Outside lies the Ambedkar Memorial built by the BSP government. Just inside the gates stands a nearly 12-feet statue of ‘Bharat Mata’, with a tricolour and statues of four lions, depicting “unity among Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians”. Some distance down is located ‘Jal Mahal’, a water body with a shore length of 11 km. Cars ferry people around, to Swiss cottages, helipads, an accompanying hangar, a well-equipped hospital, a cricket ground with pavilions, a 6,000-seater auditorium, or just work. A fuel refilling station stands shut.
Till a few years ago all roads in Lucknow led to these imposing gates of one of Sahara founder chairman Subrata Roy’s more grandiose dreams — the 270-acre ‘Sahara Shaher’. Few were allowed entry though into this address in the Vipul Khand area close to Lucknow’s posh Gomti Nagar. Fewer still made their way to Roy’s palatial, domed, single-floor residence in this city within a city. It was from this residence that Roy was led away by the Lucknow police on February 28.
In the Uttar Pradesh capital, Sahara also has Sahara Hospital, Sahara India Bhawan, Sahara India Tower, Sahara India Centre and Sahara Ganj Mall, Lucknow’s first shopping mall. There is a Sahara India Kashi Niketan auditorium in Varanasi and a Sahara India Complex in Noida. None comes close to Sahara Shaher.
Visitors to the complex have to leave their vehicles outside, with only top Sahara officers allowed to take their cars in. They then go through several rounds of security in the reception lobby. There are two separate gates for heavy vehicles.
The residences are towards the left side of the complex, with Roy’s luxury house standing out. His single-floor office — as imposing — is located 2 km away. At least 1,000 people live in the houses built inside whereas nearly 5,000 people work daily in the numerous offices. Open golf carts are meant for the exclusive use of Roy’s family members and other top officers.
A club house close to Jal Mahal is used for recreational activities. Film screenings and functions are held at the two auditoria. The Swiss cottages are for the guests.
CCTV cameras and watch towers keep a watch on the boundary walls.
The world got its first real look at the splendour of Sahara Shaher when Roy held the wedding receptions of sons Seemanto and Sushanto there, with top politicians and stars such as Amitabh Bachchan in attendance, in February 2004.
For a while in June 2008, Sahara Shaher seemed to be in trouble when the BSP government ordered the Lucknow Development Authority to demolish some structures to make way for a road. A guesthouse of Sahara India Pariwar was brought down to make space for the Ambedkar Memorial. However, the demolition drive was brief.
Still, following the demolition of a few boundary walls, Sahara Shaher lost some of its exclusivity. A 1.122-km Railway Over Bridge now passes adjacent to it. A public road and a park have also been built behind Sahara Shaher now, apart from barracks for personnel of the special wing that guards memorials and parks built under the BSP government.
Roy had publicly welcomed the end of the BSP regime, with a press conference at Sahara Shaher on June 10, 2012. Announcing several new projects, he had said, “We had been in reverse gear during these (the BSP) years. Now, we will go ahead.”
True to form, his entry for the interaction had been dramatic. A wooden wall at the back of a dais had split, with Roy striding in amidst a burst of lights.
The man from Gorakhpur who is said to have once sold snacks for a living on a scooter had come a long way, and he wasn’t going to let the world forget. On the right side of the reception of Sahara Shaher is a gallery. On separate platforms rest a Lambretta scooter, and a chair and table — vestiges of his life and work in that small town.