Defensive mode

Print edition : May 31, 2013

As in previous crisis situations, in the case of the Saradha scam, too, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee lapsed into her all-too-familiar defensive mode, squarely blaming the previous Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government and the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre.

“I will seek funds from the Centre as the crisis here is due to the Left Front government’s misdeeds and the casual approach of the Union government,” she said. She attacked the Left Front for not putting in place “effective legislation” after the Sanchayita Investments scam, which took place more than 30 years ago.

The Left Front drafted and passed the West Bengal Protection of Depositors Interests in Financial Institutions Bill in the State Assembly in 2003. In 2009, after incorporating certain changes suggested by the Centre, the Bill was cleared in the Assembly again and sent to the President of India for approval. The Trinamool Congress, which assumed power in 2011, failed to take any follow-up action until the financial fraud of the Saradha Group of companies came to light.

In order to silence her critics, Mamata Banerjee came up with a new Bill, practically overnight, called the West Bengal Protection of Interest of Depositors in Financial Establishments, 2013. The Bill was passed in the Assembly on April 30. The CPI(M) said the new Bill was more or less the same as the one passed by its government, except for a few minor differences.

“It is a completely new Bill with a new spirit,” Finance Minister Amit Mitra insisted, pointing out that the new Bill contained provisions enabling the authorities to enter the premises, carry out inspection and seize and impound documents, as well as confiscate and dispose of the offender’s property.

However, in spite of the government’s insistence that “retrospective action” will be taken on the Saradha Group after the Bill is enacted, legal experts voice their doubts.

Former Lok Sabha Speaker and noted constitutional expert Somnath Chatterjee told Frontline: “Suppose a new law proclaims that one must drive on the right hand side of the road or pay a penalty, those who do not heed it may, of course, be punished after the law is passed. But not those who had not done so before the law came into force.”

Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharjee, eminent lawyer and former Mayor of Kolkata, said: “The so-called ‘tough’ law that the government is talking about is a bogus one and can do nothing as far as the Saradha Group is concerned.”

Legal experts feel that the confusion could have been avoided had the State government asked the Centre to clear the old Bill with fresh amendments, if necessary, expeditiously. In that case, the Saradha scam would have fallen within the ambit of the new Act as it was framed before the scam broke out. The opposition also sees a ploy by the government to “shield” the Saradha Group.

Biman Bose, Left Front chairman and CPI(M) State secretary and Polit Bureau member, said: “If the State government was serious about taking action against the owner of the Saradha Group, then it would not have withdrawn the Bill passed by the Left Front government. The new piece of legislation will only serve to delay action against the Saradha owner.”

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

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