The chit fund media baron

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Working for the Saradha group’s English newspaper from Kolkata, The Bengal Post was an unforgettable experience for all of us journalists, who joined the start-up on June 15, 2010 with high expectations of making a difference and bringing out a quality newspaper where the emphasis would be on hard news. No pontification, no personal predujices, just putting the news of the day in context, for the readers to make their own judgment.
The executive editor Ranabir Roychowdhury and several of the core journalist team were known to us, but none of us had ever heard the name of Sudipta Sen, the owner. We in Delhi were far away, but our colleagues in Kolkata too did not know much  about him, except that he was a real estate tycoon with a land bank of 100 acres or more. He was also into chit funds. It was much later that we came to know that this was his main business, our money was basically derived from the collections Saradha made from the poorest people in Bengal and other eastern states. He had business in the north east as well as in Odisha.
The surprise was that though he was said to be a very rich man, no one really knew much about him. He was not a figure in the Bengal social circuit and confined himself to North Bengal. Anyway few of us were bothered about this, though our editor kept saying that they had checked his credentials with the state government and his record was clean.
But very early on it was clear that this organization was different from any other newspaper outfit any of us had worked for previously. For one our salaries were not paid into our accounts,  but by cheques signed by Sudipta Sen himself. The cheques would come around the 10th of every month and if he was out of town salaries were delayed even further. Sen did not delegate powers to anyone else to sign even the salary payments. It was just about a year back that the accounts department were able to convince Sen that employees could have salary accounts and cheques could be done away with.
The other strange part was that our salary cheques often bounced, even in those early days, when money was not tight. We in Delhi were really worried about bounced cheques and kept telling Kolkata to let Sen know that bounced cheques would get us all into trouble. But nodescription was worried. In hindsight we now know that bending the law came naturally to him and this was a minor matter. His office, manned by pretty young things would be on the phone to us in Delhi to reassure us that a fresh cheque would be sent and there was nothing to worry.
The other problem was getting our Form 16. Initially we thought it was just the incompetent way Sen ran the organization that resulted in such glitches. It was much later that we realized that apart from the first year, he had deducted our taxes but not handed our money to the income tax authorities. Our PF was also woefully small, and the employers contributions were never made. All 117 editorial staff of the Bengal Post are now in a panic over our tax returns.
Sen’s office in Midland Park in Kolkata, was in a rundown building. While on a visit to Kolkata in April 2012 to attend a conference of the Saradha employees, I was shocked to see his  office because it was so unlike that of  a well-heeled business man. His room had a huge desk with two chairs, and ugly towels on the back of the chairs much like a government offices of a bygone era.  Sen sat next to a well dressed woman in a sari, Debjani Mukherjee.
 Sen and she appeared like joint owners, sitting together on one side and facing visitors across. Debjani was an important person in Sen’s set-up, symbolized by the fact that she sat on the same side of the huge desk. But till now I have not figured out her exact designation. She was close to Sen and was his eyes and ears. Whether they were equal partners in business I don’t know.
This was my first formal meeting with Sen. I and the Bengal Post’s features editor Sajeda Momin, were asked to meet him. Sen was a slightly built man, a smooth-talker who was completely relaxed and giggled and flattered both of us. He was in a mood to talk that day and told us that there were many people in his media set-up who wanted to squeeze as much money as they could from him. Who was he talking about, we wondered. If he knew they were out to squeeze money out of him, why did he not take action. In hindsight we realized that he must have been paying protection money to people close to the powers that be.
Sen, despite his reputation as a business tycoon, came across  like the small time munim, one saw in old Hindi movies. A provincial soul, he ran his business like a village money lender. He was also a night owl, holding meetings at 10pm,  and going on for hours. He stayed in office till early morning.
He has aspirations of possibly being a media tycoon, hoping his media outlets would help him to get political protection. He had no clue about running the media. Sen would get mad when he saw any front page advertisements in the paper. “The front page ads are for my companies, no other company should use my paper to sell their wares,’’ he thundered. The direction to the Bengal Post was to have only Sen’s companies advertised on Page 1.
His office in Midland Park was filled with smiling young women, impeccably dressed in saris. These young girls were sweet and referred to Sen as “CMD Saar’’. They could not part with the most innocuous information without first getting permission from “CMD Saar’’. The standard reply for any query on payments etc was “I don’t know have to ask CMD saar, when he returns.’’
The sole authority on all payment matters was Sen and though there was a full fledged accounts department for his English, Bengali, Hindi and Urdu publications, none of the accounts head had a clue why payments were delayed, which they often were. Their standard reply was “We have no idea,  Mr Sen is out of town.’’ These men were completely dependent on nuggets of information they got from the young beauties in Sen’s office.
