First they lost their land. Now, they have lost their money too. Some 400 families of Odisha’s coastal Jagatsinghpur district whose land were acquired for the proposed Posco steel plant have been cheated by Ponzi scheme operators of the money they had received from the government as compensation in lieu of their land.
Sunakar Swain, 63, is one such who feels he has been victimised twice over. He got Rs 5 lakh compensation after the government some years ago seized his two betel vines, of which he invested Rs 3 lakh with the Artha Tatwa (AT) group, one of Odisha’s biggest chit fund companies then. The company has since run aground, leaving thousands of investors like Swain distraught and in financial ruin.
“I did not get any return… I have got completely ruined financially as the rest compensation amount exhausted within a year,” Swain said. What he earns today from his new fish business is too little for his large family of eight.
When Posco signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Odisha government in 2005 to start a Rs 12 million steel plant, it faced stiff resistance from residents of eight villages affected by the project. Villagers were reluctant to part either with their land and their traditional means of livelihood. However, by 2013, 2,700 acres of land was acquired and those whose land were seized were given a cash compensation.
In Nuagaon and Gakakujanga panchayats, locals received a compensation of about Rs 9 crores against their 651 betel vines demolished in 2011.
But barely educated, few had little clue about safe investments and fell prey to chit fund firms that were thriving across the state then. Akshay Kumar Sethi, 45, lost more than half of his compensation amount of Rs 3 lakh to AT group and is now jobless. “We were swayed by local political leaders’ association with the chit fund companies. The leaders inaugurated the branch offices of the companies lending credibility to them,” he said.
A host of chit fund companies swindled about Rs 4,300 crores from people in Odisha. AT group was one of the biggest. The others who allegedly swindled thousands and whose owners are now in the dock include groups such as Seashore and Naba Diganta. When the lid was finally blown off the scam, chief minister Naveen Patnaik ordered a probe by the state Crime Branch.