‘Earlier, it was all about thinking small and managing shortages. Now you have to think big, create surpluses’

Walk the Talk
K P Singh, chairman and CEO of real estate giant DLF, recently came out with his autobiography, Whatever the Odds. In this Walk the Talk on NDTV 24x7 with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, he talks about his company's journey, his relationship with Rajiv Gandhi and why India needs to prepare for growing urbanisation

How do you describe somebody with an 80-year life that's colourful, interesting, successful, controversial? Maybe I should describe Mr K P Singh as one of India's youngest entrepreneurs?

Well, age is a factor of the mind. I don't think I feel 80. I am young.

It's also a straightforward Jat way of looking at things. I remember Dharmendra, your fellow Jat, saying in Johnny Gaddar, "It is not about age, it is about mileage." So how does it work—age and mileage?

If you have had a sense of fulfillment, an ability to fight, succeed and no frustration, that gives you mileage in life. And that prolongs your life, so age is a phenomenon I don't get. It's when you get tired, and tiredness comes when you are frustrated.

When do you feel tired?

Sometimes you get frustrated because of the way the system works in India. You feel the same thing could have been done much faster. But when you find that things take a long time, frustration becomes a way of life in the Indian business context. But I don't get tired. I have an attitude of mind, where I say this is not relevant to me, I concentrate on something else.

But with all the constraints, you built this wonder in Gurgaon, the most expensive apartment buildings in India—Aralias, Magnolia. So the system is not so bad, you can get around it?

But it has taken a lot out of us. The same thing could have been done at ten times the speed and perhaps more economically. It took us a long time to get approvals, but my way of working always has been: two wrongs don't make one right.

Can you run a property business without bribing?

In my terminology, what I call bribing, is in two parts: One, where you give money to somebody to facilitate quicker disposal. Second, you give money, if somebody asks you, to do a wrong job. Now in my terminology, bribing is to do a wrong job, which I have never done in my life.

You function mostly in Haryana, one of the rougher states in India and you've had ups and downs. Have you had the political class ask you for big money? Fund my election, finance this, finance that?

No, not with me. But, it's also equally true that when elections happen, out of your goodwill, you give people who you believe should be elected. When I was very deeply involved in DLF, I was then also very deeply involved with Jack Welch (former General Electric CEO) whose policy was zero money anywhere in the world. So it rubbed off on me. I tried to do the same thing here in India, that's why I sometimes landed in trouble.

Is it a tough business?

It's a very tough business for those who do it the right way and DLF does it the right way. When the business was nationalised, when DDA took over, my father-in-law was the founder of this company.

You know what I call DDA? Delhi Destruction Authority.

Well, maybe the objective was right but perhaps at that time they did not realise that the job was too big—you should have had the private sector also involved with the public sector.

Because I always say that the top socialist bureaucrats of India gave themselves the enclaves of Shanti Niketan, West End and Vasant Vihar, and they left us working classes to the mercy of the Delhi Destruction Authority.

But I would not criticise DDA because the job was too big for them. If you bite too much and you are not able to chew, indigestion follows. So today, I would urge the government to reform DDA by taking a lot of items away from them. They should be an enabler, regulator and monitor.

But you are still having trouble with DDA for clearances for many of your key projects in Delhi.

DLF is not the only one. I don't believe we are singled out. Personally, I believe DDA is doing the job they are supposed to do, but the system is so bureaucratic, the system is such, it takes time. In 1957, when Nehru brought the socialist pattern of society in the way of living, at that time since everything was in short supply, the whole thinking became small and (was about) managing shortages. In the urbanisation process, the same thing happened.

Think small and manage shortages. First create shortages by thinking small, then manage them. And because you have shortages, there'll be black market and corruption.

Right, not realising that when India grows, your requirement will substantially grow. After reforms, this philosophy of life has to change completely. Now you have to think big, create surpluses. You see Aralias here—why one Aralias, why not hundred Aralias?

Right. And this could have been higher.

