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Banking on lies

The man behind the Saradha group avoided publicity but cultivated political leaders. The author tries to find out who the real Sudipta Sen is

Namrata Acharya  |  Kolkata 

Businessmen love their pictures next to their message on brochures and websites. The message of Sudipta Sen, the disgraced chairman & managing director of the Saradha group, on his website comes from an empty chair. "has brought a new renaissance," the thought bubble says. Sen despised being photographed, so that he couldn't be easily identified when the going got rough. That explains why West Bengal's most-wanted is also its least known. There are numerous stories around him; there is a touch of Bollywood in all of them. One goes that in the 1970s, Sen had a brush with the Naxal movement and spent long years in prison. He got plastic surgery done and emerged as a land shark two decades later. His passport gives an address (Survey Park in Kolkata) where he is known as Shankar. Residents say they haven't seen him since he fled the neighbourhood 18 years ago "after a scandal".

Some say he has three wives, others say he has six. If you believe in the official word, you'll go with three because that's what Chief Minister has said. Another account says his family lives in Noida, near Delhi. Sen has made a plea to the authorities that "his family members should not be harassed in any manner till the last day of their lives" and has acknowledged that he has left his "family and children in a helpless condition". It is possible that one of the wives, peeved at Sen's dalliance with 20-something Debjani Mukherjee, who had joined Saradha Tours & Travels as a receptionist and telephone operator in 2008 but became the executive director in no time, tipped off the police after he went absconding. Sen was nabbed at Sonmarg in Kashmir in the company of Mukherjee and Arvind Chauhan, his driver who also ran his business in Jharkhand.

He may have been a ladies' man but there aren't many who can claim to know him well. An 18-page note, written by Sen on April 6 when he was on the run, is the only document that gives an insight into his fuzzy mind. Though his passport says that he was born to Ranu Kana and Nripendra Narayan Sen, the note, which he sent to the Central Bureau of Investigation, says he is the only son of Sarada Devi, wife of Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, the 19th-century mystic. "I have started my business not to become a rich man," the letter typed on white paper bearing Sen's name, Kolkata address, three cellphone numbers and email says, "but to establish the ideas and ideologies of Maa Saradha (sic), to help poor and needy people, and to give better life to the people of rural and semi-urban areas of India." At least we know how the 165 companies of his got their name.

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Till recently, Sen, who, in the letter, traces his roots to a "very lower middle-class family", owned a business that claimed to build residential projects, operate tours, own a motorcycle factory and run a clutch of television channels (Channel 10, Tara Muzic and Tara News) and newspapers (Sakalbela in Bengali, Bengal Post and Seven Sisters Post in English and Kalom in Urdu). The cash came from public deposits. Sen offered fixed deposits, recurring deposits and monthly income schemes. The returns promised were handsome. In fixed deposits, for instance, Sen promised to multiply the principal 1.5 times in two-and-a-half years, 2.5 times in 5 years and 4 times in 7 years. High-value depositors were told they would get a free trip to "Singapur".

Saradha Realty was the company most active in collecting money from depositors. Agents as well as depositors found Saradha's growth blinding. The company's website claims it has nine ongoing projects and says, somewhat ironically, "Base of business - land which doesn't cheat anyone (sic)." Sen had even told agents that he was building a township in Sri Lanka, and its advertisement would frequently pop up on his television channels. His 18-page note lists properties in the Northeast, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa.

Did these properties really exist? Some agents of Saradha admit they were taken for site visits to Baruipur in South 24 Parganas district and Jaguli in Nadia district, where two high-end residential projects were being built. In hindsight, they say something was amiss. "We were bemused to see that only three or four people were working at the site which was being developed as a township. Sen said it would take 20 years to develop the projects as the company had so many businesses and it was not possible for him to oversee all of them," says Abradeep, a Saradha agent. Another site where agents were taken frequently was the factory of Sen's Global Motors in Hooghly. As many as 150 people would be made to pose as workers in an operational motorcycle factory, though it had stopped production in 2011. If that wasn't convincing enough, politicians and film stars added a heady blend of power and glitz that made Saradha look infallible. Mithun Chakraborty, Sen said in his letter to CBI, was appointed the brand ambassador for one of his television channels for a fee of Rs 20 lakh per month, though the actor "did not participate in any function of the channel except one talk show".

