On the day of India’s biggest initial public offering (IPO), Malini Kakkar sat on the second floor of her generously sized house and told me not to be so envious.
Home happens to be DLF Phase I in Gurgaon, where real estate magnate K.P. Singh began in the 1980s his makeover of this once faraway village. Today, the Delhi suburb bursts with big business, affluent residents and harried commuters at all hours of the day and night. Kakkar’s family got in early—about 15 years ago—hence my envy as we chatted atop the gold mine.
Besides the government, perhaps no institution has redefined work and home and wealth in the nation’s Capital as much as DLF Group. In many ways, it became a literal metaphor for India Shining, with malls and brands in neon lights, the seemingly endless buildings that angle to the sky, reflecting aspiration such as DLF Infinity Towers and DLF Princeton—punctuated by soaring property values.
Yet, the lights go out all the time.
As DLF and the Haryana Urban Development Authority tussle over responsibility for utilities and investment in infrastructure, residents say they have been caught in the middle. That explains why so many in Gurgaon seem engaged in a love-hate relationship with the DLF banner under which they live and work. Their predicament is one that resonates across India, as private and public institutions draw similar battle lines—Bangalore comes to mind—with homeowners and workers caught in the crossfire.
On the sweltering day I met Kakkar, the power had been out for hours and the maid had summoned her home early to calm a fussy, sweaty, inconsolable toddler.
By the time we met, the market closed to the news that DLF had been 78% subscribed by investors still believing in the India growth story.
But where, Kakkar wanted to know, do power, water, security fit into that tale? Will partial public ownership mean increased scrutiny on delivery of promises? Or perhaps more pressure on the government, too, to live up to its end of deals?
“Do you know how much time I spend trying to get through the day?” Kakkar asked. “Things that could bring me peace of mind, that would allow me to focus on living… it gets worse every summer.”
DLF, in a quiet period because of the IPO, declined to comment. Three numbers for the Haryana authority repeatedly rang unanswered; an email query also yielded no comment.
As I ventured towards DLF Phase II, the sprawling houses looked incidental under the towers that loomed larger, from behemoth call centre operator Convergys to several buildings tacked with corporate logos as a bulletin board for the elite: Nokia, Microsoft, Sapient, Alcatel.
Advertisements and leaflets for the IPO abounded. “DLF: building India,” they blared.
“They have been able to create this brand which is so superior,” says Vivek Bansal, who helps run his family’s coke and coal firm. He lives in Phase II. “When you tell people you live in DLF, it’s much better than others.”
Bansal loves the golf course, hates the growing traffic and fears the blurring between residential and commercial space. Water and power, he concedes, are ubiquitous problems across India so he can forgive DLF—but still, he wants someone to fix the problem. Who, he doesn’t know.
“The current infrastructure has been set up on a population figure of seven lakh,” said Bhawani Shankar Tripathy, general secretary of the Joint Action Forum of Residents’ Associations in Gurgaon. “Already we’re at 15 lakh. Lots of people do feel cheated, some people are happy. But overall, we’re in a mess.”
Onto DLF Phase III, where the visible mess seemed contained to ongoing construction. Puneet Singhal, who lives and works in this third phase, recounts the awful conditions of his last office and rattled off amenities under DLF now: continuous power at work, a gym, walking distance to retail and restaurants.
So impressed is he, Singhal plans to buy a DLF flat next year.
Indeed, DLF’s strong IPO this week reflects a belief in continued growth in real estate. Yet land values have gone up as the services to so many homes remain the same as a pre-liberalized India, perhaps worse. Offices have escaped this fate; as a manager at Avon India, Kakkar says when she has a meeting in a DLF property, she assumes the client is a legitimate one.
Billionaire Kushal Pal Singh plans to use the proceeds of the successful IPO to build more apartments and offices and increase land purchases.
The homeowners who still struggle daily for basic needs and services hope he remembers them. Future projects in a resource-strapped Gurgaon should be ensured an adequate power and water supply exists.
That’s a smarter way to keep building India.
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