Higher. Why this FSI (Floor Space Index)? What is FSI? Allow a person to build important things. Create adequate infrastructure, charge the people. Take Gurgaon, what is happening here is not shortage of money. Money has been collected as external development charges. It is organisational capacity that the development agency in the public sector is not able to cope with the speed of development of the private sector.

Gurgaon is an incredible city with no gutters and no sewerage. Everybody is sitting on a septic tank here.

I remember I used to have so many discussions with Rajiv Gandhi. He said, "KP, we want this as a model city." We said 30 metres (road), he said why not 100-metre roads?

Rajiv could think big?

He thought big and I can tell you if he was alive, India's organisation process would have been a different story altogether. He had always thought big and he always wanted to encourage development.

That is the big break in your life, as one reads in your book—the fact that Rajiv's car broke down at the right moment for you. Tell us the story.

Well, I had just taken a decision to revive DLF, and frankly, DLF had no money, no business. And we could not have any permissions. The private sector was not allowed to enter into this area. So I just came here, looking around for something, so as it's called destiny, Rajiv comes around, his jeep gets overheated and then he sits with me, in the month of May for two hours. The entire urban policy of India, the thought process started from that. He said why can't it be done, he said, go to Chandigarh. I went to Chandigarh and then the story started.

You met Chief Minister Bhajan Lal?

Yes, he said do it like how others are doing it. I said, "Chaudhry saab, I have not come here to do it the way others are doing it. I have come here to get permission". He said permission can't be given because it is against the law. Then the idea was to change the law. And if Rajiv Gandhi was not there, perhaps the urbanisation process in India would have been delayed by another two decades.

So you got a lucky break just because Rajiv Gandhi's jeep broke down when you were sitting on top of a mound wondering what to do with this barren land.

I perform best when my back is against the wall. And this is God's kindness that he sent somebody who could give me a helping hand.

But Rajiv had his difficulties as well. But you dealt with him again. You got involved with the HBJ (Hazira-Bijapur-Jagdishpur) pipeline contract?

Well, I never saw him on this issue. I was involved in the HBJ pipeline and at that time, it was very hotly debated.

You were on the side of what was seen like an underdog because Ingersoll Rand was seen as the underdog and Snamprogetti, fronted by Quattrocchi, was the perceived winner.

Yes, since Ingersoll Rand products were considered to be fuel efficient, and in national interest, I can only say this—Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister but he never interfered. His direction was: do what is in national interest. And that's how Ingersoll Rand got the business.

What you're trying to say is that he did not favour Quattrocchi.

No. He did not favour Quattrocchi and I never requested him for anything. This is a fact. Because the media may say anything but it is not true to say that whatever Quattrocchi wanted was done.

Then your friendship with Jack Welch. What else did you learn from Jack Welch about management? You talk about it in your book.

I learnt one great thing from Welch and earlier from my great mentor, Mr George Hoddy: Do not surround yourself with sycophants. Encourage people to talk, talk that is virtually criticising you. And encourage cross-discussion. At the end of the day, apply your common sense and ask if it is an impulsive risk or a prudent risk? By acquiring deep knowledge of the subject and by listening to criticism, I have invariably taken prudent risks and that has been, in my view, the success of my life.

Let's talk about a different relationship, Bansi Lal, which wasn't quite a friendship. How did that happen? Two redoubtable Jats, you and Bansi Lal, came to a very unhappy relationship.

No, I always respected Bansi Lalji.

He nearly shut you down.

Again, destiny. I respected him but he was kaan ke kacche. He was misinformed by people about some things where I was not involved. Once or twice we patched up but never reconciled. And can you imagine, when Rajiv Gandhi was PM, I got a message that I should go into hiding.

Because the chief minister may arrest you?

