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The day K P Singh wanted to sell DLF for 26 lakh

June 26, 2020 13:19 IST

Persuaded not to sell that day in January 1975, DLF today has assets of over Rs 52,237 crore and a net worth of around Rs 40,000 crore.
Ramesh Menon, K P Singh's biographer, reveals more.

IMAGE: Kushal Pal Singh, the face of India's largest listed real estate firm DLF, stepped down as the company's chairman at the age of 90.

There are few evocative stories in India's business world that can match Kushal Pal Singh sculpting DLF into one of India's biggest real estate giants.

It is a story with numerous twists and turns that almost seems crafted by a master storyteller.

How else can one see the journey of someone who was born in a small room in a village, went to a madrassa near his home for his initial education, and then to a middle-class school and college?

No one could have even taken a wild guess that he would script one of India's most colourful business stories.

Much against his wishes, he was made to enrol in the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun. He planned to run away but stayed after an officer told him that he would be known as a deserter, and eventually grew to love the tough life, seeing it as an adventure.

He quit the army because he wanted to become an entrepreneur in a battery manufacturing business. It did not do well.

He then got into the family's real estate business; DLF was his father-in-law's fledgling company. He wanted to shut it down as it was almost bankrupt due to obstructive government regulations.

 

IMAGE: A DLF residential building . Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

In fact, in January 1975, Singh was on the verge of selling DLF for Rs 26 lakh. The cheque was on the table of his office in the Hindustan Times building in New Delhi.

Before he signed the papers, Y S Tayal, DLF's chief financial advisor, persuaded him to think it over as that would mean the end of his family's association with DLF.

Prem, his sister-in-law, and Indira, his wife, also cajoled him not to sell. The rest is history.

Today, DLF has assets of over Rs 52,237 crore and a net worth of around Rs 40,000 crore.

After that, he told himself that he had to revitalise DLF. He started persuading farmers to sell land in Gurgaon, on the outskirts of the national capital, with the ambition of building a modern city full of high-end gated colonies.

But there were too many hurdles in the form of government restrictions and red tape. Everyone told him he was wasting his time.

A chance meeting with Rajiv Gandhi changed his fortunes. Gandhi was driving on the dusty roads of a village on a sweltering summer afternoon when the overheated engine of his car stalled.

Singh was conversing with a farmer nearby, trying to persuade him to sell his land. He offered Rajiv a charpoy under a tree to rest as the engine cooled.

Rajiv asked him what he was doing sitting in a field beside a well on such a hot day. Singh told him that he wanted to build the most modern city in India.

Rajiv asked him to make a presentation at his New Delhi office. He then convinced his mother Indira Gandhi to make the necessary legal changes that would make it easier for real estate entrepreneurs to build in Gurgaon.

Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

There was no looking back after that. Singh, however, was careful to ensure that farmers selling their land were given a good deal and even helped them buy larger pieces of land in areas like Alwar.

He also helped them restart their agriculture business in their newly settled areas. As he built goodwill, more and more farmers came forward to sell their land.

Today, DLF has 153 real estate projects and has developed 330 million square feet. It has a land bank of nearly 13,000 acres and a large part of it is in Gurgaon.

But, it was not easy. Singh still had to deal with a plethora of laws and bureaucratic tangles to obtain clearances to acquire over 3,500 acres of raw land on which a large part of Gurgaon stands today.

All this was acquired without a single case of legislation against DLF.

Singh achieved this by personally meeting with villagers who respected him because of his army background.

He would chat with them in their houses, breaking bread and explaining why they should sell their land (it was mostly unproductive as it was rocky and there was little water for farming).

It was a good deal for the farmers because they could settle elsewhere and live a better life. He even persuaded some of them to give him back the money he had paid for the land as a loan.

He promised that he would pay them back whenever they wanted. He kept his word and every month, on a designated day, a jeep would go into the villages disbursing the interest on the loans he had taken from the villagers.

This built trust, helping him to get more land and also gather the capital to start construction activities.

Photograph: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

DLF has built numerous high-end properties in Gurgaon attracting multinationals and some of India's top corporations.

Today it has become a showcase for offices and residences in India. It is a bustling modern city with glistening glass-fronted office complexes, large glitzy malls, and tastefully built skyscrapers towering over the landscape.

It has over 500 top companies employing scores of young professionals. Many were from the IT sector which needed contemporary, well-built office spaces.

It was a win-win situation for both DLF and the corporations.

Gurgaon, however, did not turn out the way Singh wanted. The infrastructure developed by the state was sloppy and successive governments did not do what it was required to make it an example of good visionary urban governance.

As he takes over as chairman emeritus of DLF at the age of 90, handing over the reins to his son Rajiv Singh, he may well sit back and hope that governments will see the logic of why private entrepreneurs should be given the space and freedom to build a modern India.


Ramesh Menon is co-author of K P Singh's autobiography Whatever the Odds: The Incredible Story Behind DLF.

Production: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com

Ramesh Menon
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