Chetan and Nitin Sandesara of the Vadodara-based Sandesara Group are accused of defaulting on loans of over Rs 5,000 crore.
New Delhi: Chetan Sandesara was apparently not pleased when, in 2008, a media portal carried an article on his family’s purchase of a private jet for Rs 60-80 crore.
Known to love the good life, the businessman immediately approached other journalists to offer a clarification, according to an Ahmedabad-based acquaintance. The next day, a report in several newspapers said the jet hadn’t cost Rs 60-80 crore but Rs 120 crore.
Chetan Sandesara, 54, and his elder brother Nitin Sandesara, 56, captains of an eponymous Gujarat-based multi-billion-dollar empire, and other family members are now suspected fugitives after allegedly defaulting on loans of over Rs 5,000 crore, the latest in a series of suspected economic offenders to have fled the country after defrauding banks.
Their properties have been sealed and attached by the Enforcement Directorate, and business taken over by bank officials, with a CBI hunt underway for the directors.
But before they became the subjects of non-bailable warrants, they were the poster boys of the rich life, fixtures on global wealth lists who became tabloid darlings with their star-studded parties.
Before they were accused of defrauding a consortium of banks led by state-owned Andhra Bank, the story of the Sandesaras was a toast to the success of middle-class ambition.
ThePrint traces the rise and fall of the two first-generation businessmen from Gujarat, now believed to be in hiding in Nigeria where they own an oil-exploration operation.
The brothers Sandesara both pursued a bachelor’s degree in commerce in the 1980s.
Nitin had started practice as a chartered accountant in Mumbai when he and Chetan made their first foray into business with a tea company, also in the 1980s.
In March 1985, the Sandesaras got associated with a Mumbai-based trading firm called Pluto Exports & Consultants, although no one seems to recall their exact position in the firm.
Within four years, Nitin had become the chairman of Pluto. It was in 1991 that ‘Sterling’, the name Sandesara companies hold, entered the brothers’ lexicon and the firm was rechristened Sterling Tea and Industries.
According to a fact-sheet available on the National Stock Exchange website, the company further changed its name to Sterling Biotech.
The tea business reportedly didn’t go as planned, but the brothers went on to become big players in the pharma sector after they got into the manufacture of gelatin, a gelling agent used in several drugs.
“Very little is known about their tea business, except that it did not take off on a large scale and they were primarily involved in the export of tea,” said a senior executive of an Ahmedabad-based conglomerate.
“It was the gelatin business that put them on the map… Through this, the Sandesara empire continued to expand,” the executive added.
“Sterling Biotech was set up by renaming Sterling Tea and Industries and the two brothers started diversifying their business into pharmaceuticals, machines and later oil and ports,” he said.
In 2003, Gujarat launched ‘Vibrant Gujarat’, the state’s flagship investment platform, and at the 2007 and 2009 editions, the Sandesara Group stood out among the business heavyweights by making big-ticket investment commitments.
“During the two summits of Vibrant Gujarat, the Sandesaras had signed MoUs worth Rs 35,000 crore. These related to development of a Special Economic Zone in Jambusar, and the setting up of Dahej port as a greenfield facility,” the executive said.
While their gelatin business grew through the 1990s, the Sandesara brothers are believed to have established their name only in the 2000s, when they entered the oil sector.
“While they had made a mark in pharmaceuticals by enjoying a 6 per cent share in the global gelatin business, and they had even taken up big infrastructure projects, the Sandesara brothers always said to me, ‘Kuch bada karna hai (we have to do something big)’,” said the executive.
“They believed that diving into oil was the way ahead,” he added.
A taste for the good life
As the family’s business expanded, so did their interest in high-end properties, lavish parties and swanky cars.
In 2013, the family brought in celebrity interior designers Gauri Khan and Sussanne Khan, the wives of Bollywood stars Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan respectively (the latter are now divorced), to deck up their 60,000-square-foot farmhouse in Ampad village in Vadodara district.
“I visited the farmhouse once a couple of years ago,” an acquaintance of the family told ThePrint. “The Sandesaras used to throw numerous parties at the farmhouse and all the big names used to be in attendance, including heads of leading media organisations.”
“The farmhouse had a movie hall, and a club along with a personal DJ,” the acquaintance added. “It was not surprising that the Sandesaras got Gauri Khan and Sussanne Roshan (sic) to design this farmhouse,” he said.
“Photos of (Chetan Sandesara’s wife) Dipti rubbing shoulders with Bollywood bigwigs, attending parties together, were covered by tabloids and shared on social media.”
“While Nitin was more of a private person and stayed away from the cameras, Chetan, whom most of us called Chetu bhai, was the opposite,” the acquaintance added.