Then there were the politicians. "We believed this group would never fail so long as was in power," Abradeep says. In the past few days, footage of Transport Minister Madan Mitra has been flashing across television channels in which he tells a gathering of Saradha agents at Netaji Indoor Stadium that he wishes the "Saradha Parivar" grows rapidly so that the next gathering can be held at Salt Lake Stadium which can seat 120,000 people. Some agents who are now protesting against Sen on the streets of Kolkata have brochures with Chief Minister Banerjee's pictures! In the brochures Banerjee can be seen inaugurating Sen's Kalom newspaper. When Sen launched Sakalbela, Banerjee sent a message that said: "We will have to pass the dark night to begin our journey in the light of dawn." Incidentally, when Banerjee issued a diktat on the newspapers public libraries should stock, Saradha's Sakalbela found a place on the list. Sen, reportedly, spent Rs 1.86 crore to buy paintings done by Banerjee, contributed handsomely to the Chief Minister's Relief Fund, and provided the six ambulances Banerjee donated to Kolkata Police in 2011. On her part, Banerjee has said that she didn't know Sen or Saradha - the two came to her notice only after the scandal broke out.

Still, Sen blames politicians for his misfortunes. His note is a long list of allegations against people like MPs Kunal Ghosh and Srinjay Bose, Matang Singh of Congress and Nalini Chidambaram, Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram's lawyer wife. The allegation against Nalini Chidambaram is that she forced him to invest large sums of money in a television channel owned by Manoranjana Singh, Matang Singh's estranged wife. Sources close to the lawyer have been quoted in news reports as saying that it was Sen who was interested in investing in the venture and she advised her client against it.

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Investigators suspect this could be Sen's ploy to divert attention from his misdemeanours. Sen's note tries to paint himself as a helpless victim of manipulative business associates ("I shall be committing suicide any moment not because I am physically or mentally sick but because I am feeling helpless because of unscrupulous persons and cheats in the society."), though at times it admits that he indulged in fraudulent practices ("All the shareholders and directors appearing in the articles and memorandum of my companies are dummy (sic). Even my cook Hemant Pradhan is also included in the names of the directors, though he doesn't even know the meaning of director."), and had a strange way of doing business ("In June 2008, my two drivers, Ratan and Dipu, came to my Shakespeare Sarani office and brought one man….").

Depositors say Sen's companies were prompt with payments in the first year. Trouble started in January when his employees didn't get their salaries on time. Then agents were told to make payments for maturities with fresh collections or make adjustment against renewals. "Sen asked us, why can't you keep running the show for a month? He promised he was trying to sell his cement business to arrange for the money. We too decided to help him in bad times," says Abradeep. But what caused the bubble to burst? Sen has said in his note that the foray into media and the huge payouts to MPs, who he says had assured him protection from the state government if there was trouble, did him in. According to Sen, the payout to politician and others worked out to Rs 33 crore every month.

To his agents, Sen had said he has lost a great deal of money in a real-estate project. To some other agents, Sen had said he was forced to give Rs 1,200 crore to Reserve Bank of India and Rs 600 crore to Securities Exchange Board of India to keep his business afloat, which had eroded all his wealth. Said-ul-Islam was one of the few agents to have spoken to Sen last on April 15, after which his cell phone was switched off. "Sen sought time from us to arrange the money needed to meet redemption as one of his projects where he had invested all the money had run into trouble. I was convinced and even sympathetic to Sen. It was all a farce," recalls Islam. Sen says that he has returned Rs 2,000 crore and his dues till 2026 are about Rs 2,206 crore. However, he has said in his note that his net liabilities would not be more than Rs 400 crore. Banerjee has set aside Rs 500 crore for the depositors; a part of this money will come from a higher duty on cigarettes.

While Sen is in prison, it is left for his agents to face the ire of the depositors. Kalipada Naskar, 60, looks disturbed as he stands facing Saradha's registered office in Salt Lake's Sector V. He became a Saradha agent a year ago after he was told that he could earn up to Rs 15,000 a month in commissions and also get retirement benefits. Ever since Sen's business went belly up, depositors have hounded Naskar and 300,000 other Saradha agents. Some call him names, others threaten him with dire consequences. "I am helpless, I am sick," says Naskar. A few blocks away, about 15 people have assembled outside another office of Saradha. These are the depositors who have come to inquire about the fate of their investments. The crowd includes old and young people, mostly poor.

It's a heart-wrenching scene. These are the people who had voted Banerjee to power two years ago. She owes it to them. Just asking people to smoke more won't help.

First Published: Fri, April 26 2013. 21:50 IST