In­dia’s Land­lord

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.

India Today - - INSIDE - By Dhi­raj Nayyar

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

K.P. SINGH (RIGHT) WITH JACKWELCH,

FORMER CEO OFGE AT THE TAJ MA­HAL

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