Easy prey: How chit fund scams are targeting the Adivasis of Gujarat
Displaced, landless and desperate, they are falling for pyramid schemes that promised 100% returns on tiny daily deposits.india Updated: Dec 17, 2017 09:00 IST
Ashish Gamit, 34, hasn’t been home for two years. He lives in a rented room in Vyara with his wife and child.
“The last time I visited my village in Tapi district, I was threatened every day,” he says. “No one knows my new address. Still, I live in fear.”
Gamit had a very different life three years ago. He was an up-and-coming field development officer with a company named Oscar, earning Rs 4,000 with incentives that routinely amounted to twice as much.
In three years, he had bought furniture worth Rs 20,000 and even a Maruti Swift.
“My job was to encourage people to put their money in this company, which promised over 100% returns on investment,” he says.
In 2015, the pyramid scheme collapsed. The Odisha-based micro-investment company went bust; owner Prabhas Chandra Rout was arrested a year later.
In Gujarat, the company focused on tribal districts and reached out via an extensive network of local officers like Gamit.
‘At banks, we are often insulted if we don’t know how to fill a draft or can’t read. These companies send agents to our homes to collect money. And interest was delivered from time to time too,’ says Sunil Gamit, 32, who worked for and invested in Oscar.
An estimated 1 lakh people from the state invested a total of Rs 150 crore in Oscar, some in installments as small as Rs 10 a day.
Gyanendra Singh Malik, inspector general for the Surat range, admits there has been no action in the case in two years. “We are now probing it on an urgent basis. I cannot answer why it was not been probed properly as it was not under me,” he says. “We will work towards compensating the victims.”
There have been no announcements of relief yet.
Angry and desperate, the victims are turning on those in the community who worked at Oscar; like Gamit, who now works behind the counter at a chemist shop, earning Rs 3,000.
“I also lost money in the scheme… Rs 20,000,” he says.
The only comprehensive list of victims so far has been compiled by Romel Sutariya, president of the tribal farmers’ organisation, Adivasi Kisan Sangharsh Morcha. It has over 22,000 names on it.
“This is just what we could gather in the neighbouring districts of Bharuch, Surat, Valsad and Tapi districts,” Sutariya says. “While collecting this data, we found that at least 10% of the people we spoke to had been victims of some such pyramid scheme.”
The year before Oscar went bust, Odisha-based activist Alok Jena filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court listing 78 chit fund companies with 17 operating in Gujarat and declared that the state had the highest number of chit fund victims after Odisha.
The Central Bureau of Investigation was tasked with probing 44 of the companies, including West Bengal-based Saradha and Gujarat-based Astha International.
Higher rates of illiteracy and unemployment make the people of tribal-majority districts more vulnerable to such schemes, Sutariya says.
At a gathering of 30 victims of the Oscar chit fund in Tapi district, it turned out that only 2 had a bank account.
“When our people go to a bank, we are often insulted if we don’t know how to fill a draft or are unable to read,” says Sunil Gamit, 32, an economics graduate from Vyara College and former branch manager for Oscar. “On the other hand, these companies sent agents to our homes to collect money. And interest was delivered from time to time too.”
Sunil, a tribal from Tapi district, worked with Oscar for three years and had been promoted to manager of its Navapur branch in Maharashtra by the time of the bust. He lost money too; Rs 7,200 saved over two years.
He has since returned to his family’s small farm, but is also working hard to set up micro-finance cooperatives to minimise the impact of the next Oscar.
“We need accountable and trustworthy financial bodies here that people can reach,” he says. “If government won’t do it, it’s up to us.”