|CURRENT ISSUE DECEMBER 20, 2004|
|SOCIETY & THE ARTS: SMALL TOWN CROREPATIS|
|Happening Hinterland |
A blossoming of the entrepreneurial instinct has brought wealth to small towns which are now home to 7,000 crorepatis
|By Neeraj Mishra|
Time was when the sobriquet "Sethji" had an aristocratic, portentous ring to it. "Lakhpati" meant never having to work again in a lifetime and the reverently pronounced "Crorepati" perhaps applied only to a Tata or a Birla. But crorepatis are now getting to be as common as panwallahs and millionaire only means a middle class Indian. There are 53,000 legitimate crorepatis in India, and Nagpur, a bustling town in central India which even 10 years ago could count its multi-millionaires on the fingers of one hand, now has 425 of them, making it the fastest growing crorepati town in the country.
Less than 250 km to the east, Raipur had only three crorepatis in 1995-96 and now there are close to a hundred. Surat, Amritsar, Vijayawada, Vadodara, Ahmedabad, Indore and Ludhiana are some of the other towns that have witnessed a rapid rise in the number of crorepatis. Even though 5,085 multi-millionaires graced Delhi and 4,439 lived in Mumbai in 2001-and those figures may have doubled by now-the real growth has since happened in small towns. Rapid industrialisation, growth in the services sector and tremendous increase in construction activity have caused movement of capital to these locations, leading to increased prosperity.
But it is basically about newer opportunities and the entrepreneurial instinct to grab them when they come around. Viren Thakkar grew up in a house of textile traders in the dense bazaar areas of Nagpur. But logistics always interested him more than the routine of a showroom owner's lifestyle. His Kachchi blood also coaxed him to be adventurous with his money. At first he started with small godowns and transport hubs on the outskirts of Nagpur. In 1999 he converted his dream into India's biggest private-sector logistics park. Thakkar now has 2.7 lakh sq ft of concrete-roofed godown space spread over 15 acres and 28 large private-sector companies-L&T to Coke and pharma companies-as his clients. "I am like their biggest carrying and forwarding agent smack in the centre of the country," says Thakkar. He controls the movement of goods worth Rs 1,250 crore a year and even his fractional percentage for handling means crores of rupees for himself.
The 46-inch waist on Shivkishan Agarwal came from sitting continuously near a huge kadahi with a ladle and stirring Bikaneri bhujia. Even 30 years ago he was running a halwai shop in downtown Nagpur and sold polypacked namkeen and tinned mithais over two decades. But the past 10 years have been a whir-from a turnover of a few lakhs, Haldiram Bhujiawala is now a nationally established brandname with the Nagpur arm of the family alone rolling in Rs 120 crore a year. Shivkishan and his two brothers have sliced up the national bhujia-namkeen market among themselves. The other two handle the Delhi and Bikaner ends which fetch another Rs 200 crore approximately. Now they are in the process of slicing up the world.
It is estimated by a National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER) survey that by the end of the decade there will be close to 1,50,000 crorepati households in the country and another 2.5 lakh households with annual income between Rs 50 lakh and Rs 1 crore. It has now officially defined those with income between Rs 2 lakh and 10 lakh annually as middle class. At present close to 7,000 crorepatis live in small towns spread across the country with an overwhelming number of them being steel industrialists, software firm owners, jewellers, exporters, oil millers, textile traders, big farmers, packers, movers, builders and traders. Anything and everything done on a large scale is delivering the numbers. The new crorepatis could be multiplex owners, doctors and lawyers or financiers. The movement of money is more widespread now than it was even 10 years ago.
"The building boom has made several millionaires in the construction, steel, cement and trading sectors in our region," says Sanjay Chaudhary, a financial consultant in Raipur. The worldwide demand for steel has spurred the steel sector with dead units of ferro alloys and rolling and structure mills spewing money. "The Chhattisgarh-Orissa-Jharkhand belt is abuzz with activity. There are close to 1,500 big and small steel factories in this region alone and more on the way," says income-tax officer A.N. Dubey.
Bajrang Agarwal of the Heera Group has one of the best forward and backward integrated steel units in Chhattisgarh. "My success is not entirely dependent on the global steel demand. I have succeeded because I think like an engineer and have kept ahead of the times," boasts Bajrang. He accepts that times have changed and his two sons think on bigger scales. His wife Prabha is taking her interest in gardening and interiors further by designing and maintaining gardens for the state electricity board offices.
Prakash Ramani and his three brothers in Bhopal inherited only a profitably located ice-cream parlour in the city's busiest market selling Madhu ice-cream. The brand name perished in the 1980s but the Ramanis replaced it with their own-Top 'n Town. In the past five years Top 'n Town has spread to Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh with more than 300 outlets. With the exit of Kwality and Baskin Robbins from small towns, it is the biggest ice-cream chain in the hinterland. Ramani has also started a range of other confectionaries. "It is basically the rise in consumerism and more disposable income with the middle class that have helped the industry," Ramani says.
While the middle class has more disposable income to buy ice creams, and as the NCAER study reveals, white goods, the crorepatis are travelling all over the world. It is not just the phoren land as in New York and London but places like Sun City, Cape Town, Cannes, Sydney, Auckland and the West Indies. Cruise ships are in and so is travelling together with other noveau riche couples.
The days of lugging home Sony TV and VCR to be displayed proudly in living rooms are long gone and the body itself is a moving display unit. Clothes, shoes, sunglasses, watches, branded jewellery, palm tops, mobile phones and, of course, a branded fountain pen are a must. The women are on another trip altogether. Rare perfumes, crystal, cutlery, foods and, of course, jewellery. Each trip abroad is remembered for the trinkets picked up.
The houses live up to the sethji label. Some things are standard fits in crorepati households from Nagpur to Lucknow. Most of them are built in posh new colonies leaving behind the dense Sadar Bazaar upbringing. The mandatory uniformed guards at the gate, shiny Makrana marble drive, oversized main door in heavy teak, Italian marble floors, shiny faux mahogany frames on doors, windows and family pictures jostling for space under colourful tiny spotlights. Glass top dining table with a huge crystal display case next to it, latest wall mounted LCD TV, Italian sofas, English lounge chairs, cast iron garden furniture under imported sun umbrellas. And a poodle or a Golden Retriever-never a German Shepherd or a Boxer-completes the picture. No, wait. There is, of course, the joint family army of kids of all age groups. A happy, soft, satisfied, chocoholic family.
But fancy cars are ruled out. "There are two reasons we don't keep big cars. They attract too much attention and traffic in our towns is too haphazard," says Dhirendra Jain. It has not stopped Seth Shivkishen, though, from announcing his arrival to Nagpur in a spiffy white Mercedes but most others prefer watching liquor baron Vijay Mallaya do his bit with cars, planes and girls. After all, small towns have their own dress code.
At the Haldiram factory, it is as chaotic as a family business usually is. Rajendra Agarwal is being badgered for delayed payments and shipments. There is no polish in the way he snaps at dealers and his business philosophy reeks of small world pragmatism. The Agarwals are coming up with 3D Snacks by the name of Mo Pleeze. For the health conscious they have a new vermicelli unit and are targeting kids with snazzy packing and tazo type games with bhujia packs. They also represent in large measure the new Indian hinterland crorepati-new money, acquired tastes but old values.