ASHOK B SHARMA
If anyone is passing sleepless nights in the country, it is the Odisha Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik. Caught in the cobweb of several alleged scams and scandals – from CoalGate to MineGate to land scandal to relief scam to ponzi scam – the Naveen government has been trying to distance itself on each occasion from each of the problem. Trying to prove innocence and come out clean Naveen has opted the course of suspending his allegedly involved party men and removing ministers.
But this has almost come to a full circle with several ministers being dropped and coming back in the Cabinet, many being denied party tickets and later being promoted. Of course, this had something to do with the likes and dislikes of the chief minister who is also the party supremo. The recent suspension of Pravat Tripathy for his alleged involvement in ponzi scam resulted in the party being divided in opinion with BJD Parliamentary party leader Bhartruhari Mahtab openly coming out in Tripathy’s defence.
Finally, the time came when the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) knocked the doors of Naveen Niwas in alleged involvement in the multi-crore chit fund scam. The CBI’s special investigating team (SIT) functioning under the directions of the apex court quizzed Naveen’s closest aide, Saroj Sahoo, who was authorised to sign letters, statements and press releases operating from Naveen Niwas.
Naveen was not much perturbed when his other loyalists like party’s founding member and MLA Pravat Tripathy, MP Ramchandra Hansda, former MLA Subarna Naik and others were taken into custody and Pravat Biswal quizzed. But Naveen’s sleepless nights began when CBI team began questioning Saroj Sahoo. The sleuths got the clue of Naveen Niwas involvement from the middleman Subhankar Nayak who was taken into custody.
Bowing under pressure from the Opposition Congress and the BJP, Naveen agreed for a debate in the winter session of the Assembly. But when the session began, it was the Treasury bench that created ruckus in the House accusing the Centre of ignoring Odisha’s interest in dealing with Polavaram project and providing assistance for natural calamities. This was done to adjourned the House and avoid a meaningful debate on ponzi scam.
Congress had moved a motion on chit fund scam cheating 20,000 families and involvement of the ruling BJD party. Naveen government had entered into MoUs with Seashore group, one of the companies allegedly involved in the scam. The Chief Minister once shared the dais with the Seashore CMD Prashant Dash.
A body duped investors, Aarthika Sansthamananka Dwara Kshatigrastanka Milita Mancha (ASDKMM) has claimed that about 40 lakh families have been hit by the scam. The crime branch of the state police was entrusted by the government to investigate the scam, but its shoddy investigation led the Supreme Court to entrust the same to CBI.
The state government also set up a Commission headed by former Chief Justice of Sikkim High Court RK Patra in July last year, but the panel could not give its findings and got extension for the third time till May next year. The panel has, however, created a database of more than 5,30,000 investors out of 10 lakh affidavits it had received.
The Odisha government has earmarked Rs 300 crore for bailing out investors affected by the Ponzi scam after getting the approval of Accountant General. The adverse impact of the scam can be gauged by the duping done by as many as 44 chit fund operators identified so far.
These 44 firms are involved in collection of over Rs 500 crore each. The state police have attached movable and immovable properties of 14 chit fund firms under Odisha Protection of Interest of Depositors Act, that was made into law in August 2013. Among the 14 firms whose properties have been attached are Sardha group, Artha Tatwa, Seashore group, Astha group, Nabajyoti Realty, Green Ray International, Ashore group, SLB Multi-State Cooperative, Sastra Enterprises, Safex India, Golden Land Developers, Rose Valley, Flourish India.
Unfortunately the CBI that has been tasked to probe have inadequate staff to take up the Himalayan challenge. The CBI SP MK Sinha who is heading the probe is being assisted by one DSP RN Tripathy and three inspectors – GK Pradhan, Pradeep Sahoo and SK Samal. The CBI team could proceed with investigations into the affairs of only four entities – Seashore group, Artha Tatwa, Greenray International and Nabadiganta Capital Services.
After West Bengal, Odisha under Naveen’s rule has emerged as another hotbed for Ponzi scam. The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has found illegal fund-raising activities with investors duped in the name of jatropha cultivation and gold investments. In one of the schemes linked to jatropha cultivation, funds were collected from about 40,000 gullible investors with promise of tripling of money in seven years. SEBI has initiated penal actions against over 20 entities in the eastern region.
Naveen may get a breathing pace with the slow process of investigation, but his sleepless nights are likely to continue as long as the Supreme Court monitors the process of investigation. Already the CBI has knocked the doors of Naveen Niwas and is about to reach him. His one-time advisor and the present Rajya Sabha MP Pyari Mohan Mohapatra who was recently quizzed by the CBI has said “truth will ultimately come out” The CBI has taken away some documents from him including his bank pass book, property records, party documents. Pyari has fallen out of Naveen and has formed his own outfit Odisha Jana Morcha. Naveen’s days may be numbered if the investigations proceeds on right track.
(Ashok B Sharma is an senior independent Columnist writing on strategic and policy issues in several national and international newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org His mobile phone no 09810902204)