The villages where the poor threw good money after bad

Kolkata, April 19: Sakila Begum dreads taking her six-year-old daughter, both aurally challenged and thalassemic, for regular blood transfusions. “I cannot pass the next village as almost every family there invested in Basil and they publicly humiliate me,” she says.

Basil was one of the many Ponzi scheme companies to go bust, and Ms. Begum was the key agent of the company in areas in the Naoda constituency. “I collected about Rs. 1 crore from small investors and deposited it with Basil. Now they want their money back,” she says.

“I understand why they are targeting me, but how can I give the money back,” she asks, her voice choking.

There are hundreds of thousands of such agents and millions of investors in the impoverished blocks of West Bengal. “Why cannot they [the Opposition] make it an election issue, the way Mamata turned Nandigram into one,” asks Ms. Begum, who will vote in the third phase of polling on Thursday.

Murshidabad has a population of 71 lakh, with 18 lakh below the poverty line, says the Suresh Tendulkar committee report of 2011. Chit fund companies targeted the poorest in blocks such as Lalgola and Bhagwangola of Murshidabad, and squeezed every penny from the villagers, says Toufique Alam, secretary of the Depositor and Agent Protection Association in the district. The Association, backed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), aims to retrieve the money. But the job is difficult, Mr. Alam says.

“The police do not take any action as many of the Ponzi scheme operators are associated with the Trinamool,” he says.

Even the local Trinamool leaders accept that the party has “managed the scam” well. “We have ensured security to the agents who are heckled by investors and thus the agents started supporting us,” a block-level leader says.

A third of the investors are also agents and such “social engineering” helped the Trinamool immensely to break the investor-agent alliance.

Perhaps, that was the key reason the scam is not a major election issue. However, CPI(M) leader Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, who led a scam-related legal battle against the Trinamool, has a different view. “We cannot say a movement could not be mounted. Various chit fund sufferers’ forums are continuing their agitation,” Mr. Bhattacharya says.

He thinks the scam is “mainly a legal issue” and “unlike other issues, it has not affected every section of society, but only specific sections”.

Mr Alam, however, says “75 per cent of Murshidabad” has been affected by one or more of the 86 companies, and wonders why it is not the “biggest issue” in West Bengal.

The answer was provided by Jahiruddi Sheikh of the adjacent Fazilnagar village in Nadia district. Sitting in the drawing room of Nirmalya Biswas in Murshidabad, the factory worker says: “I have lost about Rs. 18,000, but would still vote for the Trinamool.” “Chit funds were started during the Left Front’s time and if anybody can give the money back, it is Mamata Banerjee,” he said. “This is the failure of the Opposition. They failed to break the faith in Banerjee even after the biggest financial scam changed the relationship between even neighbours,” says Mr. Biswas, who himself lost Rs. 30 lakh and was a CPI(M) supporter earlier.