Who is Navneet Kalra, the man accused of ‘black marketing’ oxygen concentrators?
We take a quick look at his background, his restaurants and their partners, and the other parties involved in the ongoing case
A restauranteur, a businessman, a socialite – Navneet Kalra has been described in multiple ways by media houses ever since he hit the headlines this week.
On May 7, the Delhi police said they had raided three restaurants – Khan Chacha, Nege & Ju, and Town Hall – and seized 137 oxygen concentrators. The police said they had been imported from China and were being sold at four or five times their retail price.
Kalra owns these restaurants, and had been on the run ever since. He’s been charged under Section 420, among others, of the Indian Penal Code. Kalra approached a Delhi court for anticipatory bail which was denied. He then went to the Delhi High Court which denied him interim protection from arrest on May 14th. On the evening of Sunday, May 16, he was arrested from his brother-in-law’s farmhouse in Gurugram.
According to a press release issued by Delhi police, it all started when a patrol team spotted “suspicious activity” at a Lodhi Colony restaurant called Nege & Ju Bar and Restaurant. Inside the restaurant, they found someone on a laptop “getting orders online” for oxygen concentrators. A search of the restaurant uncovered 32 oxygen concentrators.
“After verification,” the press release said, “it was found that the owner of the restaurant and bar is Navneet Kalra.”
Kalra’s lawyer, Vikas Pahwa, told additional sessions judge Sandeep Garg that there was a “campaign” against his client, arguing that the oxygen concentrators recovered from Khan Chaha were authenticated and properly imported.
Pahwa said, “Conducting business in life saving drugs is not an offence in the eyes of law. When I create an invoice, I inform the government of India. It is not black marketing.” He also claimed that “hundreds of people” were thanking Kalra “every day for helping them”.
But who is Navneet Kalra?
His father, Dayal Kalra, founded Dayal Opticals in Khan Market. The junior Kalra took over in 2011 and expanded the store to six other locations across Delhi and Gurugram. Dayal Opticals’ most recently available balance sheet for the financial year 2019-20, as available on the ministry of commerce website, shows a turnover of over Rs 46 crore.
The Dayal Opticals website describes Navneet Kalra as someone with “an eye for fashion” whose “spirited and dynamic approach” has given the chain an “almost iconic stature”.
But before joining his father’s company, Kalra was already active in the restaurant business.
Kalra’s restaurant ventures
Khan Chacha was an iconic restaurant in Delhi, starting off as a small stall set up by Haji Banda Hasan – the original “Khan chacha” – in 1972. In 2009, it shut down abruptly, though little is known as to why, before reopening in 2010 as part of a new business partnership with Navneet Kalra.
In 2016, Hasan and his sons parted ways with Kalra after, as Economic Times reported, “bickering over an agreement that Kalra claims assigned him the rights to the Khan Chacha brand in 2012, and Hasan alleges that is ‘forged and fabricated’.”
“There were a lot of things that happened,” Hasan’s son Mohammed Saleem told this reporter. “We couldn’t continue to work with him. He started pressuring us and in 2016, we went our separate ways.”
Saleem and his brother Javed had approached the Delhi High Court over the trademark rights of the Khan Chacha brand in 2017. The case dragged on until 2020 with no resolution. Then the pandemic began, bringing with it a countrywide lockdown.
“We had to focus on our work and think about our expenses,” Saleem said. “We discussed it at home and discussed that okay, he wants to keep the name. Let him have it. So, we did an out of court settlement.”
Hasan has been the original “Khan chacha”, as he had been referred to by school and college kids, Saleem said fondly. “It felt weird when our father’s name came up [in the present case] but now people know.”
As for Hasan himself, he is homebound now, Saleem said, suffering from Parkinson’s disease and dementia. “We are thankful to God he is still with us.”
As things stand now, Khan Chacha is now a unit of Gupta & Gupta Private Limited, whose directors are Kalra and his wife Shehla Kalra. Gupta & Gupta had a turnover of Rs 25 crore for the financial year 2019-20. There are 14 branches of Khan Chacha, including the one in Khan Market where the cops recovered 96 oxygen concentrators.
But Kalra’s connections to the restaurant industry run much deeper.
Apart from Khan Chacha, he is connected to at least four restaurants: Town Hall, Mr Choy, Public Affair, and Nege & Ju. The first three are in Khan Market while Nege & Ju is in Lodhi Colony. A total of 137 oxygen concentrators were found at Town Hall, Nege & Ju, and Khan Chacha.
While Kalra’s role in this scam is under the scanner, he isn’t the sole owner of Town Hall and Nege & Ju, both of which run under limited liability partnerships, or LLPs.
