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Schemes Scam

Smooth operator


CRIME DOES NOT PAY: Sen's closest confidante Debjani Mukherhjee (face covered) is brought to court. When Sen's schemes began to dip in popularity, he bought his agents a 100 SUVs hoping that would impress potential investors. The ploy failed

Those who knew Saradha Group head Sudipta Sen remember him as a non-descript man with a gift of the gab that helped him rise from real estate manager to cash king.

The story goes that late one night a few years ago, Sudipta Sen was in the mood for hilsa. He drove down to Diamond Harbour in his SUV and had fishermen haul him a fresh catch. Then Sen woke up the owner of a wayside restaurant and got him to cook the fish, a meal he relished on the drive back to his 1, 800 sq ft Salt Lake home. "He is known to be whimsical and never hesitates to spend freely if something catches his fancy, " says Sen's former employee. While his staff swap stories about his self-indulgent nature, Sen prepares for a changed pace of life - in jail. On April 22, the chairman and managing director of the Kolkata-based Saradha Group was arrested in Kashmir, to where he had fled after panicked investors took to the streets demanding their money back from his collective investment schemes. Reportedly, Rs 2, 000 crore of depositors' money is tied up in these schemes. Given the staggering figure, it's hard to believe that until 15 years ago, Sen had little to show for himself. He started out as the manager of Saradha Gardens, a 15-bigha residential estate in Joka, 20 km southwest of Kolkata. On January 29, 1999, Biswanath Adhikari, a partner in the project, was shot dead by hired gunmen and soon after, the firm's other partners left under mysterious circumstances. Overnight, Sen became owner of Saradha Gardens, a prime asset he uses as collateral for his investment schemes today. Old residents of Saradha Gardens recall Sen being a brash man. "When we tried to form a residents' association, Sudipta barged into our meeting and threatened us in abusive language, " says one resident.

In 2001, Sen floated a company called Saradha Construction, bought plots of land across Bengal for housing projects and even initiated construction work. But returns from the real estate business were not fast enough or good enough for Sen, who wanted to get rich quick. According to the 18-page letter dated April 6 Sen wrote to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), details of which have been made public, it was in 2008 that he floated Saradha Realty, through which he ran the collective investment schemes. Targeted at lower and middle-class people, the schemes offered ludicrously high rates of returns on money deposited - an investment of Rs 30, 000, for instance, yielded Rs two lakh in just two years. Sen also offered high commissions to his one lakh agents.

For a few years, depositors received the promised returns, as Sen recycled money from new depositors. People felt encouraged to reinvest higher amounts and new investors came in. From the money collected, Sen purchased properties in Noida, Haridwar and Kolkata. He also floated over 100 companies with dummy shareholders and directors to channel the depositors' money. Reportedly, he also opened companies abroad, in South Africa and Spain. The political support Sen needed to protect his fraudulent activities was achieved through his media business. In 2009, he set up the Bengali news channel Channel 10 and by 2010, expanded to daily newspapers Bengal Post and Sakalbela. He also bought Tara News and Tara Muzik. At its peak, the group owned 10 media outfits, all of which supported the ruling Trinamool Congress. (TMC Rajya Sabha MP Kunal Ghosh is reportedly Saradha Group's media CEO. ) But sustaining operations was expensive and by March, first the newspapers and then the TV channels were abruptly closed. The first sign of trouble, however, came mid-2012 when collection agents reported declining interest in the schemes. To restore investor confidence, Sen purchased 100 SUVs, mostly Scorpios and Xylos, and gave them to his agents to drive around in, thereby impressing potential investors. The ploy failed and by January 2013 the company began defaulting on repayments. Bishwanath Haldar, a grocery store owner from Barasat, 18 km north of Kolkata, invested Rs 2 lakh in 2012, was promised Rs 4. 5 lakh after two years and a monthly dividend of Rs 2, 000. "I got the monthly dividends for eight months, till January, " he says. "Now I have lost all my money. "

Soon after the savings schemes went bust, it became apparent there was very little information about the man at the helm of things. Those who worked with Sen say he was a secretive man. "He never engaged in small talk, even with his top executives, " says a source, adding that he refused to be photographed and discouraged personal queries. Sen is rumoured to have been married twice and to have a child from each marriage - son Subhojit, 30, from his first wife and daughter Priyanka, in her mid-20 s, from current wife Madhumita. But his closest confidante is Debjani Mukherjee, 27, who joined Saradha Tours and Travels as a receptionist in 2008 and was promoted to director of the Saradha Group within months. Debjani is the daughter of Timir Baran Mukherjee who, back in the '90s, used his clout with local CPM leaders to keep Sen's name out of the Adhikari murder investigation. Reportedly, Debjani shares Sen's large office, and sits with him on the same side of the table. His constant travel companion, they were together when arrested on April 22.

A man who prefers simple, nondescript clothes, Sen spent long days at the office. He is scared of flying and prefers travelling long distances in his SUV. "He is hardly impressive at first sight and is weak in English, preferring to speak in Bangla, " says a source. "But once he starts talking, he comes across as street-smart. "

It's this glib side that Sen will have to rely on to talk his way out of his current predicament. In his letter to the CBI, Sen has named politicians, journalists and lawyers who reportedly benefitted from his schemes. Threatening suicide because he feels "helpless because of unscrupulous cheats" who have collected money in his name, Sen says he can't live in a society which has labelled him a fraud. But judging by the mounting evidence, he might have to.

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