Except for Debjani, the girls  looking after his newspapers, television or realty business, were never attached to the same office for more than six months. They would be rotated constantly from one unit to the other. Sen had the gift of the gab and would say whatever came to him to get out of a tricky situation. He lied constantly and about everything.
On March 22, 2013 when he came to meet us in the Delhi office, where my colleagues asked him when we would get our salaries, which had not been paid since January 2013, he quickly laid out a time schedule. “On March 25, we will pay you the January salary. By March 27-28, the February dues will be cleared and by April 15 your March salaries will reach you.’’ He discussed at length the problems he was facing in running the media-wing of his “empire” and how immensely dependent he was on the group\\\’s CEO- Kunal Ghosh- a Trinamool Congress MP.
He told my colleagues that Ghosh had helped him find investors (the Rice Group) for the Bengali paper- Sakalbela and TV channels- Channel 10 and Tara Muzik but claimed that no one was interested in Bengal Post and so there were no investors for the English paper. Sen also talked about the “political pressures” he was under but did not reveal much about where and from whom this pressure was coming from except indicating that it was his “compulsion” to be pro-Trinamool.
When we called him on the 25th, his initial response was “go and check your account, the money has been paid.’’ And again : “The money will be with you in half an hour.’’ Sen in the end, lied to everyone.
In the notice of closure he put up in the Bengal Post office on March 26, he announced that the paper would close by March 31 and all dues cleared by April 15. A week before he ran off , he reassured us that our dues would be cleared the next week. His tone said, why are you questioning me the money will reach you. From April 15, he switched off all the three phones we usually called him on and disappeared.
That was Sen the owner. The other big Dad controlling the media group was  Kunal Ghosh. This man, who now claims he was nothing more than a salaried employee of the Saradha group called the shots.
His passion was the Bengali news channel, channel 10 and the Bengali daily Sakalbela. Though he never interacted with the Delhi bureau, his writ ran large on all publications of the group.
The bizarre way that Sen ran the Saradha media wing was for all to see. Kunal Ghosh the CEO of the group was also working for Sambad Pratidin, another media organization with which the Saradha group apparently had some sort of a tie-up initially which ended in May 2012.
Ghosh however continued as CEO of Saradha and Pratidin even after the tie-up came to an end. Ghosh exited Pratidin sometime in early 2013 and was promoted in Sen’s group. He was now made the executive chairman of Saradha media business. As executive chairman, in mid-March 2013, Ghosh managed to sign an MOU between a well known Kolkata business group RICE and Channel 10. This was announced with much fanfare by Channel 10. Ghosh said this channel would now go from strength to strength. Sudipta Sen was on stage with Ghosh and the Rice group owner.
In less than a fortnight of this mega event Ghosh told senior editors of the Bengal Post    (after the closure notice had been put up ) that Sen had no money. He had personally paid Sen Rs 50 lakhs and arranged for more than one crore rupees for the company to buy newsprint, Ghosh claimed. Sen was a tricky customer and so on and so forth. If this was the case and he knew of Sen’s financial condition, why did he not bother to inform the authorities. Ghosh knew well that Sen’s money was mainly from the chit funds and thousands of small investors savings was with the Saradha owner.
As executive chairman and a responsible MP, he should have informed the chief minister or at least some one in the TMC of his doubts. The easy thing is to wash his hands off. One of Ghosh’s close aides Somnath Dutta was also senior vice president of Saradha media. So what were both of them doing when Sen refused to pay salaries to employees since January. It is well known that Ghosh and Dutta received huge salaries from Sen, who was liberal in throwing his money around to people he thought could be of help.
In April 2012, at a media workshop organized in Kolkata by Saradha, Ghosh took to the stage and lectured journalists on the editorial line the group publications had to take. At that time Sen  was under attack by people who felt that the chit fund operators in the state were investing in media to buy influence. The line, Ghosh thundered would be given by Channel 10 and the rest had to follow the lead. In a threatening tenor he told the employees that loyalty to Sen and the group was a must and even made snide remarks on filmmaker Aparna Sen who was editor of Paroma– a magazine brought out by Saradha Printing and Publications Ltd.
This same MP, who said that Sen had to be defended and made a passionate and threatening speech against laggards who did not defend the boss, now claims he was only an ordinary employee. Despite all talk of loyalty, as soon as Ghosh realized that the scandal would hit the roof, he announced his resignation from the Saradha group. The short point is the TMC may pass the buck, but their man worked closely with Sen, and turned a blind eye so long as the going was good.
( First Published in The Hoot)

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