From a village boy who walked to school barefoot to the country’s biggest real estate developer who changed the urban landscape of India. The trials and triumphs of K.P. Singh in his own words.
The trials and triumphs of India’s biggest real estate developer in his own words.
Brand DLF is almost synonymous with Gurgaon, the bustling satellite city of the national capital, Delhi. Just over 30 years ago, it was the vision of Kushal Pal Singh that saw a sparkling urban centre of tall buildings and glass facades in the midst of semibarren agricultural fields owned by farmers who had not sold their land for generations. The odds were stacked against K.P. Singh in 1980. Delhi Land and Finance ( DLF) had been founded by his father-in-law Chaudhry Raghvendra Singh in 1946 but had been out of the real estate business for more than two decades since 1957 when a Government-appointed committee decided that all urban development in the national capital would be carried out by a single agency, the Delhi Development Authority ( DDA). A myriad of complicated laws in the state of Haryana made it nearly impossible for a private developer to make headway. K.P. Singh defied the odds: he persuaded the Government to change the laws; he talked farmers into selling their land and gave them a good price for it.
What ever the odds:the incredible story behind DLF is the story of his life and his entrepreneurship. Singh is a role model for young entrepreneurs. He made it big on his own steam, learning life’s hard lessons as he moved from a career in the army to a long stint in manufacturing before becoming India’s top real estate developer. His story is important for India because he has navigated successfully two fields which are turning into the country’s Achilles heel: land acquisition and orderly urbanisation.
me to sit down. In typical military style, he came straight to the point. ‘I believe you want to run away from the
IMA?’ were his first words. I was too shocked to make a coherent reply. ‘No sir,’ I managed to stutter.
He then pulled out my letter addressed to Julie and laid it on his desk. I realised the game was up—my letter had been opened and read by my superiors. I blurted out the truth…
The battalion commander listened to my confession without any expression. Then he said: ‘Your plan is foolish. Don’t you know that we have military police posted at Dehra Dun railway station to catch deserters? If they arrest you, I will have no option but to punish you most severely.’
Then he said the strangest thing. ‘No, let’s do it another way. I will help you escape. I will take you in my car to the railway station at Haridwar around 50 km away from Dehra Dun, where there will be no military police. You can thereafter take a train to Delhi without anyone stopping you.’
I was struck dumb. I did not know whether he was being sarcastic or trying to trap me.
After a pause, he spoke again: ‘By the way, what are your plans after you finish your course in England? Will you stay on to work in England or come back to India?’
‘I would prefer to come back to India if there were a job opportunity,’ I replied.
Leaning forward, his voice suddenly stern, he said, ‘If you stay back in England, you will live like a nobody in a foreign country and go unnoticed. On the contrary, if you return to India, you will be known as a bhagora.’
I asked him what bhagora meant. He said it meant a weakling who had run away from a challenge.
‘You will be seen as a coward who ran away despite being from a family with a lot of highly decorated army officers. If you do not mind this stigma, I will help you run away.’…
It was my first lesson in brilliant man-management. Had he reprimanded me sternly in the typical army way and threatened me with dire consequences, I would have probably quit. Instead, he used warmth and advice to get me to think the way he wanted me to. We started land acquisition in Gurgaon in 1979 to build residential colonies...
The land was mostly owned by the Ahir
community who are traditional agriculturists… There was absolutely no culture or history in the community of selling their land and as such there was a strong emotional attachment to property bequeathed to them by their forefathers…
Convincing them to sell their land was not easy… I sat with them, discussed various topics and had endless glasses of milk, tea or buttermilk...over time I virtually became a part of each family and was soon involved in settling family disputes, arranging school admissions…it helped create a relationship of mutual trust and respect...it took me time to get farmers to see the logic of argument I laid out for them...my pitch to them went like this; ‘So far you have a total landholding of four to five acres which is unproductive. If you sell the present land to me I will arrange for ten times more land for you which would not only give better agricultural yield but also give you a sense of security.’... On one of these visits [to Gurgaon], on a particularly scorching day, I had parked my car near a village well and sat down to evaluate the potential…i was chatting with a villager when a speeding jeep
SEATED LEFTTO RIGHT: GRANDDAUGHTERS SAVITRI AND ANUSHKA, K.P. SINGH, GRANDDAUGHTER TARA, WIFE INDIRA, GRANDSONS JAI AND RAHUL; STANDING LEFTTO RIGHT: SONIN-LAWTIMMYSARNA, DAUGHTERS PIAAND RENUKA, DAUGHTER-IN-LAWKAVITA, SON RAJIVAND SON-IN-LAWRANATALWAR screeched to a halt nearby. The driver of the vehicle emerged and asked if he could get a can of water as his engine was overheating.…it was only when I came close that I realized it was none other than Rajiv Gandhi.
