February 22, 2020
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Inside Sahara Dessert

A firsthand view of the goings-on in Sahara Shahar in the late '90s

Inside Sahara Dessert
Nirala Tripathi
Inside Sahara Dessert

As a heated war with SEBI intensifies, Sahara’s Subrata Roy finds himself in judicial custody. In the late ’90s, Outlook’s Uttam Sengupta got a firsthand view of the goings-on in Sahara Shahar, as the Lucknow resident editor of the Times Of India.


Back in the late 1990s, old Lucknow hands would often point to the Sahara Tower in Aliganj and volunteer that Subrata Roy’s Lambretta scooter (one that he would ride till as late as 1980) was exhibited there in a glass cubicle as a reminder of his humble origins. By then, Roy had built an empire estimated to be worth over Rs 50,000 crore, with footprints in aviation, media, realty and non-banking financial services. He seemed to have the Midas touch and an inexhaustible source of money. No industrial house splurged so brazenly or so generously as Subrata Roy did, setting tongues wagging.

He was then the ‘Managing Worker’, an innovation that probably exempted him from legal liabilities, since no labour or industrial law made any mention of a ‘Managing Worker’. I recall being introduced to a factory inspector, who candidly confessed that he had never been able to inspect Sahara’s printing presses, although he would regularly turn up to inspect those of TOI’s. “What can I do,” he had exclaimed. “I ask to see the general manager and they tell me at the gate that there is no GM there; I ask for the factory manager and they again tell me that there is nobody by that designation!”

Roy inspired awe and fear. He was a good samaritan to some and a ruthless businessman to others. Lucknow is still full of people who will vouch that the man went out of his way to help people. An acquaintance of Roy from his Gorakhpur days had died in the city but Roy learnt of it much later, went one of the stories. But he made it a point to visit the family and offer jobs to the deceased’s unemployed children. That possibly explains the fierce loyalty that he inspires in a section of his workers.

Photograph by AFP, From Outlook 17 March 2014

I remember our first meeting. I had asked Roy how he made his money. The precise question was: “You splurge as if there is no tomorrow. But all your business ventures like the airlines, the housing projects, the media etc are all in the red. So, what is the secret of your unending sources of money?” Roy kept a straight face, telling me, “What you have listed is not even two per cent of my turnover”. Taken aback, I ventured to ask if all these businesses constituted just two per cent of his empire, where did the remaining 98 per cent come from. There was the slightest trace of a smile on his lips as he said, “Para-banking”.

Roy could speak for 12 hours at a stretch. There’re stories of how he had thrown out people who had dozed off.

A month earlier, the Lucknow edition of The Sunday Times of India had devoted the entire front page to the controversy surrounding the sprawling Sahara Shahar. There were five reports, all highlighting violations of different regulations that the group was guilty of. The land was given at throwaway rates to Sahara by the Lucknow Developm­ent Authority (LDA) for a housing project. This was advertised as a luxury housing project with its own helipad. Residents would be able to fly in a helicopter to the airport and back. The lowest price for a one-bedroom flat was Rs 18 lakh. But the project bombed and the land was taken over by Sahara for itself. A helipad did come up and so did a golf course, an auditorium said to be the largest in the country, cottages and guesthouses, a private restaurant to ent­ertain guests, studios and lakes, besides the huge mansion that Roy used to hold meetings and receive guests.

If memory serves me right, we had to pass through two or three huge lobbies before being ushered into the presence of the Sahara chief, who was settled at the end of an oblong table, large enough for 60 people to be seated on both sides. A bay window opened on one side to spectacular greenery and this room, just like the other lobbies, had plush carpets and oversized (and rather ornate) furniture.

The BJP’s Kalyan Singh was the chief minister and for reasons which are still not clear, he fell out with Roy and ordered the LDA to take the land back from Sahara for violating the lease agreement. The land use had changed. From a public hou­sing project, it had been converted into a private property. Sources in the LDA tipped off the media that a massive police force and magistrates were about to leave for Sahara Shahar. Similar tips must have been passed on to Sahara also, because when the engineers and officers from the LDA arrived, they found several hundred Sahara employees blocking their way. Journalists and photographers, many of them known to some of the employees, were also there and they tried to gather whatever information they could. One of them, Manoj Chh­abra, managed to sneak into the comp­lex and take some photographs. This was before the digital age and Manoj had the presence of mind to hide a roll of film in his socks before attempting more photos. He was soon overpowered and manhandled and the film roll taken out of his camera and exposed to light.

Sahara Shahar happened to be a heavily guarded property and most visitors were required to either travel in vehicles owned by Sahara or had to leave their vehicles at the gate and climb into golf carts which ferried them from the gate. Manoj’s pho­tographs provided the first glimpses into the property to people at large.

The stand-off continued throughout the day and ended as mysteriously as it had begun. But while it was all very dramatic, newspapers in Lucknow relegated the ‘news’ to a ‘brief’ mention on the inside pages, while  the TOI ran it on the front page with the photographs. The contrast was too stark. Something had to give and sure enough a resigned ‘response manager’, the redoubtable, resourceful and charming V.P. Sahi, duly passed on the information that Roy had called him up personally to convey how upset he was and to inform him that Sahara was pulling out all advertisements from the entire Times group and ending the ongoing negotiations for the sponsorship of the Filmfare Awards.

Contrary to the public image of the much-maligned Times Group, it made no move to ease out either Sahi or me, not even after STOI devoted the entire front page three days later to even more damning reports. Therefore, when the suggestion was made after a month that I meet Roy and interview him to ‘clear’ my doubts, it seemed a reasonable thing to do.

