Fields to apartments: The silent rise of Haryana’s Sonepat | Latest News Delhi - Hindustan Times
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Fields to apartments: The silent rise of Haryana’s Sonepat

Mar 29, 2023 08:14 PM IST

Over the next few weeks, in a series of stories, HT will turn the spotlight on the lesser known NCR towns, their rise into cities in their own right, and the change that has brought within. The first: Sonepat

It is an unusually warm February afternoon and in a book-lined living room in Sonepat, 48-year-old writer Aditya Sharma points to a copy of Champs of Devgarh, lying on a side table. The book, a young adult novel set in the town on Delhi’s fringes, was published by Penguin in 2014, and draws heavily from Sharma’s memory of a place he has called home since he was a little child.

Sonepat, an NCR town about 55km from Connaught Place, once known for the Atlas Cycle factory, the dhabas in Murthal, and its high-performance government sports centres, has seen a rapid socioeconomic transformation in the past decade. (Sanjeev Verma/ HT Photo)
Sonepat, an NCR town about 55km from Connaught Place, once known for the Atlas Cycle factory, the dhabas in Murthal, and its high-performance government sports centres, has seen a rapid socioeconomic transformation in the past decade. (Sanjeev Verma/ HT Photo)

But it is a home that has changed, perhaps irrevocably; from fields to apartments, from kiraana stores to brand outlets, from town to city. “Where there were agricultural fields on the outskirts of the city, there are now soaring apartment buildings. Where there were small garment and provisional stores, there are now outlets of top clothing brands, and where there were eateries selling samosas and parathas, there are now tony cafes dishing out pasta and pizzas,” he says.

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Indeed, Sonepat, an NCR town about 55km from Connaught Place, once known for the Atlas Cycle factory, the dhabas in Murthal, and its high-performance government sports centres, has seen a rapid socioeconomic transformation in the past decade, emerging a real-estate destination and an education hub.

Connected to Delhi by National-Highway 44 and EMU trains that are lifelines for people who journey to the national capital for work every day, Sonepat is merely a 75-minute commute away. And yet, Sharma says, there was once this sense of Sonepat being a distant Haryana town as opposed to the satellite cities such as Greater Noida which is a similar distance away. “But the fact is that Sonepat has a much deeper connection with Delhi than people know. Every day thousands of people drive and take local trains to Delhi; quite a lot of them work with the Delhi Police, the MCD and the Delhi government,” says Sharma.

Last month, Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar announced in his budget speech that a Sonepat Metropolitan Development Authority, along the lines of the ones in Gurugram and Faridabad, would be established for the integrated planning and development of Sonepat, which is “acquiring the character of a metropolitan city”.

“Sonepat’s transition from a small town to a bustling urban agglomerate has picked up pace in the past few years. The idea behind the new metropolitan authority is to give a new impetus to this transition. So far, the development in Sonepat has been concentrated along the highway but the creation of the authority will ensure composite governance and boost sustained infrastructural development and investment in the entire metropolitan area,” said Bhupeshwar Dayal, Officer on Special Duty (OSD) to Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar.

REAL ESTATE BOOM

Sonepat’s property boom began in the mid-2000s, with real estate companies such as Ansal API, TDI, Parker, Tulip Infratech and Eldeco launching residential and commercial projects along the highway. “This boom has picked up pace in the past five years because of the peripheral expressways that now connect Sonepat to all major NCR towns,” says Pauhari Prasad, a real estate agent, who shifted base from Greater Noida to Sonepat in 2006.

Prasad sits in an office in Ansal API’s Roman Court, that true to its name, has distinctly European architecture with high pillars and arches. “Those days, many new projects were being launched here, and real estate agents like me saw an opportunity,” he says.

Sonepat is now home to several sprawling gated townships that have wide tree-lined roads, manicured gardens and offer freehold plots, villas, independent floors, apartments, malls, and multiplexes. (Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)
Sonepat is now home to several sprawling gated townships that have wide tree-lined roads, manicured gardens and offer freehold plots, villas, independent floors, apartments, malls, and multiplexes. (Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)

Spread over acres of land, Sonepat is now home to several sprawling gated townships that have wide tree-lined roads, manicured gardens and offer freehold plots, villas, independent floors, apartments, malls, and multiplexes. While leading property consultancies such as Knight Frank India say they do not track Sonepat as a market yet, locals real estate agents estimate that there are over 50,000 housing units in different categories that have been developed in the past decade.