Rajiv used to love driving out of Delhi and often used to visit his farmhouse on the outskirts of Mehrauli…rajiv had just quit his career as a pilot with Indian Airlines. He was taking his first hesitant steps into politics…
‘What are you doing in such a desolate place and that too at the height of summer?’ Rajiv asked me after I had introduced myself.
‘I am in the real estate business and am inspired by the idea of creating a modern city on the outskirts of Delhi,’ I replied.
He became interested and pressed me in the issue.
‘What is holding it up and why don’t you do it?’ he asked.
I decided to be frank and upfront and told him all about the existing land laws and how the odds were stacked against private developers…
Intrigued, he asked me for details on land legislation, statutes and town planning regulations which, I had told him, impeded urban growth… We
sat there for an hour and half, in the middle of nowhere, engaged in detailed discussions about the idea of creating an integrated, world-class township in Gurgaon.
When DLF restarted in 1981, we wanted to set up a highrise group housing project called Silver Oaks on a plot of eleven acres in Phase I...
As in Delhi, there were restrictions on the height of a building in Haryana too. Only eight floors were allowed. It made a mockery of our plans to build a new age city! I requested a meeting with Bhajan Lal to discuss the need for changing the norms on height restrictions...
He asked Khurshid Ahmed [a minister] to bring along town planners and bureaucrats for our meeting....the meeting was held in a huge room on the fourth floor, where the chief minister had his office...the tone of the meeting was set by the chief town planner, B.P. Sinha, who was doggedly opposed to the construction of buildings that went beyond eight floors. Bhajan Lal asked him to spell out his reasons. Sinha tried to create a false sense of alarm by saying that there could be an earthquake.
‘Apart from earthquake, firefighting would be difficult with taller buildings,’ he cautioned. ‘Moreover, people would die if they fell off taller buildings,’ he concluded.
Bhajan Lal listened patiently before asking, ‘Tell me, Mr Sinha, how are tall buildings all over the world surviving?’
Instead of answering the question, Sinha said it would be unwise to grant permission for taller buildings by changing the existing planning and building norms.
‘Am I then to understand from your arguments that up to eight floors is safe and all floors beyond that would be dangerous?’ Bhajan Lal asked sarcastically.
The chief minister’s stand was clear. He looked towards the big window to his right and said, ‘We are sitting on the fourth floor and what Mr Sinha is saying is that up to eight floors are safe. Will he or any one of you who are now opposing tall buildings jump out of this window as the fourth floor according to you is safe? If any of you get injured, then the fourth is also dangerous. Will you then shift your norm from eight to less than four?’
There was silence. The point had been driven home. A holiday with friends suddenly turns into a nightmare, a tragedy of unimaginable proportions, and everything you have achieved in life counts for nothing... In my case, it came on 2 January 2001, when a helicopter crash near Mussoorie killed several of my dearest friends and almost extinguished the light of my life, my wife Indira. The emotional turbulence was something I had never experienced before. There was shock, grief and the guilt that the helicopter in which I had been travelling had landed safely but the other one carrying my wife and closest friends had crashed. I was given a glimmer of hope when I discovered that my wife, through some miracle, was still alive, even though she was in a critical condition with multiple fractures and internal injuries. The accident roused in me an inner strength that I did not know I had, and a fierce determination to get her back on her feet with the best medical care that modern science could provide...
The helicopter crash brutally brought home the uncertainty of human existence. It prompted me to examine the value of my worldly success and personal achievements. What dominated my thoughts was one niggling question: had I adequately repaid society for all the fame and fortune I had been blessed with? Pacing up and down outside my wife’s hospital room, praying for her recovery, I could sense a re-setting of my inner moral compass. For the first time in my frenetic career, I had the time and the motivation to think about the importance of giving rather than accumulating.
WHATEVER THE ODDS: THE INCREDIBLE STORY BEHIND DLF By K.P. Singh with Ramesh Menon and Raman Swamy Harpercollins Price: RS 699 Pages: 323
BETWEEN THE COVERS In his memoirs, the selfmade billionaire not only tells the story of how he built his dream of a futuristic city on the barren lands of Haryana. He also recounts his life’s journey and his encounters with extraordinary people who inspired him.
K.P. SINGH (RIGHT) WITH JACKWELCH,
FORMER CEO OFGE AT THE TAJ MAHAL