The burden of sudden wealth
When Shriram’s father, a farmer, signed on the dotted line to hand over his agricultural land to the government a couple of months back for the Jewar airport project, he became a millionaire overnight. The family, which made a meagre Rs 1.5 lakh a year, is now richer by Rs 8 core, and 32-year-old Shriram is keen on ‘living life differently’.
He has begun by buying a brand new sports utility vehicle for Rs 11 lakh.
“We had 37 bigha land, but no money, and subsisted on income from our farms. Now while everyone in this village is a crorepati, none knows how to handle the money. I thought at least we should improve our lifestyle,” says Shriram, as he cleans his brand new SUV parked outside his house, a decrepit single-story brick structure. So, far he has mostly used the vehicle for making several trips to his in-laws in Bulandshahr. His old motorcycle, his lifeline for over a decade, remains unused for over two months.
In his quest for a new life, Shriram, who gave up studies, having failed in the class 10 board exams, has mulled several business ideas, including starting a building material shop, becoming a government contractor, and starting a grand garment showroom in Jewar --- the idea closest to his heart. But his father, Kunwar Pal Singh, 60, immediately shoots it down. “He should stick to agriculture, the only occupation he knows. I have already bought him some land and will buy more. All we know is agriculture, which is fundamental to a farmer’s life,” says Kunwar Pal, curiously in fluent English, sitting on rickety cot inside the living room of his house in Rohi village.
“You see, villagers here are weighed down by the burden of sudden money, which can be meaningless without education. I wish he (Shriram) had been better at studies,” says Pal.
Rohi, located along the Yamuna Expressway, about 80 km from Delhi, is a village of about 500 non-descript houses, lush green paddy fields, with narrow well-paved roads snaking through them. Most families are into agriculture, though some have members serving in the army or the police. The agricultural fields in the village have the last standing crop, and boards put by Yamuna Expressway Industrial Development Authority (YEIDA) with a ‘statutory warning’ that the land has been acquired by the UP government for the Noida International Airport, Jewar.
The UP government has so far disbursed Rs 2,335 crore as compensation to 4,360 landowners in six villages --- Ranhera, Rohi, Parohi, Kishorpur, Banwaribas and Dayanatpur. Though most of these overnight multi-millionaires are struggling to figure out what to do with their new-found fortune, for now owning an SUV has become a marker of their new economic status.
Like Shriram, his fellow villager 35- year-old- Sanjay Singh, who earned about Rs 1 lakh year as has got about Rs 4 core in land compensation. Within days of getting the money, he bought an SUV – a Tata Nexon for Rs 12 lakh and wishes to start ‘some business’ once the airport is ready. “I want to wait till the airport is operational. I wish to start a cab service near the airport,” says Sanjay Singh, whose only prized possession till recently was a motorcycle. “It only reminded me I was getting nowhere in life. Now everyone, even my in-laws treat us differently when I go to meet them in the new SUV,” says Sanjay, who like Shriram has also done a few trips to his in-law’s place in his new vehicle. Interestingly, for most young men in Rohi, ‘sasural’ (in-laws house) has been the first port of call after buying their new shining vehicles.
With the new wealth pouring in, the social dynamics in Rohi has also changed. Those who were once at the top of the socio-economic ladder suddenly find themselves at the bottom of it now. It is a shock they are yet to cope with.
Naresh Singh, 45, for example, says he has lost his social standing. Until three months back, he was considered one of the richest and the most respected man in the village, what with the fact that his was one of only four families in the village who owned a car-- an Alto -- and a large two-storey house which was the envy of his neighbours. “It is one’s bank balance and the size of their car that define their status in the new social order of the village,” he says.
“Now so many villagers have SUVs and mine is the smallest car. They often taunt me, saying I should sell this dabba (box),” adds Naresh, a lankly, loquacious man, sitting in the living room of his double story art-deco style house. “But now it carries no value, it will be razed to make way for the airport. The government has valued it at Rs 26 lakh, the second most valued house in the village,” says Naresh, who has got Rs 4 crore compensation.
