Like millions of Indians, Jag Ram Chaudhary invested with the Sahara conglomerate – 1,300 rupees ($24) a month in his case – to put away money for a rainy day.
“My wife had an accident some years back. I don’t have much savings, so I thought I’ll be able to save some money by putting in a small amount every month,” said Chaudhary, an office helper at a construction company in Uttar Pradesh state.
On August 31, India’s Supreme Court ruled that finance schemes run by two Sahara companies were illegal and ordered it to repay as much as $4.5 billion to up to almost 30 million mostly small investors, plus interest. The final figures are still to be determined as some clients have already redeemed their investments, lawyers on both sides of the matter said.
The case has shone a rare light on the unlisted giant whose interests range across finance, housing, media and entertainment.
Sahara has accumulated a string of trophies in recent years, including a stake in a Formula One motor racing team and ownership of Grosvenor House hotel in London. In July, it agreed to buy a controlling stake in New York’s Plaza Hotel.
But its core client base is the towns and villages away from the shiny cities of modern India. There, Sahara sells investment products to often poor people in amounts as small as 2 rupees (4 US cents) a day. The company is a household name in India through its lead sponsorship of the national cricket team.
“Banks take eight years to pay what I get from Sahara in five years,” Chaudhary, 40, said in Khalilabad, a town in Sant Kabir Nagar district in northern India. Like several Sahara customers interviewed nearly two weeks afterwards, he had not heard of the court ruling.
Spending power Critics, including activist groups, say Sahara’s investment products are designed to evade oversight by financial regulators and that it lacks transparency on the source and use of its funds, selling products to investors who do not understand the risks and plowing the proceeds into real estate projects.
Under the scheme rejected by the Supreme Court, two firms owned by Sahara had offered bonds to small investors, promising, in some cases, to return three times the face value after 10 years.
The court ruling that it raised money by “dubious” means follows another rebuke in 2008, when the central bank ordered a Sahara company to stop taking deposits from the public.
In a country where “black money”, or undeclared wealth, is rampant, Sahara’s size and spending power have long fuelled speculation over how the company operates.
Sahara, headed by Subrata Roy Sahara, its chairman and self-described “managing worker”, says it helps small investors outside the banking system and that it has never defaulted on them.
“Sahara agents motivate people who would otherwise spend the money on liquor, gambling, etc,” said Guddu Pandey, a school teacher and Sahara agent in Uttar Pradesh state, echoing an argument made by Sahara after the court verdict.
The company did not respond to several attempts by Reuters to get answers to written questions. Roy was not immediately available to be interviewed, Sahara said.
Sahara has not said how it will refund the money to investors, although it has said it is healthy and investors need not worry.
All in the family The company’s full name is Sahara India Pariwar, or family. Roy, 64, refers to himself as the guardian of the world’s largest family, and espouses a philosophy of “collective materialism”.
At its headquarters in the city of Lucknow, in Uttar Pradesh, staff greet visitors by putting their right hand to their chest and saying “Sahara Pranam”. Pranam is a respectful version of hello.
Roy, often photographed wearing a black necktie and vest over a white shirt, is based nearby at the showpiece Sahara Shaher, a sprawling gated complex of low white buildings and lawns where he lives and where the group holds an annual mass wedding for 101 couples who could otherwise not afford it.
Starting with capital of 2,000 rupees in the late 1970s, Roy built Sahara into a giant that, according to its website, had assets of more than $21 billion as of April 2011.
Roy is often described as a billionaire but he is not on the Forbes list of rich Indians. Sahara’s website says no dividend has been paid for 34 years and no profit has been taken out of the company.
From its north India base, Sahara has become a cashed-up global investor in hotels, sports and entertainment.
Last year, Roy teamed up with liquor baron Vijay Mallya of Kingfisher beer fame, paying $100 million for 42.5 per cent of his Force India Formula One auto racing team. It paid $370 million for a franchise in cricket’s Indian Premier League.
In 2010, Sahara considered buying English Premier League soccer club Liverpool and held talks to buy the debt of film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Neither deal happened.
Still, Roy is not typically bracketed with a corporate elite led by Indian families such as the Tatas, Birlas and Ambanis.
“If you look at the orthodox business community, they have kept him at arm’s length,” said Ashok Prasad, a physician, lawyer and academic who taught overseas before returning to Gorakhpur, the Uttar Pradesh city where Roy started out.