The expressway that cuts a swathe through the rich soil between the banks of the Yamuna and the Hindon rivers has been spruced up. On either side, poxing the fields with sudden eruptions, are buildings that weren't on the horizon a couple of years ago.
A home deco park, international schools, highrise condominiums -- the six-lane freeway that connects Delhi with Greater Noida is a little like the Nile, with rich pickings on either side by way of prime estate.
If Gurgaon has been Delhi's boom suburb in the NCR, Greater Noida has been its discreet cousin. Where Gurgaon is brash and nouveau riche, Greater Noida is displaying qualities of breeding and elegance.
Where traffic snarls and chaotic malls have come to symbolise Gurgaon, planned development has been Greater Noida's forte.
And last week, Greater Noida got a further shot in the arm with Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh promising it an international airport as well as the Metro. "Already," says Rakesh Kumar, managing director of the India Expo Centre, which the PM inaugurated on January 6, "prices in the vicinity have gone up 10-15 per cent."
That isn't entirely true. According to some, Greater Noida prices had escalated to a high some 8-10 months back, and have remained stagnant since. "Perhaps it was in anticipation of the commissioning of the Expo Centre and other large projects," says Atul Sethi of the Stellar Gymkhana next door to the facility, "but prices seem unlikely to rise any time soon."
In part that's because, at Rs 14,000-18,000 per sq m for plots, according to Sethi, any further escalation would be unreal (though Rakesh Kumar implies prices are more likely Rs 10,000-12,000 per sq m).
As it is, flats in Greater Noida are selling for Rs 2,000-2,350 per sq ft, while prices for commercial proerties such as Ansal Plaza and Omaxe are in the region of Rs 5,500-6,500 per sq ft. At Jaypee Greens, seamless villas are on offer on the greens of India's largest golf course, but if you need to ask the price, you can't afford them.
But there's no doubt that the India Expo Centre is symbolic of development in Greater Noida. As opposed to Gurgaon's haphazard real-estate development, it comes with all the moorings of international business, which is what Greater Noida is hoping to cash in on. For all that Gurgaon's glitzy-but-squalid growth implies, Greater Noida is hellbent on being India's first high quality township.
India Expo Centre is certainly a step in that direction. For those who might wonder what it is, think of a state-of-the-art, centrally air-conditioned Pragati Maidan, and you might have a better picture of its function.
Spread over 58 acres, the PM cut the tape on the first phase of the Rs 404-crore (Rs 4.04 billion), self-financing venture as a public-private partnership project. By September 2006, when the second phase is launched, the Expo Centre will double its existing facilities.
Look at some of its logistics: a total built-up space of 2,35,000 sq m, eight interconnected exhibition halls of 4,500 sq m each, and a permanent, long-lease mart that covers 42,625 sq m.
Walking through the halls where finishing work is still underway, Rakesh Kumar is exuberant and reels off statistics -- 34 escalators, 20 lifts, a parking lot for 8,000 cars, 16 MW power back-up, underground cabled facilities for every exhibition participant for telephone, power feeds, even water. There's valet parking at the entrance, the mart is 100 per cent leased, and exhibitions through much of 2008 have already been booked.
With an equity of Rs 35 crore (Rs 350 million) as authorised share and paid up capital mooted by the Export Promotion Council of Handicrafts (of which Kumar is executive director), a small shareholding with the Greater Noida Authority, and 85 per cent of the funding coming from among 70 exporters (who have been given shops in the mart on partnership levels of Rs 25-50 lakh -- Rs 2.5-5 million), when fully ready, India Expo Centre will have a helipad, a dedicated fleet of cabs on call, a food plaza, several restaurants, banquet and conference facilities.
Already, signs off a rub-off are visible. "The quality of cars coming to Greater Noida has changed," laughs Kumar, "you see many more Mercedes Benzes now."
Dedicated to B-to-B events, the mart will remain open on Fridays and Saturdays (according to international models in Shanghai and Dallas). "We," he takes a swipe at distant cousin Pragati Maidan in Delhi, "are not for the masses, but the classes."
While the Expo Centre will provide a fillip to business in Greater Noida (and impact handicrafts exporters around the country), it is also pointing to the lacunae in Greater Noida. All said and done, Greater Noida is a city outside Delhi, and even though access is fast on the expressway, it will mean a considerable commute for buyers attending a fair, or coming to the mart.
This is particularly so in the absence of any hotels in the area. For now, there are a few cottages at Jaypee Greens (a hotel is on the cards), the YMCA, and some rooms at the Stellar Gymkhana. Even Noida has only one hotel worth the name -- the MBD Radisson.
Clearly, there is an urgent need for rooms in the immediate vicinity. Especially since, beginning January 19, the fairgrounds will open to international visitors on a large scale -- Kumar throws out numbers such as 2,000 and 4,000 with complete ease.
When the township infrastructure is complete, costs might edge up yet again, but for now the jump from Rs 4,000 a sq m in 1999 to Rs 12,000-18,000 per sq m (depending on location) has been the sharpest rise Greater Noida has seen. It's time prices settled down, and Greater Noida got on with the business of measuring up to the aspirations the community has placed on it.