By Sumeet Chatterjee
MUMBAI (Reuters) - India's highest court will decide the future of conglomerate Sahara later on Monday, when it rules on whether time has run out for the controversial business empire to raise the $1.6 billion it needs to free its jailed chief.
The Supreme Court last week gave Sahara, a sprawling conglomerate that ranges from property to Formula One motor racing, a final chance to raise funds against its assets in order to bail out its founder, Subrata Roy.
If it fails to raise the cash, the court could appoint a receiver to auction its assets, which include properties such as New York's Plaza hotel and tracts of land in India. This could prove a challenge as industry analysts say a fire sale may not raise enough to free Roy and get Sahara back on its feet.
"If you ask people if this is the best time to sell high value assets in the country, the majority of them would say no," said Sanjay Dutt, head of property consultant Cushman and Wakefield in India. "With this kind of investment, somebody has to be very ambitious in every sense of the word."
Sahara did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Roy describes himself as guardian of the world's largest family and calls himself "managing worker". Without him, several employees said operations across the group had been hit over the past year. Roy is not only the face of Sahara, but he also single-handedly controls an operation spread across dozens of tiny subsidiaries in India, Mauritius and Britain, several employees said.
Sahara has made several, failed attempts to raise the money to free Roy on bail. He has been held in jail for more than a year after regulators said Sahara failed to comply with a court order to refund billions of dollars to investors in a bond program that was ruled illegal.
Sahara has said it has paid most of the dues to the bondholders. India's markets regulator, which is seeking redress for millions of investors, disputes that.
RACE FOR CASH
Despite Sahara's interest in a host of businesses - from media, retail and insurance to films and an F1 racing team - it will have to rely on its property assets to raise funds.
Profits at Sahara One Media and Entertainment (SAHM.BO), which produces and distributes movies and makes TV content, dropped 64 percent to 19 million rupees ($304,500) in the year to March 2014, documents filed with the regulator show. Profit at its life insurance unit fell by more than a fifth to 238 million rupees, according to the documents reviewed by Reuters.
But raising funds by selling local properties such as the Aamby Valley township outside Mumbai, which has luxury villas and a golf course, will be tough in a market that has yet to recover from a painful economic slowdown.
In its last attempt, Sahara said it was close to finalizing a deal with U.S.-based investor Mirach Capital to raise money by taking a loan against its overseas hotels including the Plaza, but those talks fell through.
Earlier this month, Sahara's landmark Grosvenor House hotel in London was put up for sale. A Bank of China loan, partly backed by the hotel, was declared in default.
Sahara, which bought the central London hotel in 2010, had said the administrator would give "control back to the Sahara directors," after it has the loan refinanced. A spokesman for consultants Deloitte, hired as administrators, declined to comment on whether it had received any proposal from Sahara.
Roy built the Sahara empire starting with 2,000 rupees and a Lambretta scooter in the late 1970s. He built a profile that brought the country's prime minister, state chief ministers, actors and cricketers to attend his extravagant parties.
($1 = 62.3950 Indian rupees)
(Editing by Clara Ferreira Marques and Ian Geoghegan)