Why India seems short of sympathy for its middle class

Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint


Sorrows like dream homes worth crores going poof on builder failure are not seen as tragic enough

Nirvana Country is an almost beautiful island in the vast dismal ugliness of Gurugram. Some residents call it “Unitech’s folly" because the colony has broad tree-lined pathways, pretty parks with flower beds and little green mounds, and there are other hints of builder generosity, which is rare in India. Public life here appears to be good. Happy old men amble in groups talking about the importance of authoritarianism; their wives sit in a circle and sing; an American with a mohawk teaches teenaged girls karate; and some boys are so posh they can’t bowl. The place was even prettier about 15 years ago. So, at the time, when Unitech announced the making of Nirvana II, just a few kilometres away, hundreds rushed to book villas.

The builder was to begin delivery of the homes around 2012, but no one has got possession yet. The builder has since perished, two of its promoters in jail for fraud, and its management has been taken over by bureaucrats. Hundreds of people who sank their savings in the project or had taken huge loans that they still service, have joined lakhs of Indians who trusted various marquee builders, but are yet to get possession of their houses.

The buyers have been seeking the attention of courts, politicians, regulators and the media. Among them, those who booked anything better than cheap housing are at a particular disadvantage. There is no real sympathy for them. In a nation where the bar for what constitutes misery is very high, a delay in the possession of a villa does not count as a misfortune. Judges, bureaucrats, activists, journalists and empathetic beings do not consider the issue trivial, but when set against what an average Indian endures, the completion of a half-dead residential project so that some people can get their villas is not a priority.

There would even be a quarrel over the use of the term ‘middle-class’ for villa-owners. By income and assets, they do not represent the median Indian household. For some reason, development economists and their friends revel in the fact the true Indian middle class is much poorer than most people who use terms like ‘middle class’. But then an economic class can exist independent of its nation’s plight, exhibiting a set of behaviours that are uniform across the world. My own definition of the middle-class is anyone who must work to sustain their present lifestyle; also anyone whose spending confidence depends on a regular income. Seen this way, the middle classes, across the world, share common features. Just that in rich countries, the middle-class form a majority, and in poor countries, they do not, making them politically insignificant, which denies them an important form of sympathy: the political consideration. Being middle-class in a poor country can have some aspects of wealth, but it is a far more fragile condition than the state of being wealthy. A shock like a home-buying decision gone wrong can have disastrous consequences.

Aditya Mishra is a finance executive who invested in a villa in Nirvana II in 2009. Soon after he paid the down payment, construction began. Typically in such projects, payments are staggered and linked to completion of phases. The initial work was brisk. Over the first five years, he paid up about 85% of the villa’s cost of 1.8 crore. This means, apart from sinking in his own savings, he has been paying an EMI of over 1 lakh every month for the past several years. But the villa that was to be delivered in 2012 is still not his.

The unlucky buyers of Nirvana II have formed a tight group and have been pleading with regulators and bureaucrats. They are careful never to use the word “villas". Instead, Aditya told me, they use the expression “our dream homes".

On some pleading expeditions, they take their spouses and parents along to demonstrate the emotional nature of their “dream home". The buyers have also asked their banks to restructure their loans, which is a euphemism to permit defaults or reduce the financial burden in some way. But the banks have said that their credit-ratings, open for all to see, will take such a beating that they may never get a bank loan again.

India’s lack of compassion for him frustrates Aditya, but there is a particular part that irritates him. It comes from his peers. They say he is not in such a bad way because property prices have tripled, or maybe even quadrupled in Gurgaon from the time he had paid the down-payment for his 360 square-yard villa. He says when you consider the money spent on the project over the past 15 years, the returns are not so attractive, even if he might one day get possession. And what is the price one can put on the failed dream to his own corner of the world.

Some of the elderly who wished to live their last lap in their own villas with their families have died fighting for what was their own. Families have aged since they made the fateful error to move to Nirvana II and their children are almost adults today, ready to fly away.

Aditya says it is all so cruel; buyers had faith in Nirvana II because banks had endorsed the project, effectively. So, Aditya asks, why should only individual home-owners pay the price, why not have these banks share their misery? Instead, banks continue to make money off people who have been cheated of their homes for nearly 15 years.

Yet, their pain and rage cannot move the nation. Sorrows, in India, have to submit to a decorum. They need tremendous reasons to be considered sorrows.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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