George Orwell in his 1945 classic Animal Farm said that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Sahara bossman Subrata Roy, clearly belongs to the second category.
On February 20, 2014, the Supreme Court of India had directed Roy to be present in court on February 26, 2014, to explain the failure of two Sahara group companies to refund an amount of a little over Rs 24,000 crore, raised from investors, by selling optionally fully convertible debentures (OFCDs).
Roy did not turn up in Court and his counsel Ram Jethmilani told the Court that “His mother is dying and he is required to be by her side holding her hand.”
To buttress their point further, the Sahara Group even attached a medical statement by doctors attending to Roy’s mother at the Sahara Hospital in Lucknow. Interestingly, along with Roy, the Court had directed Ashok Roy Choudhary, Ravi Shankar Dubey and Vandana Barghava, three directors of Sahara India Real Estate Corporation Limited (SIRECL) and Sahara Housing Investment Corporation Limited (SHICL) to be present on February 26, 2014. SIRECL and SHICL are the two companies that had issued the OFCDs.
Only Roy did not turn up citing his mother’s illness. The other three did. This did not go down well with the Court. “The arm of this court is very long. We will issue warrants. This is the Supreme Court of the land. When other directors are here, why cannot he be here?” asked Justice KS Radhakrishnan.
After this, the Court issued non bailable arrest warrant against Roy and directed that he be arrested and produced before it, on March 4, 2014.
The Sahara group has been testing the patience of the Supreme Court for a while now and on Wednesday (i.e. February 26, 2014), the apex court in the country simply ran out of it.
Sahara is a finance to reality conglomerate with huge para-banking operations in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In July 2008, the Reserve Bank of India ordered the group to shut-down its para-banking operations. This, after it found several discrepancies in the books of Sahara. Sahara used to run the para-banking operations through the Sahara India Financial Corporation. The group raised a large amount of money from people who did not have bank accounts. It even collected small amounts on a daily basis.
The deposits funded the many businesses (like media, films, real estate, hospitals, hotels and even airlines) that the group was into. The Reserve Bank hit at the heart of Sahara’s business model by prohibiting it from running a para-banking operation. The central bank banned Sahara from raising fresh deposits beyond June 30, 2011 and at the same time asked Sahara to repay all its depositors by June 30, 2015.
It is easy to see that most of the businesses that Sahara was into were highly capital intensive. Hence, it was important for the group to keep raising deposits. But with the RBI clamping down on its para-banking operations that was not possible.
To get around the RBI directive, the Sahara group started issuing housing bonds through SIRECL and SHICL. These bonds were technically referred to as OFCDs. The Sahara group noted that these bonds were being issued to “friends, associates, group companies, workers/ employees and other individuals associated/affiliated or connected in any manner with Sahara India Group of Companies.”
Given this, the group felt that the issuance did not amount to a public issue, and did not require compliance either with the Companies Act, 1956, or the Securities and Exchange Board of India(Sebi) Act.
As per Section 67 of the Companies Act, 1956, an offer of shares or debentures made to 50 persons or more is construed to be a public offer. It is estimated that the Sahara group sold the housing bonds or OFCDs to around 2.96 crore investors and raised over Rs 24,000 crore.
Given this discrepancy, KM Abraham, who was a whole-time member of Sebi, issued an order dated June 23, 2011, in which he asked Sahara to “refund the money collected by the aforesaid companies[i.e. SIRECL and SHCL]…to the subscribers of such Optionally Fully Convertible Debentures with interest of 15% per annum from the date of receipt of money till the date of such repayment.”
In this order Abraham also pointed out that “The first proviso to section 67(3) inserted by the Companies (Amendment) Act, 2000 with effect from 13.12.2000 sets at rest the question by stating that if an invitation to subscription is made to 50 or more persons, it ceases to be a private.”
Hence, the OFCDs sold by Sahara constituted a public offer and given that needed to be listed on a stock exchange, which they were not. As Section 73 of the Companies Act points out “Every company intending to offer shares or debentures to the public for subscription by the issue of a prospectus shall, before such issue, make an application to one or more recognised stock exchange for permission for the shares or debentures intending to be so offered to be dealt with in the stock exchange.” The OFCDs of Sahara were not listed on any stock exchange.
Sahara challenged the Sebi order in court. This started a series of events which finally led to the Supreme Court judgement as on August 31, 2012. In this judgement, the Court directed the Sahara group to refund Rs 24,029 crore that it raised through OFCDs to the investors by the end of November 2012. The order had directed that Sahara to pay this amount to Sebi,which would in turn refund the money to the investors.
The group was given more time to refund and directed to deposit Rs 5,120 crore immediately. Rs 10,000 crore was to be deposited with Sebi in January 2013 and the remaining amount in February 2013. The Sahara group handed over draft of Rs 5,120 crore on December 5, 2012, and hasn’t paid anything since then.
In fact, it has since maintained that it has already returned the money to investors and paying money to Sebi would amount to paying twice. As a November 2013 report in the Business Standard puts it “Its(i.e. Sahara’s) top lawyers have argued that it was not the intention of the court to pay investors twice and that the regulator has to first check several truckloads of documents pertaining to the millions of investors before coming to ask for the balance.”
But there are some basic loopholes in the argument. If Sahara was in the process of repaying its investors, why was fighting a case with Sebi in the Supreme Court?
The group claims that it refunded Rs 16,177 crore to investors in May and June 2012. This led to Justice Kehar, one of the judges on the bench hearing this case, to wonder “The whole of May and June, they were fighting before us. Why would they do that if they were already refunding?”
In January 2014, the Supreme Court had directed the Sahara group to file bank statements and documents to prove that it had refunded the money to its investors in 2012. A Business Standard report dated February 14, 2014, quotes Arvind Dattar, the Sebi counsel as saying “They have filed five volumes of documents. These contain everything except what we want.”
Datar also asked that how could Sahara return money that it had collected over a period of three years in just two months. The money Sahara has repaid to the investors who had bought OFCDs has come through transactions within the group. The group has told the Supreme Court that Sahara India Cooperative Credit Society and Sahara Q Shop bought real estate assets worth thousands of crores from SIRECL and SHICL, the two companies that issued OFCDs, to bail them out. This money was then used to repay the investors.
The question is where did Sahara India Cooperative Credit Society and Sahara Q Shop get the money from? The Sahara Group told the apex court that the money to buy these assets was raised from numerous investors through its big branch network of 4,700 branches.
The money from this transaction was used to repay the OFCD investors in cash. The group explained that it put in place the cash policy after hundreds of cases of “snatching, robberies, injuries and even death faced by its workers while carrying money between branches and banks.” But wouldn’t that still be applicable, if it repaid its investors in cash? Wouldn’t its agents have to carry cash around to repay it’s investors?
In a statement issued earlier this month the Sahara group claimed that almost 98% of its investors had put in amounts ranging from Rs 500 to Rs 19,000 into the OFCDs. The average investment was around Rs 8,000. The group further said that these people do not go to banks and wanted their money back in cash.
The Supreme Court in a hearing this month asked if payments of such huge amounts of cash was legally allowed. The Sebi counsel Datar explained that “Under Section 73 of the Companies Act, refund has to be made only by cheque. Even the Sebi ICDR (Issue of Capital and Disclosure requirements) regulations mandate that payments have to be made through banking channels only.”
To conclude, basically, Sahara and its lawyers have been playing the delaying game and keep coming up with a new theory every time there is a hearing. It will be interesting to see what new theory they come up with on March 4, 2014, when Subrata Roy will have to appear in court.
We haven’t seen the last of this case. Watch this space.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on February 27, 2014
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)