Book Review – Sahara: The Untold Story

Modified on June 9, 2018

Sahara is undoubtedly one of the most well-known brands in India. Close your eyes and think of any Indian cricket player and you will see him wearing the blue with “SAHARA” written in bold in the front.

Everyone knows about the Ambey Valley without knowing its actual location. Everyone knows about Sahara Airlines and that they sold it to Jet at high valuations when it did not actually owned any aircraft (apparently all were leased). Everyone remembers multiple Sahara TV channels with reporters greeting with Sahara Pranam.

Everyone knows that the activities of Sahara required big spending. Be it Team India sponsorship, the Ambey Valley where it offered flats to Indian Team player after 2003 world cup despite their loss in the final or the loss making airline or the purchases of marquee hotels in New York & London costing billions of rupees. The IPL team purchase at highest bidding price or the group assets which Sahara claims to be worth lakhs of crores are separate revelations.

All the while, people have been wondering where Sahara gets this money from. The most common theory doing the rounds has been that it’s ill-gotten politicians’ money.

Subrata Roy, the man who has been spearheading Sahara since last 40 years has always denied this charge. He has been quite vocal most of the times offering to accept the death penalty if one can find irregularities in Sahara group. Such emotionally charged appeals, full page newspaper ads coupled with the kind of persona Subrata Roy presents with his media appearances with who’s who of Indian politics, world leaders and Bollywood stars have always created a mystery around him and Sahara India Parivar.

Recent developments where Subrata Roy is lying in jail for almost two years, for his inability to deposit the bail amount of INR 10,000 cr (INR 5,000 cr. cash and INR 5,000 cr. bank guarantee) in the court, despite claiming to have lakhs of crores of assets in the group, have deepened the cloud of mystery further. People think whether it’s his changed equation with politicians or his own wish that he is lying in jail for so long. Whether he has been fooled/deserted by the people who advised him to ignore the summons of Hon. Supreme Court of India, which ultimately led to his current situation.

At such a time when one comes across a book titled “Sahara: The Untold Story” with author claiming that “Everything you wanted to know about Subrata Roy and Sahara India Parivar, but were afraid to ask..”, one is filled with joy that someone has heard the silent plea and come out with at least a few of the answers to many-many questions. And when the book is written by someone of the stature of Tamal Bandyopadhyay, the expectations rise.

Sahara: The Untold Story” claims to be based on “painstaking” research to demystify India’s most secretive conglomerate the Sahara India Parivar. The way the book covers communicate the message and the readers find a disclaimer by Sahara Group right before she reads any content, sets the stage that the reader is about to learn something she has always wanted to: the story of rise, rise & rise and then fall of Sahara.

The reader expects to find about how Subrata Roy created the business he runs, the way he expanded it to such huge proportions, the way he generated money to create Ambey Valley, paid for expensive cricket team sponsorships, funded the airline, started the media channels, paid for New York and London hotels, bought the formula one team and many more such things.

The reader feels lucky that Sahara group let the book get published only with a disclaimer and that the book did not meet the fate of “The Polyester Prince, the biography of Dhirubhai Ambani by Hamish McDonald, which got banned in India. (However, the book The Polyester Prince is available on amazon.com: click here).

With all this huge expectation setting, how does the book “Sahara: The Untold Story” deliver? It’s better not to be said upfront. I let the reader of this review decide for herself like the author, Tamal Bandyopadhyay, leaves everything for the reader when he finishes the book saying, “I don’t have answers to his questions. My dear reader, over to you.”

In the preface, right at the start of the book, Tamal mentions that the title of the book could have been “The Death of a Four-Letter Word”, referring to RNBCs (Residuary Non-Banking Companies). The author would have been right in naming the book just that.

The book is more about the faceoff of Sahara group with regulators, first Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and then Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) with a bit of story about the other major RNBC, Peerless. The reader, like me, would be left wanting for more, in case she expects to know more about the untold story of Sahara.

The author says that book aims to provide the reader an insight into the hitherto unexplored world of Sahara India, its relationship with its millions of depositors and the sources of money that Sahara claims to be deposits. And that the book tries to help the reader appreciate the complexities of Indian financial system with a maze of independent regulators, government departments, courts playing their role to control this essential segment of the economy.

The author has done a lot of hard work in meeting different people related with the case of Sahara be it those in RBI, SEBI or Sahara India Parivar. I guess the established status of the author in financial media industry helped him get access to the high placed bureaucrats and other people like Subrata Roy. Author’s high profile background is good for the reader that she could get to read about the views of the policy makers and other revered names in the world of finance be it RBI governors, deputy governors, SEBI members and their internal communications including letters and even SMS.

The book helps the reader get valuable business insight when it mentions Subrata Roy saying that Hotel business is not profitable but it’s the capital appreciation that makes the investment viable. That’s one of the few instances where the reader gets a real peek into the mind of businessman Subrata Roy.