“The price of residential plots, which are most sought after here, has doubled, from 30,000 per square yard to 60,000 square yard in the last four years in most of these townships. In some, it has increased to as much as 80,000 per square yard,” says Vikas Rohilla, a property dealer in Omaxe City. “Sonepat is quite affordable compared to Noida and Gurgaon; a 2,000 square ft ready- to- move- in villa in a gated township can be bought for 2 crore, while a three-bedroom 1,600 square ft apartment in a reputed housing society can be bought for 55 to 65 lakhs,” says Rohilla.

For Raja Sehgal, a businessman who lives in a villa in a newly developed township in sector 19, there is no other place that is such a fascinating mixture of “urban and the rural.” “No NCR town close to Delhi boasts so much open space, and is so affordable,” Sehgal says.

Pankaj Bajaj, managing director, Eldeco, a company that has developed Eldeco Country, an 80-acre township in Sonepat, says the town is a very different real estate market from Gurgaon or Noida with people gravitating towards freehold plots and independent floors. “Unlike Noida, where buyers are mostly salaried people who take loans to buy properties, here most buyers are businessmen and entrepreneurs in Sonepat and other neighboring Haryana towns. The minimum ticket size of the property in our township is 1 crore,” he says.

INDUSTRY

For decades, if there were only two words that defined Sonepat’s industry; its most famous product; Atlas Cycles. Founded in 1951 by Janaki Das Kapur, who arrived in the city from Pakistan post the partition, the company began producing cycles in a 25 acre factory in the heart of the town.

Soon to be ubiquitous across India as the common man’s favourite mode of transport in a country looking to build on independence, in its first year of operations, the Atlas factory in Sonepat produced 12,000 cycles, the Atlas Goldline the most popular model. By 1965, Atlas had become India’s largest bicycle manufacturer despite growing competition from Hero Cycles and Avon Cycles, both also founded in the 1950s.

“Those days an Atlas cycle cost 150 and that was also the monthly salary of a worker in the factory,” says Lekhraj Loomba, 84, who lives in Sonepat and worked at the Sonepat factory for 41 years until 2005 when he retired as senior regional manager. “When I joined in 1964, the Sonepat factory produced 5000 cycles a day and employed over 3, 000 people, mostly locals,” Loomba said. The company expanded, opening factories in several other parts of the country, and began exporting to other countries.

The Atlas Cycles factory in Sonepat, which closed down in 2018. (Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)
The Atlas Cycles factory in Sonepat, which closed down in 2018. (Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)

But by the early 2000s, it had become clear that sales had started to dwindle, hurt by aspiration and liberalisation, and the desire to buy motorcycles and cars. In 2014, Atlas shut down its factory in Malanpur in Madhya Pradesh, and in 2018, the Sonepat factory closed. On June 3, 2020, ironically World Cycle Day, its last factory in Sahibabad closed too.

But if the romance and history of Atlas Cycles has faded, the past few years have seen Sonepat develop other, more diverse industry. It is now home to the Kundli Industrial Area, developed by Haryana State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation (HSIIDC), with over 1,600 functional units, manufacturing everything from automotive components to garments to pharmaceuticals. “ Quite a lot of these units have come up in the past five years. What has worked to its advantage is that both eastern and western peripheral expressways start and end in Kundli, boosting connectivity and investment in the area. About 100,000 people are employed in the Kundli Industrial area,” says Subhash Gupta, director, Kundli Industries Association ( KIA).

In 2012, the Union government set up the National Institute of Food Technology Entrepreneurship and Management in Kundli, which offers undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in food technology and the city also has one of Amazon’s largest fulfilment centres in the country. In 2022, Maruti Suzuki bought 800-acres of land to set up its third plant in Haryana with an investment of 11,000 crore in the first phase and a production capacity of 250,000 cars per year.

UNIVERSITY TOWN

If Atlas Cycles was once central to its identity, the other famous institution that was associated with Sonepat for several decades was the Motilal Nehru School of Sports (MNSS), perhaps India’s first residential sports school. Established in 1973 by the Haryana government, its massive 250 acre campus still boasts of academic and administrative blocks, hostels, an auditorium, athletics stadium, Olympic size swimming pool, rifle shooting range and much more, all connected by beautiful boulevards.

“We have over 850 students, 380 of them girls who train in 13 sports. While a majority of students are from rural Haryana, we have students from all over the country too,” says Col. Ashok Mor, principal and director of the school. Some of the school’s alumni include actor Randeep Hooda and Sanjay Kundu, DGP Himachal Pradesh.

