“Saharashri” Subrata Roy, founder of Sahara Group, passes away at 75.

The architect of a USD 31 billion empire, once considered a charm of India's glamour world and the country's second-largest employer, breathed his last in Mumbai after living a life rife with vicissitudes.

One of India’s most impactful and controversial business tycoons, the founder of the ‘Sahara India Parivar’ Subrata Roy, breathed his last on November 14th. At around 10:30 PM, ‘Saharashri Ji’ (an affectionate endearment given to him by his company) passed away due to a massive cardiorespiratory arrest two days after his admission to Mumbai’s Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital (KDAH).

Roy, who was 75 years old at the time of his demise, had long been suffering from severe ailments like metastatic malignancy, hypertension, and diabetes. The story of Subrata Roy, the architect of an empire worth USD 31 billion, is rife with vicissitudes. The man who attracted India’s glamour world through his ‘larger-than-life’ persona and occasionally threw ostentatious parties where he rubbed shoulders with Celebrities and Politicians alike got sentenced to the Tihar Jail at the fag-end of his life on charges of ‘mismanagement of public funds!’ The nefarious Sahara Scam robbed this man of his glory and fame, augmenting the downfall of his life and his multi-billion empire.

The rise of Saharashri:

Subrata Roy was born on June 10th, 1948, to a Bengali family in Bihar’s Araria. Roy completed schooling at the Holy Child Institute in Kolkata and later took up mechanical engineering at Gorakhpur’s Government Technical Institute. He started his first venture through a marginal business in Gorakhpur before taking over a local chit-fund company called ‘Sahara Finance’ in 1978.

His fate soared after he reorganised the company as “Sahara India Parivar,” which was destined to evolve into one of India’s largest conglomerates. Despite the hordes of criticism and controversies Sahara faced during the last phase of its existence, economists have never refrained from upholding Sahara’s virtue in providing financial services to the underbanked sections of Indian society! Sahara had indubitably played a critical role in popularising ‘financial instruments’ among rural households, augmenting their ‘financial literacy.’ 

The tycoon headed out into competitive domains of finance, real estate, manufacturing, sports, hospitality, and numerous other sectors. In 1992, Roy founded the Hindi newspaper “Rashtriya Sahara” and made successful real-estate ventures through the ambitious ‘Aamby Valley City Project’ near Pune. Roy then ventured into the Television industry by launching the ‘Sahara TV,’ which would later become ‘Sahara One.’ In 2003, Sahara started three weeklies: Sahara Time (English), Sahara Samay (Hindi) and Sahara Aalmi (Urdu). Charismatic Mr Roy used his intuitions to reap fathomless popularity through Sahara’s sponsorships and endorsements!

Sahara emerged as one the longest-time sponsors of the Indian Cricket Team and later went on to co-own the ‘Force India Formula-1 Racing Team’ and even an IPL team. Through numerous other marketing tricks, Sahara became India’s household name! In 2004, Time magazine designated the Sahara Group as “the second-largest employer in India,” second only to the government-run Indian Railways! At that time, the Sahara group boasted a workforce of 1.2 million salaried employees, consultants, field workers, agents, and business associates. The group also maintained how they got funded by a whopping 90 million investors, representing 13% of the Indian households at that time!

Subrata Roy was not shy of investing in foreign ventures as he proudly acquired the iconic Grosvenor House Hotel in London (in 2010) and the historic Plaza Hotel and Dream Downtown Hotel in New York City (in 2012). In 2012, Roy was named one of “10 most influential businessmen in India.”

The fall of Subrata Roy and his empire:

Subrata Roy’s persistent tussle with the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) began in 2011 when they raised the issue of mismanagement of ‘public funds’ by Sahara. The SEBI, in one of its issued directives, instructed two companies of the Sahara group to return the funds they had collected via their Optionally Fully Convertible Debentures (OFCD) at 15% interest, amounting to a whopping Rs. 24,000 crores!  

The legal battle led to Subrata Roy’s arrest in March 2014 after he failed to appear in a hearing of the Supreme Court. The man who used to host extravagant parties for celebrities and affluent personalities served his detention in the Tihar Jail and was released on parole in 2017. This legal tussle, infamously known as the ‘Sahara Scam,’ spoiled Roy’s reputation, and soon he was thrown from riches to rag!

Despite being shrouded in controversies, Subrata Roy’s life is a testament to the complexities involved with power, fame, and ambition! The role played by Sahara in empowering the Indian masses and introducing the unbanked section of our society to various financial instruments is a staggering feat in itself.

Sahara Group had fostered its reputation via several humanitarian aids as well. After the Kargil War, former Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee lauded Subrata Roy for granting financial support to the families of the 127 martyred soldiers. During the terrible flood in Uttarakhand in 2012, Roy contributed to the relief efforts by distributing one lakh bottles of drinking water, packaged juice, and food packets, among other necessities.  

Roy has several coveted accolades attributed to his name. In 2002 he received Businessmen of the Year Award, the Best Industrialist Award in 2002, Vishisht Rashtriya Udaan Samman (2010) by a daily from one of India’s top publication houses, Vocational Award for Excellence (2010) by Rotary International, Karmaveer Samman (1995), Udyam Shree (1994), Baba-E-Rozgar Award (1992) and the National Citizen Award in 2001.

While for many, Subrata Roy was a messiah of good fortune and affluence, for others, he was merely a “crooked businessman.” However, as his 16-year-old grandson Himanc Roy performs his last rites at Lucknow’s Baikunth Dham, we commemorate the phenomenal life of one of India’s most flamboyant tycoons. Rest in Peace, Saharashri Ji!

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