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It’s Time We Had A National Debate On Urbanisation: KP Singh

A couple of days after a Lifetime Achievement Award was bestowed on him at the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award ceremony, BW Businessworld’s Editor-in-Chief Annurag Batra engaged Chairman Emeritus of the DLF Group, Kushal Pal Singh, in a long conversation

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The man who envisioned the Millennium City – perhaps, the only city built in free India by a private enterprise – is now a nonagenarian. Yet, he has not stopped dreaming big. A couple of days after a Lifetime Achievement Award was bestowed on him at the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award ceremony, BW Businessworld’s Editor-in-Chief Annurag Batra engaged Chairman Emeritus of the DLF Group, Kushal Pal Singh, in a long conversation.


What should be the role of the private sector in developing cities at scale? What should be the roadmap for urbanisation? Mr K.P. Singh, you’ve won many awards, including the latest EY Lifetime Achievement Award. What does an award at the young age of 93 mean to you?

Well, awards like this frankly, do give you an inspiration and recognition of something that others had found impossible (to do), and I tried to make it possible. So it’s a great satisfaction that a very prominent institution like E&Y has recognised this and given me this honour. 

You embarked on your journey of building Gurgaon and the DLF City in Gurgaon many decades back. Has your dream been fulfilled? 
Frankly, if you ask me, am I fully satisfied – no. But, am I fully satisfied with what we have done, keeping in view the constraints we have on the town planning regulation– yes, I’m satisfied. But that’s not the way Gurgaon was envisaged. Gurgaon was envisaged to be as good as any city in the world, particularly those in South-East Asian countries like Malaysia and Korea at that time. Unfortunately, the town planning regulations were so archaic (now they are amended), that you could not build what you wanted to (in India). 

For instance, to build a city, you had to be a visionary. You don’t see how a city is going to come up in 10-15 years, you see how it’s going to be 50-100 years from now. Posterity will judge you. So, in this issue, when you look back, the whole planning was wrong. 

During the mid-1950s, you would kindly remember, there was a pattern of development decided by the then government – it’s called a socialistic pattern of society. That’s how the Planning Commission came in. At that time, India had just become independent and everything was in short supply. They brought a slogan – ‘Think small and manage shortages’. So, every development had to have the mindset ‘think small, manage shortages’. That’s why you find that all industrial undertakings had a capacity limitation.

If you apply the same ‘think small, manage shortages’ philosophy to urbanisation, (you get) the DDA Apartments! 

Of course, a dream gets upgraded every now and then.
But in urbanisation, a mistake cannot be set right, because once you make the road and put apartment buildings on the side, then when you want to increase the width of the road, it necessarily means that the apartments along the road would have to be demolished. Is it humanly possible to do so in India? No, it’s not possible, because the system is such that if anyone brings in a bulldozer, they will go to court. So, the mistake made in urbanisation is very difficult to set right in future. 

The philosophy has changed now from ‘think small, manage shortages’ to ‘think big and create surplus’. That is the dictum of the industrial development now in the country. In urbanisation, it has to be ‘think big again and create larger spaces, wider roads’. That has not yet come in. 

How do you see the development of Gurgaon and DLF City and the DLF development in Gurgaon vis-à-vis what you started with?
Coming back to when we started in Gurgaon. I called it a Knowledge City and not an Industrial City. I had this vision of a city where people would come from outside with knowledge i.e. hi-tech. They would be from the upper strata of society. So, they would want to live well. They would create employment. They would be catalysts for more businesses to come. They would give more revenue to the state, and there would be more all-round prosperity. They would want open spaces. They would want bigger areas. 

But unfortunately, the Town Planning Regulation restricted our vision. For example, I wanted a normal road to be of a minimum width of 24 metres, sometimes 36 metres. But the roads inside the colony are 12 metres. 

Yes, the town masterplans are made 20-25 years in advance. Then the implementation takes five to 10 years. Effectively, you have 10-12 years… and then it’s already time to upgrade the infrastructure. So, how do you make a masterplan that is good for the ensuing 50-70 years? 

See, master planning has to be made by visionaries. See Chandigarh’s development, built maybe 60 years back.

This brings us to your crucial input of having developers with reputed track records participate in the urbanisation story. How can developers like DLF participate in the urbanisation of India today and how do we make sure that at the highest level there is a consciousness of the role of private sector developers in building the new India that this government, and the Prime Minister, wants to do?
In 1958, the then government decided to nationalise the business of urban land development. The government had a noble objective. At that time, they thought, ‘oh the farmer is not being paid well, if you allow in the private sector’.  So, the government will pay them a good compensation.  Secondly, prices of houses were too high, rentals were too high, so they thought when the government makes houses, the prices will come down.  Thirdly, planned development will take place because planning will not be distorted and fourthly, there will be no corruption. Exactly 100 per cent opposite happened.

