Sahara's Financial Mirage

01 April 2013

WHEN IT COMES TO DISPLAYING PATRIOTIC FERVOUR, few Indian corporate houses can match the zeal of the Sahara group. From their logo, which is inspired by the national flag, to their tribute to Bharat Mata (Mother India) in the form of a gigantic statue wearing a saree while riding a chariot drawn by four lions—the statue has been placed near the entrance of Aamby Valley, the 10,000-acre lake city being developed by the group near Lonavala, Maharashtra—the Sahara group has never missed an opportunity to latch on to any kind of symbolism that might help burnish its patriotic credentials. Since 2001, it has supported the most cherished of all Indian love affairs by sponsoring the national cricket team—a sponsorship it renewed in 2010 at a whopping Rs 3.3 crore (Rs 33 million) per match. In March 2011, after acquiring the luxurious Grosvenor House hotel in Mayfair, London, Sahara chairman Subroto Roy hosted a ceremony to hoist the tiranga at that most iconic of all London hotels.

Yet, for all the group’s jingoism-infested public-relations campaigns, the real credentials of the group’s various businesses, and their ability to generate enough money to finance this patriotic largesse, has been shrouded in mystery. This is the group that for many years ran a loss-making airline before selling it off to Jet Airways. Its newspapers and media channels have barely any following. And almost all the glitzy infrastructure projects that the group boasts of, including the grand Aamby Valley City, are in reality a series of black holes that continue to suck in more and more money with little evidence of profitability.

The sole exception is the group’s finance arm, which has been Sahara’s mainstay since the group was founded in 1978. Little is known about the intricacies of Sahara’s para-banking operations, except that they rely on a gargantuan network of agents that operate around the country and specialise in collecting tiny amounts of money—as low as Rs 50 and Rs 100—mostly from investors in small towns and villages. A Business Standard analysis of Sahara’s financial statements reveals just how much money the group has been able to raise since its inception in 1978. According to the report, which was published last December, the group received a total of Rs 2.25 lakh crore (Rs 2.25 trillion) from the public between the years 1978 and 2012.

Anant Nath is the Editor of The Caravan.