The rise and fall of Subrata Roy | Mint

The rise and fall of Subrata Roy

Until as recently as 2013, Sahara was the Indian cricket team’s sole official sponsor (Photo: Reuters)
Until as recently as 2013, Sahara was the Indian cricket team’s sole official sponsor (Photo: Reuters)

Summary

  • In one lifetime, Roy has bequeathed us life-changing lessons on both generating and squandering massive wealth and goodwill

In the annals of Bengali literature, Shankar is a noted name, with most of his books widely read. So when, in 2003, the famed author penned a 199-page book titled Bangalir Bittyosadhana, Saharar Itikatha (Bengali’s financial aspirations, Sahara’s history) with a photo of flamboyant business tycoon Subrata Roy on the cover, it was, as expected, widely read as well.

Part of the reason for that, apart from Shankar’s pedigree, was that it leveraged Roy’s unworldly rise from a modest road-side salted snacks seller for a brand called ‘Jaya’ in Gorakhpur to a billionaire media-to-realty business magnate. In effect, the book portrayed the aspirations of Bengali youth to be rich and successful.

But having been written in 2003, the book naturally doesn’t capture the second half of Roy’s story, which was not so rosy. The period saw his businesses being accused of fraud and him go to jail. Roy breathed his last on Tuesday night in Mumbai, and is survived by his wife, two sons and a brother.

His troubles had began towards the end of his glory years. In 2012, he was recognised as one of India's 10 most influential businessmen by India Today magazine. And till 2013, Sahara was the Indian cricket team’s sole official sponsor.

Things quickly took a turn for the worse when, in 2014, Roy was arrested for failing to appear in the Supreme Court for a contempt case arising from the non-reimbursement of a 20,000 crore fund to small investors in Sahara group companies who were duped with promises of surreal returns through various dubious schemes. He was sent to judicial custody in Tihar Jail and was released on parole in 2017. Since then, his health had been deteriorating.

Meanwhile, Sebi was struggling to disgorge the amounts that were illegally collected from lakhs of gullible investors by Sahara’s ponzi schemes, allegations that the group has consistently denied.

How did Roy end up collecting so much money? It helped that he was a familiar figure in Gorakhpur, where he completed his graduation in engineering and where he set up the Sahara Group in 1978. Thanks to his familiarity, many small investors such as rickshaw pullers and tea stall owners believed in his schemes and that they would receive the assured sum in return. These schemes were operated by Sahara India Financial, the group's flagship firm.

For over three decades, Roy’s businesses flourished as millions of small investors poured money into Sahara’s schemes, often perceiving the company as a patriotic business group.

Problems begun to surface in 2008, when Sebi refused to approve an IPO by one of Sahara Group’s real-estate firms. These issues were aggravated in 2012 when Sebi accused Sahara of cheating millions of investors with ponzi schemes, which the company denied.

Then in 2012, after Sebi banned the public pooling of funds, it kickstarted an era of widespread shutdowns of such businesses and ponzi schemes – especially those in West Bengal, such as Rose Valley, Sharada and so on. The Sahara Group’s business was badly affected.

With vast funds collected from the public, Roy was known for hosting lavish parties and had managed to expand his empire to diverse sectors such as finance, real estate, media and hospitality. He was also known for his camaraderie with politicians such as Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh, movie stars such as Amitabh Bachchan, cricketers and high-flying entrepreneurs. During that time, Roy built the uber-luxurious Aamby Valley City in Lonavala, a hill-station in Maharashtra, and ventured into aviation and entertainment through Sahara Movie Studios, Air Sahara, Uttar Pradesh Wizards and Filmy, among others.

Roy’s 270-acre, gated mansion ‘Sahar Seher’ in Lucknow is nothing short of a tourist destination. His residence was in the limelight in 2004 when he hosted the wedding of his two sons in a star-studded event there.

At its peak in 2004, Roy’s Sahara Group was ranked as the second-largest employer in India after Indian Railways. The group had at least 1.2 million people working as agents, selling Sahara’s investment schemes particularly to those who did not have access to the formal banking system during the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s.

In one lifetime, Roy has bequeathed us life-changing lessons on both generating and squandering massive wealth and goodwill. For the second part, a sequel to Shankar’s 2003 book is perhaps in order.

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