Yes, and I had vigilance. Fortunately, that day I left Haryana. Misinformed and ziddi but at the end of the day, the greatest thing was I used to go and pay my respects. When Surender (Bansi Lal's son) died, I went to Bhiwani to pay my respects. I decided to go again after one month. He was sitting alone and I said, "Chaudhry saab, I have come". He was visibly taken aback. And he told me: "This is the greatest satisfaction of my life." And he said, "K P Singhji, I think I have been very unfair to you. And I think you are a nice person." That satisfied me. And why did it happen? Because I always respected him, he was a great man. I came on his wrong side but that does not mean he was a wrong man.

You said you do your best when you have your back to the wall. Did you get the same feeling in 2008, when the economic downturn came, DLF's debt mounted, many development companies were in trouble? Was that one of those moments when you felt your back was to the wall?

Yes, because in 2008, my son was running the company after my wife's accident and he quickly reorganised the company, he ensured that he did not default on even a single payment.

Tell us something about your personal life, social life. I know you had a nice party circuit, the who's who of corporate India.

Somebody asked me, how did I de-stress myself? Every human person needs de-stressing. You cannot work all the time. So earlier, my de-stressing used to be either playing polo or golf.

You were a polo player in England before you became an army officer here. A cavalry officer?

Right, when I got deeply involved in business—'75 onwards—I did not have time for sports but I had to de-stress. My routine was, I used to leave for Chandigarh around 1.30 in the night, I had an Ambassador car, front seat rolled down, that was my bed. I used to go to Chandigarh, six in the morning with whoever the chief minister was because that was the only time I could meet them and get things sorted out. I used to get my job done and then leave, have my lunch at a dhaba near Ambala, then sleep again. By four o'clock I used to hit Delhi and then I used to attend meetings connected to General Electric. Then by 6.30-7 p.m., I would change into a kurta-pyjama and go to villages. Every piece of land here is purchased by me personally. Because I was from a rural background, I was in the Army, I could communicate with people. We used to sit around, then come back home by ten o'clock. My wife was ready. Then I needed de-stressing. Then I used to go to our friends to de-stress, have some fun, finish the party at one. My wife used to come back and I used to go to Chandigarh. This was my routine for 7-8 years.

You bought all this land yourself. How did you manage to do it without conflict with farmers? Did you use strong-arm tactics?

There's never been a single case against DLF. I realise that land is an emotional subject. You cannot just pay money and take it. So I organised rehabilitation for these guys near Alwar. If they had one acre here, I would give them 10 acres on the other side and then arrange mechanised farming for these people. So the idea is, if you want to do farming, for five acres here, get 50 acres there. A lot of people went there. Secondly, give jobs to people, get them skill-trained. Then another thing was, whenever there was a medical issue, education issue, I became a part of their family. And when you become a part of the family, then they never took money. Would you believe? DLF's bankers are land people. I inherited this thing from my father-in-law, he was a great man. He started from nothing, he used to have a concept of making a farmer a partner-in-progress. I followed it because I am also a guy from the village.

And some of this has to come into the new Rehabilitation and Acquisition Bill.

This is important but in my view, personally, the biggest problem in the new Bill is that urbanisation must be the greatest public purpose, whether private or public, and they have not done that. I shudder to think what will happen to India decades, centuries later. They have not understood the implication that in future India, 70 per cent of the GDP is going to come from urban areas. Urbanisation is going to be the most important thing for this country.

Is that what gets you frustrated now?

Well, not frustrated, disappointed. Because I feel the people in power are not realising the importance of urbanisation to the growth of the country, to the people. In fact, the vote bank will shift towards urban areas. And what will happen is, if you have wrong pockets of development, shabby development...you can't remove them, you have to regularise them.

I think there's a certain shyness when it comes to large-scale land urban development.

I will blame the media too. The media should discuss these issues. See the recent report of McKinsey on urbanisation.

That report says, if I remember correctly, by 2025, India will have more people living in cities than the population of America.

Right, can you imagine?

We don't want them living in slums.

Right. You guys should bring that into focus. Now for a little thing, the media goes to town. I would say why neglect urbanisation in India? And I think if you do that, it will be the biggest service.

Transcribed by Akanksha Kapoor

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