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A few months ago, a lawyer friend, residing in Delhi Land and Finance colony aka DLF Qutb Enclave now renamed DLF City in Gurgaon, called me up distraught. Like many Delhi citizens he invested in a piece of land with a desire to build his own house in the “integrated township” advertised by the DLF. While buying the land from DLF neither he nor his future neighbours were told that the plots allotted to them would abut a local village cremation ground. Today, with their houses built around the ground, which also includes a kindergarten school, the residents are at a loss to know what to do with the stink that emanates from the compound that is used for both burning the bodies as well as defecation.

My friend’s first reaction was to approach the Haryana government to address the problem. But he was in for a rude shock when he realized that the land on which his house stood was acquired by DLF and the cremation ground, belonged to the local village panchayat, hence out of the purview of DLF. Stuck in the stinking hole, he now plans to sell the house and move elsewhere.

The story of the rise of DLF as India’s largest real estate developer is a telling one. The company was started in 1946 by a feudal Punjabi landlord, Chaudhury Raghavendra Singh, the year the country saw unprecedented scale of communal violence that spread from Calcutta to Bihar, UP and Punjab. The decision to partition India had already fallen and Chaudhury anticipating mass migration and mass housing it would require, swung into action. As Ramachandra Guha records in “India After Gandhi”, “Almost half a million refugees came to settle in Delhi after Partition.”

Tapping into feudal connections and the air of insecurity that prevailed around the capital in 1946-47, he convinced farmers to sell their land to him on credit. They would be paid the principal plus interest once the land had been carved into plots and sold. This led to the development of 22 urban colonies at Delhi’s peripheries including South Extension, Kailash Colony and Greater Kailash. But then his business nearly collapsed when in 1957 land development in Delhi was taken over by the state administration.

As the DLF public relations handout describes, “Following the passage of the Delhi Development Act in 1957, the state assumed control of real estate development activities in Delhi, which resulted in restrictions on private real estate colony development. We therefore commenced acquiring land at relatively low cost outside the area controlled by the Delhi Development Authority, particularly in the district of Gurgaon in the adjacent state of Haryana.

This led to our first landmark real estate development project – DLF Qutb Enclave, which has now evolved into DLF City. DLF City is spread over 3,000 acres in Gurgaon and is an integrated township, which includes residential, commercial and retail properties in a modern city infrastructure with schools, hospitals, hotels and shopping malls. It also boasts of the prestigious DLF Golf and Country Club with night golfing facilities.”

What the handout doesn’t say that DLF acquired the land in pockets, unable to buy out many other villages that stuck to their land unwilling to move. Hence, the dilemma my lawyer friend finds himself in.

Meanwhile, seen from the surviving village panchayats’ perspective life is about decomposition of village structures and loss of traditional livelihood. Their villages continue to survive like isolated islands amid dense urban jungle where property speculation over the remaining rural land is rife and crime, rampant.

In the 1991 census Gurgaon had 688 villages with a population of 1,288,365 today (according to 2001 census) that number has shrunk to 60 and the population halved to 119,901.

The lawyer has taken the cremation ground case to the Chandigarh High Court, where ironically there is already a case pending against the major colonizer in the area, the DLF Ltd. The contesting Residents Welfare Association of urban settlers charges it as the “Biggest Land Scam in the Country.” Are we surprised?

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