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Newsmaker: Prabhu Shankar Agarwal

A halwai's fatal fascination

Prabhu Shankar Agarwal
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He started out as a small namkeen shop on Kalakar Street in Burrabazar, Kolkata, and went on to build one of the country’s biggest packaged snackfoods brands. But didn’t make the headlines for this accomplishment.

Last week, this low-profile 54-year-old businessman shot into national attention when a city civil court pronounced him guilty of hiring a gang to kill a tea stall owner who was obstructing his grand plan of constructing a multi-storeyed building. The building was to have come up in Burrabazar, the crowded northern locality that forms the locus of the city’s traditional Marwari business interests.

If most people were shocked, his family and competitors were less so. Local Marwari traders say Agarwal’s shrewd business sense was matched only by his ambition. He was always on the look-out for new opportunities and, once they were found, nothing could come in the way, not even his family.

It was the urge to expand his business that drew this son of a to the world of real estate. His acquaintances point out that it was Agarwal’s decision to move into the real estate business that led to a quarrel between Agarwal and his brothers. Eventually, the business was separated. Each of the four brothers (including him) was allotted a part of the business — an amalgam of domestic and exports — and given different stores or divisions to take care of under the Haldiram’s umbrella brand, though the family is unwilling to discuss details of precisely who owns what.

Originally from Bikaner in Rajasthan, where the family’s patriarch Haldiram was a famous halwai, it was in Kolkata that the family’s business grew over the past 25 years. The Agarwal brothers currently own more than 15 stores across the city out of 50 nationally (the others are franchisees) that offers savoury snacks, sweets and speciality Rajasthani preparations.

The Haldiram’s story began in 1937, when set up shop in Bikaner. Incidentally, Gangabhisan was not the first to make bhujia. The credit for that, according to history, goes to Tansukhdas, his grandfather. It’s just that the bhujia by Gangabhisan, aka Haldiram, became extremely popular and his descendents had the enterprise and foresight to expand the business to other parts of the country.

Kolkata was the first of the family’s forays outside home, when Rameshwarlal Agarwal, Gangabhisan’s youngest son, set up “Haldiram Bhujiawala” in the area. The eastern city is now the brand’s major bastion, with three separate businesses making use of the Haldiram’s brand. Leading the pack is HBL under Prabhu Shankar Agarwal, Rameshwarlal’s eldest son.

But it was property-related disputes that kept Prabhu Shankar Agarwal busy for the past few years and the breach with his brothers grew as a result. Most of the Marwari community in Kolkata think Agarwal worked hard to expand his business, but did not know where to stop, which is why he found himself in trouble.From setting up a state-wide distribution network to developing a franchisee-based model, Prabhu Shankar Agarwal certainly gave the business the marketing push it needed.

Nor did he stop at openly competing with his brothers. People in the know said after the brothers — Ashok, Mahesh and Rabi — parted company, Agarwal’s started a price war with the other Haldiram’s stores.

With Agarwal sentenced to life-imprisonment, the challenge is now to keep the Haldiram’s brand unaffected. Although there appears to be no diminution in demand competitors like Prabhuji in Kolkata, Mopleez in Nagpur, Bikaji in Bikaner and Rameswar in Delhi may well cash in on the damage done to the brand’s image.

Agarwal has appealed to the High Court but prolonged court proceedings are bound to impinge on his business. On January 29, when Judge Tapan Sen of the Bankshall Court sentenced him to life imprisonment, Agarwal had said his business had already suffered during the trial. Agarwal also pleaded for leniency, pointing out that thousands of his employees and their families were dependent on him.

Though the police says it has nothing against Agarwal’s business and that the stores will continue to function without interference. Still, the image of an aspiring real estate baron trying to do away with a humble tea stall owner may revive memories of another recent real estate scam — in Vedic Village, in Rajarhat, about an hour from the city centre. One person was killed and several others seriously injured following a dispute over forcible land acquisition by a local real estate company for a state government IT park. The controversy was serious enough to force the government to relocate a project by Technologies elsewhere. Wipro had asked for an additional 90 acres adjacent in Vedic Village to build its second campus in Kolkata, but been allocated only 50 acres in Rajarhat after relocation.

Forcible land procurement has been a major occupation of the state’s realtor-developers over the last 30 years. But as the Haldiram’s case shows, justice can sometimes be truly blind to rich and poor, even in India’s chaotic judicial system.

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