Naresh’s voice is frequently drowned out by the thumping sound of the Royal Enfield motorcycles passing through the streets outside. The village youngsters, he points out, have bought about 100 Royal Enfield motorcycles, each costing around 2 lakh. “There is a new saying in the neighbouring villages, ‘UP solah, muawaja bolah’ (a new vehicle with UP 16 registration number has been bought with the compensation money from the government). It is a way to taunt people here,” says Naresh.
The automobile dealers in Jewar, otherwise facing an unprecedented slump in vehicles sales, seem to have realized the power of compensation money to trigger consumption. Throughout the day one can see marketing vans of dealers carrying motorcycles doing the rounds of the village. “These days, we are particularly focusing only on villages where farmers have got compensation. They are buying our top Apache model, which costs over a lakh” says Sanjay Sharma, accompanying a TVS motorcycles van in Rohi village. “Unlike the rest of the country, there is no slowdown here in the sales of passenger vehicles.”
Chatar Singh’s family now has two Royal Enfield motorcycles, one bought at a camp set up recently by the dealer in the village. Singh, 58, who got a Rs 6 crore for his 28 bighha land, takes pains to explain that he is a cut above the rest as far as his approach to dealing with compensation money is concerned. He has invested Rs 1 crore each in the fixed deposit accounts of his two sons and four crores in his own fixed deposit account. His elder son, Bhupesh Kumar, who drove a taxi, is now living off the interest money-- about Rs 62,000 per month.
“Not even well-educated people get that kind of salary. Though, I do not think it is a good idea to buy agricultural land in other districts, which a lot of people here are doing, I have bought some because it might be difficult to have any decent marriage proposal for my younger son if we do not own any agricultural land, which gives villagers a sense of security,” says Chatar Singh. “I am now looking for a highly educated daughter-in-law for my younger son, a girl who can help us handle the money better. I am afraid that easy money can lead young people in the village astray.”
In fact, a lot of villagers express this gnawing fear. “Many youngsters are already visiting the bars in Noida,” says a villager not wishing to be named. “The challenge before the elders is to ensure that we do not repeat the mistake that Gurgaon made two decades back where all the money was wasted on drinking, gambling and cars,” he says.
Many others in Jewar villages share his fears. “There is a competition to buy big cars, there is bitterness and jealousy. Those with small land holdings accuse those who got huge compensation of having sold out to the government,” says Deepak Baghel, who lives in the neighbouring Kishorpur village.
In the nearby Ranhera village, Balbhadr Singh, 85, got the maximum compensation, Rs 24 crore for his 117 bigha land. But he is not happy. He complains of being ‘short-changed’ by the government. “We should have got Rs 48 crore,” says Singh sitting on a takht (a wooden bed) outside his house, which is being reconstructed now. Ask him about his house, and his eyes lit up, and he volunteers to give us a guided tour of the house, where a whole new floor is under construction in the front. “Once ready, it would look like a small Rajasthani palace. Come and see it in a couple of months. It will be a marvellous house, with marble work, a house that befits our new status, ”says Balbhadar Singh, a soft-spoken man with a heavy, curled moustache. His father and wife have served as the Pradhan (head) of the village.
The older portion of the house, now hidden behind the new front, is decrepit -- a sign that the landed family had limited means once. Curiously, while he talks about neighbouring Rohi’s waste of compensation money on cars, a new Scorpio worth Rs 14 lakh is parked in front of his house. It was bought by his son, Ajit Singh. “It is not a luxury. It is a necessity. We have a big family,” says Ajit Singh as Balbhadr nods in agreement. “He is a graduate and the government should also provide him job as extra compensation,” says the senior Singh.
Back in Rohi village, it is late evening and there is a nip in the air. Kunwar Pal , the farmer with the penchant for speaking in English, is in the mood for a poem. “What pains me most right now is that I will have to give up my house and my village too and shift elsewhere. I hate living in a city,” he says, and then recites a few lines of an old English ballad celebrating peasantry:
“A country life is sweet! In moderate cold and heat.
To walk in the air, how pleasant and fair!”
He pauses as he tries to remember the rest of the lines but could not.
“Cash and cars can never compensate for the loss of your home and village,” he says. And how does he manage to speak English so well? “I have always been a topper. I topped my school and topped in the three-year polytechnic course. But circumstances ensured that I remained a poor farmer”.
But, his son Shriram counters: “He is talking of the past,” as he starts his SUV to park it at its designated place.