricketers in a cricket-worshipping nation, operates almost entirely outside any formal regulation. It flaunts its cosy equation with politicians across the spectrum, sports stars, film stars, media stars, judges, god-men, bureaucrats and sundry fixers. Nobody questions its business arithmetic and no one can tell us which of its businesses earns it the kind of post-tax returns that allow for mega-sponsorship deals or Subrata Roy’s lavish lifestyle. Details of taxes paid by the group in the past 10 years are unknown. Yet, according to its own advertisements, it has raised and repaid a mind-boggling Rs73,000 crore as deposits in a residuary non-banking finance company supervised by RBI.
• Multinational MLMs, registered abroad such as Amway, Herbalife, Tupperware and more dubious ones such as QNet, are known to be in violation of the Prize Chits & Money Circulation Act, but the government makes no effort to act against them. They are big sponsors of television programmes with top sporting stars as their endorsers.
• Whether SpeakaAsia, Saradha, Rose Valley or MPS Greenery—the business model has a pattern—media support through advertisements or by setting up television channels and newspapers and cosy relationship with regional political parties. Moneylife’s website has many articles on these.
• In May 2011, Moneylife Foundation wrote to the prime minister about the need to act against SpeakAsia and other MLM schemes. Moneylife has repeatedly reported that over 10,000 Ponzi companies and dubious chit funds (as collective investment or chain schemes masquerading as chit funds) operate in every Indian state. The big ones raise upwards of Rs1,000 crore in a matter of months by handing out returns in excess of 100%, which are tied to luring new investors into the scheme.
• In July 2012, former union secretary, EAS Sarma, at our request, wrote to the prime minster, revenue secretary, MCA and the RBI governor about the dangerous proliferation of MLM/pyramid or money circulation schemes that “swindle the unwary public by offering them misleading inducements and depriving them of their hard-earned savings.” He called them a ‘scourge on society’ and asked that they be dealt with an iron hand. Mr Sarma also pointed to their political links. Nothing happened.
This is the India that we live in. Yet, as soon as a big collective scheme blows up, intellectuals and columnists clamber on to a high moral platform to berate people for their greed and gullibility in falling for the promise of extraordinarily high returns offered by these Ponzis. My question is the opposite. Why should an ordinary person assume that a company that owns IPL teams, or whose founder shares the stage at public events with top political leaders, be anything but law-abiding? And, if this is untrue, why shouldn’t the buck stop at the very top?
Every politician who protected and helped legitimise the dubious Saradha group, Rose Valley and MPS Greenery in West Bengal—to name just a few—should be held accountable for its collapse. Would a group like Saradha have been allowed to start a newspaper and a television channel if union ministries had questioned and scrutinised its source of funds?
It is time we, the people, began to ask these questions. Over the past two decades of a liberalised economy, we have allowed policy-makers, regulators and ministers (Union ministers and state governments are equally culpable) to obliterate the distance that used to be maintained between government and the businesses that it regulates. Now, many of the shadiest businessmen are inside parliament and involved in policy-making. Meanwhile, each new scam is buried after some perfunctory noise in parliament largely to empty benches. Even joint parliamentary committee (JPC) reports have only served to delay investigation until public anger cools down.
Independent regulators are all IAS officers who owe their jobs to being compliant or their willingness to act as hatchet persons for politicians (barring the singular exception of Vinod Rai as comptroller & auditor general, CAG). Nobody in the system is under pressure to prevent wrongdoing; hence, no regulator, bank chairman or union minister has lost his job in the past 20 years, despite the sharp increase in the size and number of scams. If this is true of massive scams and misappropriation of funds unearthed by the CAG (2G, coalgate, irrigation, aviation, mining, defence procurement, disbursement of government subsidies, etc), where is the question of holding anyone accountable for failing to go after MLMs, Ponzis and chit funds?
Even in the Saradha case, West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee is only containing the political fallout of a situation where some distraught investors committed suicide. But her hasty action sets a dangerous new precedent. Mamata Banerjee has created a Rs500-crore ‘relief fund’ to be raised through a 10% tax on tobacco and tobacco products; this will be supplemented by proceeds of the seizure and auction of Saradha group’s property. A commission will ensure that ‘most ordinary and small investors’ are taken care of. She is mum about the fact that Trinamool nominee to the Rajya Sabha, Kunal Ghosh, headed the now shuttered media business of Saradha.
It is ironic that the former FICCI general secretary, Amit Mitra, will rubber-stamp this desperate idea of his financially illiterate chief minister, which is likely to be emulated by corrupt state governments across the country in future Ponzi failures. Consider the consequences.
West Bengal came up with a tax on tobacco companies, probably because ITC Ltd is headquartered there. Other state governments may tax alcohol or automobiles, depending on their presence in the state. Some may come up with a populist tax on multinational company products—especially if a global Ponzi goes bust. Where does it stop? Can taxes be raised to pay for losses caused by the failure of Ponzi schemes?
Mamata Banerjee’s bailout for Saradha investors signals that the gullible will be protected if the Ponzi collapse is big enough to have political consequences. Those who avoid such schemes, opting for safe, taxable and bank fixed deposits with lower returns, will feel foolish and end up paying the bailout tax. Does the government really want to signal that it is stupid to be prudent and careful? Do we really want to allow politicians to start a new bailout tax or scam tax to pay for the financial scandals caused by their inaction or complicity?
We are, indeed, in a strange situation. Regulators and tax authorities will harass and hound legitimate businesses over compliances, taxes and permissions, while the most dubious businesses will be allowed to lure people and destroy their wealth with impunity. We have now moved to yet another level of lunacy, when the exchequer will foot the bill for such private scams. We need to do something to stop this madness now.
Sucheta Dalal is an award-winning journalist and the managing editor of Moneylife. She can be reached at [email protected]
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With the WB government bailing out Saradha, we have set a dangerous precedent and reached a...