The book highlights the strange arrangements that media houses have with their advertisers. It mentions about Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd. (BCCL), the publisher of The Times of India, providing advertisement space in its publications to advertisers in lieu of equity stake in their companies. A nice way devised to keep the media presence going even in the times of cash flow crunch.

The book reflects the good research done by the author with respect to the ways in which Sahara has been avoiding regulatory oversight and raising funds by staying one step ahead of the system. Be it the start with prize chits and money circulation schemes in 1978 or raising money with un-incorporated firm Sahara India when chits were banned or shifting to housing finance company, mutual benefit company (Nidhi) or later to RNBC route and then OFCD (optionally fully convertible debentures) to current Credit Cooperatives route.

The author has researched and tracked the group well. The book provides a good insight into Sahara’s new Q-Shop model and establishes almost the mirror image similarity between old OFCD schemes of Sahara and its new Credit Cooperatives schemes.

However, if we see whether the book does justice to the field-work required to cover a topic like “Sahara: The Untold Story”, then it leaves a lot to be desired.

The author does not indicate meeting any of the lakhs of Sahara agents whom Subrata Roy calls his family or any of the depositors who are apparently vegetable vendors, rickshaw pullers and other poor people out of financial system’s purview. The author relies on media stories/other such sources wherever any reference to the things on the ground is required, like how many Kalawatis are there in Sahara’s submissions and whether its depositors actually exist.

The book mentions repeatedly about no complaints being received by regulators against Sahara, despite the claims of millions of depositors (except once when SEBI received complaints from some OFCD subscribers, which SEBI forwarded to other agencies). In almost every forum Subrata Roy seems to harp on this point of no complaints from depositors.

The author directs the readers to deduce their own inference about genuineness of the depositors’ existence, by giving the logic of experiences of Indian Microfinance industry, HDFC etc. which are not able to get an equal number of customers despite years of their efforts. In this logic presented in the book, the fact of State Bank of India (SBI), India’s largest bank having about 150 million customers, much more than the 30 million depositors claimed by Sahara, weakens the argument put forward by the author.

However, irrespective of the examples cited, I feel that the reader’s expectation of someone going to the field to verify the facts with whatever limited number of people the researcher/journalist could meet on the ground, is lacking in the book.

The book highlights that RNBCs are more of a liability (deposits by people) play than their assets (investments of RNBCs). It stresses that forfeiture of deposits is the mainstay of their business (including Sahara’s). However, the book fails to interview/capture the story of any person who lost her savings. The book seems to convey to the reader that if there is no complaint from depositors despite forfeiture of deposits worth crores of rupees, then these depositors might be fake. I feel that much more effort & research is expected from a renowned journalist of the stature of Tamal Bandyopadhyay.

The author highlights in the acknowledgement section of the book about the pressure to meet the deadlines for writing “Sahara: The Untold Story”. A reader must appreciate the hard work put in by the author in completing the book within the short time that he had at his disposal. However, the scarcity of time is visible in the limited aspects of the Sahara story that are covered in the book.

The author gives references to the meetings with highly placed sources in government, regulators and Sahara, which I believe have all happened in air-conditioned rooms. This is what I call “Air-conditioned Research”. I am not able to find in the book, any efforts done by the author or his team to go to the streets, to the hinterland unbanked areas where Sahara claims to have most of its agents and depositors.

The book contains certain sections, which could have easily been done away with, like profiling of the people associated with the case. It only adds bulk to the book without a lot of value addition for the reader. Any person following Sahara story is probably aware about the RBI, SEBI and their office bearers and could read about them in much more detail on the internet. Anyway, the short descriptions of one or two pages do not do justice to the effort spent by these remarkable people in achieving the heights of professional success.

Similarly, annexures containing communications between regulators & Sahara seem unnecessary. I asked myself: Do these add any further value to the reader, than what she has already got by reading the book this far? I did not get a positive answer. It’s assumed that author has these letters in his custody when he makes references to them in the book. It seems unnecessary to append them with the book. It only increased the number of pages without an equivalent addition in value.

The author could have easily cut down the number of pages in the book from current 374 pages and brought it below 300 pages.

The book is written in a very simple language and is a quick read. Most of the readers would be able to finish it off in one sitting. The book provides a good chronicle of the struggle that RNBCs, Peerless and Sahara, had with RBI and that Sahara is currently having with SEBI.

The title of the book “Sahara: The Untold Story”, is very catchy but in the end I felt that the book fell way short of meeting my expectations from this title.

After finishing the book, when the reader reflects to see whether she learnt something revealing, hitherto “Untold” about Sahara, then she feels disappointed. The insight level about the Sahara India Parivar remains more or less the same as it was before reading the book.

Sahara: The Untold Story could not have met the fate of “The Polyester Prince” because it is nowhere near to what Hamish McDonald tells about Dhirubhai Ambani in The Polyester Prince. Tamal is barely able to scratch the surface of Sahara story.

The story is still “Untold”!

Disclosure: The article contains affiliate links of the book.

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