The opposite happened...
India is a democracy, so there's a demand and this one decision of the government in 1958 upset the whole of India’s urban development. When this business decision happened, DLF opted out.  See, DLF has never been in any business that was not authorised.  So, my late father-in-law said we can't do anything, let's get out – so we got on the industrial side. But some new breed of people came in. We called them fly-by-night operators. Where ever they found land, they made houses, and earned in crores.  What happened was in collusion with the town planners, in collusion with some bureaucrats, and political people. All these new constructions were completely against the plan.   

And the quality was not up to the mark...
You find unauthorised buildings here, slums here. So a third of India today lives in the slums. 

So when I started (building Gurgaon) in 1980, it was an uphill task for me.  I had a very fine mentor, Mr H.D. Shourie, who founded Common Cause. The job of this platform was to think of how a common man could be helped. So I talked to him. He said, ‘let’s go to USAID.’ So, we met the concerned person at USAID. He said, ‘We will bring you a copy of the law (to show) what is done in the US.’ So this RERA law today is based on that US law. In 1980, we got the law, adapted it to Indian conditions, and then tried to get the government to enact this law.  

We tried, nothing happened till Mr Modi came and since Modiji is a Prime Minister with conviction and committed to decision making, I think around 2015 or 2016, he brought a law called RERA. Now the RERA law is so good that all the errant builders, developers, who were hoodwinking you and doing wrong things, they are either in jail or bailed out or bankrupt. Now today, because of RERA the malpractices have stopped. Therefore, a new era of developers has started.

I've retired.  I have got nothing to lose, nothing to gain, okay? Since you are asking me, since this award was given to me – it is a recognition – and therefore, if I don't say, then frankly I'll be accused of abdicating my responsibility of not expressing my views on what is wrong and what is right.

So, what should be done by the builders of infrastructure? This is a government that is focusing on building infrastructure. So how do you really bring large developers to partner with the government and be a catalyst in the development of new India?

All of it emanates from planning.  Planning emanates from the Centre and since it is a state subject, it goes down to the state. So, I request you all to have a national debate. Whatever the Honourable Prime Minister wants to do for India, the states get to implement. It is for the good of the states, but some states oppose (these developments) for the heck of it. 

Urbanisation cannot be done by one sector of the economy.  Public-private sector partnership is vital. Without that you cannot do anything.  Invent new cities. 

According to a McKinsey report, that they came out with in 2014, India will be a total mess. India will need to develop one Chicago type of city every year. Imagine the magnitude. 

And I can tell you very definitely, I feel we will cross the Prime Minister’s vision of having $5 trillion growth. The reason being that Indians are very bright entrepreneurs. I see this abroad and I meet a lot of people.  

The Smart City Mission is a pet project of this government and the Prime Minister. How do you accelerate the Smart City Mission?
You see, I beg to disagree slightly. The Smart City is like putting a bandage or making a little improvement. But the basics remain the same. 

I will say that what they are doing in smart cities is a step in the right direction but it is not good enough. It is one small thing but it is not a permanent thing. Urbanisation is a colossal job. But at least, it is good for the future. 

So, we have to start thinking big and start executing big? 
Think big, make a paradigm shift in your mindset, make completely different things. So when growth happens and migration of people come in, they have a better life than in the past. It will be like having two India’s. India of the past, you can live in and be smart enough in a couple of things, but the important thing is, India of the future. 

Absolutely, Mr Singh. You have seen many governments. You have seen many eras of thinking if I may call it that. What are the three big things you see happening in India right now? Which are the steps in the right direction or the trends that tell you where India is headed?
I would say frankly, see, the step the Prime Minister has taken to digitalise India is something (that is really big). If you compare with the rest of the world, very few countries can stand up to India now. So, from a situation (where there was no digitalistion) to now, when we are digitalising almost everything – is a fantastic achievement. 

UPI, ONDC, Swachh Bharat Mission …   
Yes, and the amount of rural infrastructure being done! I mean we don't see the effect here, but you do see the effect in the villages. The effect is being not perceived, it is being seen. So that’s a great job in my view. And this also in my view, are the policies of the government. 

Today, Prime Minister Modi is recognised as a world leader.  I would say frankly, he is a top world leader. So, therefore, he has already commanded, not commanded, he has earned the respect of all the other countries.
 We feel that there is a tremendous change in the perception of India among people outside. 

Industries that are based in China for a variety of reasons – political and otherwise – they wanted to shift. So, why are they going towards Vietnam today?  Vietnam, it is a small place, yet they are going there

Single window clearance and price competitiveness?   
And also Ease of Doing Business, but it is a competitor. Vietnam is small and it has a language barrier. Look at India – English speaking, 29 years is the average age of the young and of course, we are better than the best entrepreneurs. 

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