Sahara chief, money all safe and well

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 June, 2005, 12:00am

Millions of Indians who had invested their life savings in one of the country's biggest companies, Sahara Group, heaved a sigh of relief yesterday when they saw that its chairman, Subrata Roy, was alive and looking rather well.

In a bizarre media blitz designed to reassure the public that he was not dead, ill, infected with Aids or being held hostage by his wife - as the rumour mills had been suggesting - Mr Roy appeared on his own television channel and gave a newspaper interview in which he declared: 'I got an HIV test done. I do not have Aids.'

The 58-year-old billionaire was photographed at his home in Lucknow pumping iron, playing badminton and cricket and looking pretty trim, having lost about 15 kilograms. Becoming a recluse had obviously been good for his health.

But that is not what everyone in the corporate world had been saying since April, the last time Mr Roy was seen in public.

Three months is not a long time to be out of the public eye, but it was significant in Mr Roy's case; this is one of India's most flamboyant billionaires, who loves partying with stars and politicians.

As the rumours grew about the Sahara chairman, millions of poor Indians who had put their money into his savings funds grew anxious about what would happen to their money if Mr Roy was disabled and the company crashed.

Hundreds of depositors queued up last month outside a Sahara office in Gorakhpur demanding their money back. Sahara officials tried to reassure the public that Mr Roy was, on his doctor's advice, resting, but few were convinced.

This compelled him to meet journalists from the Times of India on Thursday and tell them, 'By the grace of God, I am disease-free', and brandish a medical certificate declaring him to be well and fit.

Mr Roy said he totally altered his lifestyle, giving up alcohol, smoking, meat, cutting down on oily food and rationing his socialising.

His colourful lifestyle, eccentricities and impressive connections have kept him in the news. He comes from a poor family but had big dreams. His career began with a rural savings scheme for poor Indians, known as a 'chit fund'.

These are savings schemes for small depositors, often villagers who have only a few rupees every month to save and, being unfamiliar with banks or living too far from any branch, opt for chit funds because agents come to their homes.

Now Sahara, worth an estimated US$7 billion, includes a bank, TV station, construction firm, newspaper and an airline.

The work culture at Sahara is paternalistic and Mr Roy boasts about the absence of a trade union among the 900,000 employees.

Employees greet each other by putting their right hand on their chest and saying 'Good Sahara!'