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Hindustan Times
April 22, 2013
The sorry plight of thousands of small savers duped by a deposit-collecting firm in West Bengal is, perhaps, symptomatic of a wider malaise that runs deep in the Indian economy. What if a company asked you to invest Rs. 200,000 and promised to give you Rs. 8,000 a month for five years and a swanky sedan at the end of the fifth year? What if a company asked you to fill in online survey forms, one per week, and earn Rs. 52,000 per year? What if it said you can do that by investing Rs. 11,000 as annual charges and recover your costs in less than three months? And what if these companies promised more commissions if you enrolled more members like yourself?  You would be tempted, as are millions in India, only to be duped later after the promoters had disappeared with the booty.

At the root of all these are two primary attributes that continue to characterise the Indian economy, despite the recent rapid strides: a bustling cash economy and lack of access to basic conventional banking services to nearly 40% of adults. These, along with the absence of regulatory oversight, play the perfect foil for deals and schemes to thrive outside the financial system, cocking a snook at authorities by creating a web of transactions to obscure the sources of slush funds. The current troubles of depositors of a particular firm in West Bengal bear resemblance to a similar, though not identical, consumer survey-based business model scheme that jolted authorities two years ago. In that scheme, new members were asked to enrich the old ones resulting in a fragile financial pyramid that might suddenly collapse one day.

India’s current regulatory architecture is not empowered enough to clamp down on the proliferation of such fraudulent ‘Ponzi’, multi-level marketing or get-rich quickly financial schemes. Authorities can take limited action against many such companies despite suspicions over questionable business practices as, several of these, it later transpires, are not registered in India.  The Reserve Bank of  India (RBI), the banking regulator, has limited jurisdiction over such schemes. The mandate of the registrar of companies, in such investigations is also limited. It is, therefore, time to create a central  agency — either the RBI or the Central

Economic Intelligence Bureau or any other appropriate authority — empowered to examine a scheme in its initial stages of operations armed with fitting  investigative and punitive powers under the Prize Chits and Money Circulation Schemes (Banning) Act, 1978 or any other appropriate statutory provision. Too much hard-earned money of too many innocent and financially non-initiated people is at stake for the authorities to look the other way.