But if MNSS was once the only institution of repute, there are now several that dot the landscape.

Around 10km from the Kundli industrial Area is Rajiv Gandhi Education City that currently has five functional campuses: Ashoka University, Dr. BR Ambedkar National Law University, World University of Design, SRM University, and IIT Delhi (Sonepat Campus).

Enter the education city from the National Highway, and the first building is the imposing red brick campus of Ashoka University, set up in 2014. On a week day evening, dozens of casually dressed students are walking to open-air cafes built like Goan shacks on the periphery of Asawarpur village across the road from the university’s main gate. 2026 acres of Asawarpur and other villages was acquired in 2005 to develop the education city. The periphery of Asawarpur today has cafes, a wine shop, and a host of fast food counters.

The periphery of Asawarpur today has cafes, a wine shop, and a host of fast food counters. (Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)
The periphery of Asawarpur today has cafes, a wine shop, and a host of fast food counters. (Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)

“Either we go to Delhi, or come here to chill out in the evening,” says Krishna Dixit from Agra, who is pursuing an economics major at Ashoka, “For me, it was a dream to study at Ashoka, which I believe is the best liberal arts university in India,” he says.

The development of these universities are also a business opportunity for locals. Cafe Aroma for example, an open air café with balloons and festive lights on the trees inside, was started in August 2022 by 26-year-old Sahil Yadav from the neighbouring Deepalpur village. “After completing my MBA I was looking to start a business, and thought a café would work well here,” says a satisfied Yadav, looking around at the busy establishment around him.

Over the years, these new universities have undertaken several student-driven community engagement initiatives, to further benefit the areas around where they are located. Neev, a club run by Ashoka University, for instance, provides academic support and entrepreneurship workshops for youngsters in Asawarpur.

A few kilometres away, the Jindal Global Univesrsity, located near Jagdishpur, has “adopted ten villages.” “Under the Unnat Bharat Abhiyan (UBA), our students work on initiatives in these ten villages on health, right to education, social security, and food security,” says Dabiru Sridhar Patnaik, registrar at JGU.

And yet, as much engagement as the universities attempt, there is a distinct sense that the cosmopolitanism that these new residents of Sonepat have brought is causing a cultural shift; a shift not everyone is comfortable with.

CULTURAL SHIFT

Neetu Bhatia, a local that is born and brought up in the city and now works as a content writer for an online portal, is sitting in the spanking new “Chai Sutta Bar” in central Sonepat, with a friend from Delhi. “The city has witnessed a tectonic shift in social attitudes. Five years ago, my mother would not let me go out alone. Today, she does not care what I wear, where I go, and whom I hang out with,” says Bhatia, who studied English literature at the city’s Deenbandhu Chhotu Ram University of Science and Technology (DCRUST).

But not everyone agrees with Bhatia, and her sense of liberation. Away from downtown Sonepat and its gated townships, in its villages, there is disquiet at an upended “value system.” “They smoke, drink, and stroll into the village wearing skimpy clothes. This has a negative influence on our youngsters. We even held a panchayat over the issue, and advised our youngsters not to mingle with them,” says Sri Bhagwan Antil, a former pradhan of Asawarpur village, referring to the students of the new universities in the education city.

A comparison of the crime data of 2019 and 2022 suggests that Sonepat continues to be an unsafe place on several fronts, including crimes against women. While the number of murders rose from 102 to 119 , there was a rise in kidnapping and abduction cases from 157 to 190, and in rape cases from 106 to 156. “One of the reasons for the high crime rate in Sonepat is its proximity to Delhi with a lot of floating population,” says B Satheesh Balan, a 2004 batch IPS officer appointed as Sonepat’s first police commissioner in January 2023, when the district became the fourth in Haryana and fifth in NCR to introduce the commissionerate system.

“The objective of commissionerate system is to provide effective, modern policing to a fast developing city which, with the creation of a metropolitan development authority, will see a new inflow of entrepreneurs and young professionals. We need to give them a sense of security, and meet their aspirations,” says Balan.

Sonepat, once merely a pit-stop on the highway, is now a destination by itself, the dhabas in Murthal now full fledged hotels. At 8 pm, Atlas Road is twinkling, the lights from neon signboards of brand new stores shining brightly. Anil Chug, a local businessman says, “In the past few years, this place has gone from purely residential to the South Extension of Sonepat. It is clear that this is the city of the future for Haryana.”

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