Subrata Roy
Sahara Group Chairman Subrata Roy gestures as he arrives at the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) headquarters in Mumbai April 10, 2013. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

India plans legislation to close a regulatory loophole that has made it possible for fraudsters to dupe millions of savers, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi strives to bring the rural poor into the mainstream banking system.

Unscrupulous operators have bilked savers of billions of dollars by running pyramid schemes or promoting questionable investments in everything from tree plantations to farming emus, a flightless bird.

The most notorious has been Sahara, whose founder, Subrata Roy, was jailed in 2014 after failing to comply with a Supreme Court order to repay money raised under deposit plans later ruled illegal. The court has asked Sahara to return $5.4 billion to investors in those banned plans.

"Our aim is to take steps so that there are no more scams like Sahara in future," said Nishikant Dubey, a member of Parliament's standing committee on finance from Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Parliament could consider a bill in July that would replace weak rules that now govern credit cooperatives operating in more than one state. These are now overseen by just 10 staff at the Agriculture Ministry.

The officials lack the resources to monitor such savings groups and, one told Reuters on condition of anonymity, have faced pressure to turn a blind eye from politicians who personally profit from them.

Mind the Loophole

India does not have a unified regulatory regime to counter Ponzi, or pyramid, schemes whose operators typically grab new deposits to meet their promise of guaranteed returns to existing savers.

Such schemes can snowball but are doomed to eventual collapse when they run out of new savers. Federal investigators are probing cases in which 60 million savers have lost some $10 billion.

The lack of sanctions means that kingpins behind failed deposit schemes are rarely punished.

Roy has not been convicted of any crime over his Sahara empire; he was jailed two years ago for contempt by the Supreme Court and recently freed on parole after his mother died.

The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) does have the power to freeze operations at, and investigate, suspected fraud at collective investment schemes that raise over 1 billion rupees ($15 million) and fall under its purview.

But, say lawmakers, stronger sanctions are needed to protect poor people who often save tiny sums for a rainy day. India's 1.3 billion people live on an average income of $3.60 a day in 2011 dollars, the World Bank estimates.

"The looseness in implementation of state acts, including looseness at the SEBI end, has helped fraud operators to loot the people," said Kirit Somaiya, president of the Investors' Grievances Forum and another lawmaker from Modi's ruling party.

Asked to respond, SEBI said in an emailed statement that it had passed interim orders against 273 entities over the past three years, directing them not to collect money or sell property, for a range of violations.

It issued final orders against another 144 entities to refund money to investors with the promised returns.

The government expects to win opposition support for the reform, yet some politicians and a lobby group representing credit cooperatives oppose it saying it could cause job losses.

Feeling Empowered

The Banning of Unregulated Deposit Schemes and Protection of Depositors' Interests Bill, based on Britain's Financial Services Act, would create a committee to decide on whether deposit schemes should be investigated.

This would comprise senior officials from departments such as the home and finance ministries, the Reserve Bank of India, SEBI and the Central Bureau of Investigation, India's top crime-fighting agency.

It would create special state courts to handle fraud cases, and foresees jail terms of up to five years and stiff fines for duping savers. Repeat offenders would face up to 10 years in jail.

If approved, the bill would bar about 1,400 societies that have collected over $30 billion from taking deposits, said a senior official at the farm ministry.

Tougher regulation would back up a drive by Modi to ensure that India's poor have access to regulated banking services. Under the Modi-backed People's Wealth Scheme, 218 million new accounts have been opened.

These are being linked to a national identity card scheme so that account holders can receive welfare benefits directly, to buy cooking gas or for work under a rural jobs scheme, reducing systemic fraud.

Lawyer Rakesh Nangia said the reform would create a stronger framework less prone to manipulation, and positive knock-on effects for investment and growth by channeling savings into the formal economy.

"This is important for Prime Minister Modi's financial inclusion plan," said Nangia, a managing partner at Nangia & Co., a Delhi-based law firm. "It would help the economy if the money was put in the mainstream banking system."