We did some digging.
A “health license” document available with the New Delhi Municipal Corporation describes Nege & Ju as a “unit of TK Hospitality”. TK Hospitality is in fact partners with two of the LLPs with Kalra, Black Pants Hospitality and One Hospitality.
TK Hospitality has Sanjay Rohatgi as a nominee for One Hospitality, while Sandeep Roy is the designated partner at Black Pants Hospitality.
Randeep Bajaj is also a partner at Nege & Ju, Town Hall, Mr Choy and Public Affair. All four restaurants are also listed on the website of a company called Ambrosia Hospitality, of which Bajaj is owner and founder.
Kalra, however, seems to be the most active face; his Twitter and Instagram accounts have multiple posts of him at the restaurants, often hosting celebrities and Indian cricketers.
Meanwhile, Town Hall restaurant is connected to an LLP called TH Mumbai Restaurants, according to a disclosure document accessed through the ministry of corporate affairs. One of the signatories is Vaibhav Vohra, who is also a director at Continental Carriers, a freight services company.
The other partners at TH Mumbai are Kalra, Bajaj and Vipin Kumar Sharma.
It should be noted that the LLP Act of 2008 says, “No partner is liable on account of the independent or unauthorised actions of other partners, thus allowing individual partners to be shielded from joint liability created by another partner’s wrongful business decisions or misconduct.”
The involvement of Matrix Cellular
Another company’s name cropped up in the police’s investigation into this “black marketing” of oxygen concentrators: Matrix Cellular.
During the police’s search of Nege & Ju, four people had been arrested: Gaurav Suri, Satish Sethi, Vikrant and Hitesh. Three of them – Vikrant, Sethi and Suri – were employees of Matrix Cellular, an international roaming sim card provider. Suri is the company’s vice-president.
According to the police, a “detailed interrogation” of the accused revealed that they were running a warehouse at Khullar Farm at Mandi Village – which is also the registered address of Matrix Cellular.
A search of the warehouse’s premises yielded 387 oxygen concentrators. The police and public prosecutor Atul Shrivastava claimed that Matrix’s employees and Kalra were “interlinked with a conspiracy to obtain wrongful gain”.
Accordingly, Vikrant, Sethi, Suri and Matrix CEO Gaurav Khanna were charged with cheating and criminal conspiracy under the penal code, as well as charges under the Essential Commodities Act and the Epidemic Diseases Act.
But what is this “interlink” between Kalra and Matrix?
Public prosecutor Shrivastava said a Matrix Cellular phone app, called “X Factor”, was being used to sell these oxygen concentrators. The app, which launched in 2016, provides mobile recharge facilities, travel insurance, foreign exchange and other travel-related services, as well as the provision of “safety essentials” like oxygen concentrators, oximeters, masks and sanitisers.
When downloaded, X Factor app opens with a statement about “baseless allegations” and a “misguided investigation”. When the second wave began in Delhi, the statement continued, what they thought was helping “fellow citizens” has been “maliciously portrayed to be a grand conspiracy to cheat Delhi and profit from the pandemic.”
Matrix Cellular has two directors: Gagan Singh Dugal, who lives in London and is the majority shareholder, and his father, retired army major general Manjit Singh Dugal. On May 8, the company approached the Delhi High Court and later obtained bail for its CEO Gaurav Khanna, vice-president Gaurav Suri, and the two other employees arrested at Nege & Ju.
In their petition, the company said there is no law that specifies the price limit of an oxygen concentrator.
“Similarly, there is absolutely no restriction on the total number of oxygen concentrators that can be stored,” it continued. “Therefore, on this ground alone, it is clear that there can be no offence committed by the petitioner or its employees.”
According to the petition, Matrix bought 7,500 oxygen concentrators between April 17 and May 3 for a total cost of Rs 30 crore. The concentrators were imported through a company called Classic Metals. According to Sanjay Lao, the additional standing counsel for Delhi government, the police were unable to trace the address of Classic Metals as of May 10.
Confusingly, Shrivastava, the public prosecutor in Kalra’s bail case, told the Court later that Matrix had actually imported the concentrators through Classic Metals and another company called Spice Healthcare.
A quick note on oxygen concentrators: The X Factor app was selling concentrators with capacities of five- and nine-litres for Rs 70,000 and above per piece, according to the Delhi police.
In contrast, websites like Indiamart sell five-litre concentrators for Rs 35,000. Chinese website Alibaba sells them for between $200 and $400, or between Rs 15,000 and Rs 30,000. Kalra and Matrix’s lawyers pointed out that their clients paid GST and other taxes on the imports, which is why the prices were higher.
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