Another person close to the Sandesaras talked about Chetan’s “fitness fixation”. “He had opened a gym at the Sterling Health mall here (in Ahmedabad) a few years ago,” he said. “Chetu bhai is not just particular about fitness, he was also inclined towards living life king size.”
It was in 2011 that the first red flags were raised. In June that year, income tax (I-T) sleuths had come knocking on the door of the pharmaceutical heavyweights for alleged tax evasion.
They were allegedly found to be in possession of Rs 220 crore in unaccounted wealth, and were asked to cough up the requisite tax.
The development came amid a larger crackdown by the I-T department on leading pharmaceutical, electrical goods and garment firms in Gujarat.
In 2012, the first cracks appeared in the financial stability projected by the Sandesara Group as State Bank of Mysore filed a criminal complaint against Sterling Biotech and its directors after cheques issued by the company for Rs 58 crore bounced.
Later that year, investors who had bought Sterling Biotech’s five-year foreign currency convertible bonds (FCCBs), which were supposed to be encashed in May 2012, approached a British court. “The maturity amount of those bonds was around Rs 1,000 crore. The company faced debt problems that year, and its shares plunged,” said the executive ThePrint spoke to.
“But the group claimed to be springing back after facing a financial loss in 2012 and a default in loans,” he added.
“However, what happened was the diversification of their business from gelatin to uncharted areas of oil and gas,” the executive added.
“A section of the around Rs 5,000 crore lent by banks had already been declared non-performing assets (NPA) and there was fear the rest was on the verge of turning into NPAs.”
In October 2017, the CBI booked the top management of the Sandesara Group under sections of the Prevention of Corruption Act and Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002. The accused included the Sandesara brothers, Chetan’s wife Dipti, a former director of Andhra Bank and “unknown private persons and public servants”.
The Enforcement Directorate subsequently stepped in, but the Sandesara brothers could not be tracked.
“A reliable source information has been received that M/s Sterling Biotech Ltd, its above named directors and others hatched [a] criminal conspiracy with each other with dishonest intention to cheat Andhra Bank and other public sector banks,” reads one of the two CBI FIRs filed in the case.
“The Sterling Biotech Group has availed [of] loans of more than INR 5,000 crore which have turned non-performing assets (NPA),” the FIR adds.
The FIR notes that, until December 2016, when the family is said to have fled India, the group’s outstanding liability to banks on account of the loans stood at Rs 5,383 crore.
‘We heard they have run off’
Located across a railway line on Padra Road in Vadodara, the corporate office of Sterling Biotech remains out of bounds for outsiders. A slew of white buses, with ‘Sandesara Group’ or ‘PMT Machines’ printed on a band at the top of the windscreens, is parked outside its boundary wall.
It was at this office that a diary with details about allegedly illegal transactions from 2011 was recovered by the ED. The ED subsequently submitted in court that some of the names listed in the diary in connection with the transactions “were apprehended with further references as (IT) or commissioner”.
“Three such names that figured… [are] ‘Mr S.K. Ojha’, ‘Dr Subhash Chandra IT’ and ‘Mr Ray IT’.”
Further investigation by the ED into the case threw up the names of some top-ranking officials and politicians, bringing their alleged links with the Sandesaras under the scanner. One of the transactions was reportedly listed under the initial “RA” in the diary.
Locals in Ahmedabad and Vadodara had reportedly told investigators about alleged links between CBI special director Rakesh Asthana and the Sandesaras, citing local news reports on the latter hosting the wedding of the IPS officer’s daughter at their farmhouse.
“This is how the name of CBI special director Rakesh Asthana started doing the rounds, because it was assumed that RA stood for Rakesh Asthana,” an ED official said. “But it was later said that RA meant running account.”
The ED official was referring to the fact that a CBI officer had written to the Cabinet Secretary on 24 August this year that the initials “RA” referred to the running account of a Pune-based firm.
Meanwhile, witnesses reportedly told the ED about alleged monetary transactions between the Sandesaras and “Headquarters 23”. It was speculated that Headquarters 23 meant 23, Mother Teresa Crescent, New Delhi, which is the residence of senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel.
However, ED officials and Patel have declined to comment on this matter.
Maintaining that he did not know what the Sandesara brothers had done, a bus operator at the SBL office who has been with the group for more than a decade, said, “The office has been sealed and bank officials have taken over the factory in Karakhadi.”
“We heard that they have run off with money but who knows if it’s true,” he added.
“We hardly saw them here. Last year, when I-T officials sealed the office, there was fear among employees about our future. However, in the last two months, people from the bank have started looking after the business.”