In Odisha's Chit Fund Scam, Trouble for Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik

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CBI has begun investigations against as many as 43 firms accused of running ponzi schemes in Odisha

Bhubaneswar:  In the last two months, the CBI has begun investigations against as many as 43 firms accused of running ponzi schemes in Odisha, following a Supreme Court order asking the agency to take over the probe. Many of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik's partymen are under the scanner for their role in the scam in which small investors were duped of crores with the promise of huge returns.

The most direct link to Mr Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in the massive scam is Mayurbhanj MP Rama Chandra Hansdah. In 2011, Mr Hansdah was one of the founding directors of Naba Diganta Capital Services Limited, a company now being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for running illegal chit fund schemes. The MP says he had resigned from the company in December 2012, though the resignation was accepted only in 2013.

On August 31, Rs 28 lakh was seized in a CBI raid at his home in Mayurbhanj. But Mr Hansdah says this was his hard-earned money. His explanation for his association with Naba Diganta is bizarre. "I was
promised everything would be transparent. Also this was not a big scam like in some other companies... This is a matter of just a few crores."

In Bhubaneswar, Pravat Tripathy, a key Naveen Patnaik aide and former chief whip of the BJD has been grilled by the CBI over his chit fund connections. According to sources in the CBI, Mr Tripathy allegedly used his clout as the chairman of the Odisha State Cooperative Union between 2006-2011 to install his aide Ranjan Das, the founder of two big chit fund companies and now under arrest, as a director in the Union. Both these men allegedly took bribes to get big chit fund companies like Artha Tatwa to register as cooperative societies with the government, and then used some Odiya media outlet owners - now under arrest - to extort money from these companies in exchange for protection for their illegal chit fund operations.

"I have no association with any chit fund company directly or indirectly as director or shareholder," said Mr Tripathy.

Questions are now being raised on the chief minister's silence over the issue. A 2011 photograph shows him and other top partymen at the launch of a news channel - owned by Seashore Group - along with its owner Prashant Das who was arrested last year for allegedly running one of the biggest chit fund operations in the state. In a January 2013 photograph, Ranjan Das is seen with senior BJP leaders Kalpataru Das and Pravat Tripathy during the nomination of Mr Patnaik as Biju Janata Dal president

"A mere photograph or two does not prove complicity. The chief minister is aware of these things. He will react at the appropriate time," said BJD spokesperson Amar Satpathy.

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