Roy was disarmingly ingenious in his explanations. Asked how he defended the conversion of public land for private use, he claimed he had tried hard to build houses. “But I made it clear we will not accept any black money. All payments had to be made through cheques. But people would plead with me to accept money in cash. We decided therefore to abandon the project.” His answer, in hindsight, was ironical for a group that claims to have been conducting transactions worth over Rs 20,000 crore in cash.

But shouldn’t he have returned the land in that case? “Why should I?” was Roy’s immediate riposte. It was an uneven, wetland infested with snakes, he pointed out, and claimed that several hundred Sahara employees helped in protecting it from people who were objecting to the transfer when it was first acquired. They stood there in the rain and took turns to stand guard. “We incurred expenses to level the land....”

Bill & Co Clinton and Chatwal come calling, and the Lohiaites are in attendance, in 2005

The other thing I remember from that meeting was a call that he received in our presence and a call that he made immediately thereafter. In the latter call, he pointedly said that Dhirubhai would be sending someone with a note and it should be attended to without any delay. He was either pulling a fast one to impress us or he was acting as a banker not just for politicians, as suspected by more than one income-tax officer, but also for industrialists.

The next time I met him, still in the ’90s, was at the ‘Bharat Parva’ that he suddenly decided to celebrate. Days before it was to start, journalists, bure­aucrats, judicial officers I had known began calling up to say that they would be visiting Lucknow soon. The calls came from Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Bangalore, even from Patna. When I finally met some of them in Lucknow, they confided they were all flown in and were given a vehicle each on arrival with an escort to take them around. They were booked into hotels and plied with gifts before being flown back.

Subrata Roy with Deve Gowda

Sahara Shahar was heavily guarded; visitors had to leave cars at the gate, then get into golf carts to get inside.

Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to accompany a group of journalists invited to see the spectacle. When we arrived, Subrata Roy was sitting with Sharad Pawar next to him. He led us to a large portrait of ‘Bharat Mata’ placed within an outline map of India, where visitors were required to pay floral tributes as patriotic songs played in the background. We were then led to an exhibition ground, where there was a pavilion dedicated to the then upcoming Amby Valley, which Roy described as the ‘ninth wonder of the world’. There was also a section that exhibited merchandise ranging from flour to garments, everything branded with the ‘Sahara’ logo. That was, however, the only time I’ve seen ‘Sahara Atta’ or the range of ‘Sahara’ shirts.

The piece de resistance was the restaurant where the group was led for lunch. Some of us politely demurred, pointing out that as journalists we were used to having early lunch and we had already had it. But they would not take ‘no’ for an answer. The chef himself came out to suggest we should try seafood flown in from Mumbai. We finally settled for mishti doi (sweet curd). I complimented the chef and told him it tas­ted just like the mishti doi one had in Calcutta. “This is from Cal­cutta,” he said with an amused look.

Open-top ride with Hema Malini

A few years later I was posted as resident editor in the TOI, Calcutta. There, Bengal Initiative, a local grouping of businessmen, had been wooing Roy, who invited them to his corporate office in the city,  Sahara Sadan, to share his vision for Bengal. Late Amiya Gooptu, president of Bengal Initiative, under the mistaken belief that I knew Roy closely by virtue of my earlier posting in Lucknow, invited me over. Being the only journalist among some thirty-odd businessmen clad in suits, I tried somewhat unsuccessfully to melt into the crowd as we waited for Roy in the conference room.

Roy, I knew, could speak almost twelve hours at a stretch and without a bathroom break. There were stories I had heard of how he had thrown out people who had dozed off during his sermons. People confided they would stop drinking water from the day before such meetings. Sahara employees spoke in hushed tones about colleagues falling sick and a couple of them dying because of kidney ailments. I prayed for a short meeting.

Imposing portals of Sahara Shahar

Roy began by saying he had a fruitful meeting with the chief minister and was hopeful of making investments in the state. To start with, he declared, the Sahara Group would develop five islands in the Sunderbans for promoting tourism. One of the islands would be used for boarding and lodging, another developed for water sports, a third for adventure spo­rts and so on. Tourists would be flown from the airport to his luxury liner berthed at the Princep Ghat on the river Hooghly. He was aware of the poor fishermen living in the Sunder­bans, Roy added reassuringly. He had thought of a plan to export fish from the area. His group was in talks with a foreign firm, which had developed a special packaging that would keep fish fresh for several days, he claimed. Like many of his projects, these two also never took off. Soon after, Roy persuaded well-known Bengali novelist and management consultant Man­ishankar Mukherjee, an advisor to R.P. Goenka then, to write his biography. The Bengali media, he cribbed to Mukherjee, did not give him his due. He was arguably the most successful, certainly the richest Bengali businessman, but was pained at the lack of interest, even indifference, about his presence in Calcutta. Mukherjee interviewed Roy for weeks before writing the book, which generated some interest in the state. But he failed to find much of a ‘Calcutta’ connection.

Finally, Roy confided a somewhat tenuous link with the city. He had accompanied his elder sister to a girls’ school for a few months when he was a toddler, he told Mukherjee. The school was surprised to discover such an illustrious alumnus and invited Roy over for a felicitation. Once there, Roy delivered his familiar pitch on patriotism, national duty etc and then generously announced scholarships and one-time grants running into several lakhs of rupees. But possibly because of the report in the TOI about his fantastic plans in the Sunderbans, Bengal Initiative failed in its bid to secure funds from him for setting up an institution like New Delhi’s India International Centre.

The sultan of Sahara is down, without a question. And his loyalists blame Sonia Gandhi for his travails. Someone who has known Roy closely claims to have heard him say that he had prevented Sonia Gandhi from becoming PM. “I told Netaji (Mulayam Singh Yadav) that I would not allow a foreigner to become PM,” he apparently boasted to a few confidants. Grand­standing or not, he could well be hoping for a non-UPA government to bail him out.

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