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‘This project was a litmus test. Everyone was waiting to see if the Yamuna Expressway would see the light of day’

In this Walk the Talk with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta on NDTV 24x7,Manoj Gaur,Executive Chairman and CEO of Jaypee Group,speaks about the newly opened Yamuna Expressway and the challenges along the way

In this Walk the Talk with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta on NDTV 24×7,Manoj Gaur,Executive Chairman and CEO of Jaypee Group,speaks about the newly opened Yamuna Expressway and the challenges along the way

I am at the Yamuna Expressway,the newest addition to not just north India’s infrastructure,but,I would say,one of India’s big showpiece infrastructure projects. My guest today is a remarkable entrepreneur—unusual,sometimes controversial—Manoj Gaur.

We are proud that as an organisation we could make a project of which India can be proud. And ultimately,it has seen the light of day. It has taken some time,but now it is a reality.

This is right in front of your famous F-1 circuit as well. Give me an idea of how this started. Because,you have been through many ups and downs on this one.

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Well,it was less than 10 months ago that India saw a glorious Formula-1 course and we were a part of this programme. If you recollect,more than one lakh people came to see Formula-1 and they travelled on this expressway. This was a project that the Government of UP dreamt of way back in 2000. Our company was headed by Shri Jaiprakash Gaurji. He was a visionary and he saw this opportunity to connect two big towns—Noida is the largest revenue generator for the Government of UP and Agra the tourist spot of the country. So he bid for it. As we all know,there were many bends and twists in the story and it took time. Construction wise,I think,true to Jaypee Group’s track record,we could do it in four years. But it was land acquisition and other matters that took time,but we can say that never in the history of India has a project of this nature,where we have a 165-km expressway,taken so little time. We had a timeline to complete by 2013,but we completed it in sometime early 2012.

More importantly,through the life of the project you have seen—how many—four or five governments?

Yes,the project has seen four governments.

Just as you have bends and turns on an F-1 circuit,were these political bends challenging?

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They were challenging,they were testing. At the same time,it was a learning process for everyone.

Was there a time when both you and your father felt,‘forget it’?

The thought did come to me but never to my father. When he founded the company in 1967,he kept the company’s telegraphic address as ‘iron will’ and he proved this (iron will) many times.

When were these difficult phases?

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I can’t single out one or two. I would like to divide the last 21 years of post-reform era into two phases. One was immediately after ’91 when everyone knew that we have no foreign exchange,we had mortgaged our gold. Politicians,bureaucrats,people in general,everybody was a bit apprehensive but at the same time,they were committed. In the last 7-8 years,when forex has improved,there’s a bit of a mismatch. People think the economy can survive without projects. When it comes to starting a project and the ingredients for starting a project—land acquisition,financing,viability of the project—then politics starts. But the point is,in the last 7-8 years,something happened in Bengal,before the Singur incident,and the cascading effect was felt throughout India.

Bhatta-Parsaul is not far away from here.

The Bhatta-Parsaul episode also happened. Incidentally,Yamuna Expressway is a part of the Yamuna Expressway Authority but has nothing to do with Bhatta-Parsaul. People link the two. Yamuna Expressway has nothing to do with Bhatta-Parsaul.

But land acquisition has now become a much more sensitive issue than before.

Yes,acquisition has become sensitive. Nobody can discount the fact that without projects,development cannot take place and for projects,you have to acquire land. But to keep the balance,you have to factor in politicians and policymakers. In 2003,based on what the land acquisition was priced,the project’s total estimate was Rs 800 crore. Ultimately,this company ended up paying Rs 2,900 crore for land acquisition. But land acquisition has become sensitive.

But the criticism is that it is not a highway project,it’s a real estate project.

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That is something people have to appreciate—that without road,without connectivity,development cannot take place. Before the ’80s,we had more schools than China,better density of highways,a better record on the power sector. Today,our highway density is still there but there is no expressway. I am not saying expressway is a boon but I am saying that this expressway will change the entire thought process. It was a bold decision for the BJP government in UP to go for the project. The model was such that as you make the expressway,there is land for development,not at one place but at five locations—Noida,Mirzapur,Jaganpur,Tappal,Agra. As you make the road,ultimately the potential will grow.

Most of your businesses are into infrastructure. In fact,your other business—cement—goes into infrastructure. You have a lot of environmental management to do—hawa-paani,environment in terms of local people and how they respond to your project and how affected they feel,also the political environment. How do you manage each of these environments?

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Democracy is the best form of government but democracy has its own limitations. We have NGOs,we have different people with vested interests,there are issues. But there is something every forward-thinking organisation would like to adopt. Unless we win the hearts of the people who are surrounding the project,what is the use of investing? So,we tried to be with them in their needs. Schools and medical facilities are being given free. At 30 locations,organisation-run hospitals provide medical facilities free,not only to employees,but also to local people. And Jaiprakashji has been very focused on this matter. In fact,at four locations along the Yamuna Expressway,we are setting up modules. Each module has 100-bed hospitals,English-medium schools and vocational training institutes for about 1,000 students. This is under the Yamuna Expressway Uplifting Trust and will be operational in three years. People have co-operated in these projects,land acquisition took place.

Your big problem was Tappal.

The problem at Tappal was because someone wanted to do something politically. It was not as sensational a matter as it became. The political environment is something with which we all have to live. Our organisation has worked in 18 states,we are working in Bhutan,in Iraq. There are challenges. In the last 20 years,many political parties,many regional parties have emerged. Some have long-term priorities,some short-term but I think they tried to understand our viewpoint.

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What is your model of managing the political environment? One model is,‘I don’t care’,one model is ‘I pay everybody’,one model is Dhirubhai Ambani’s,which is,‘I salaam everybody’. As Dhirubhai Ambani once said,“I salaam anybody in power”. Do you fight,do you charm?

For that matter,I also belong to the generation when Rajesh Khanna was the superstar… Duniya mein rehna hai to kaam karo pyare,Haath jod sabko salaam karo pyare…

Varna yeh duniya jeene nahin degi,Khaane nahin degi,peene nahin degi…

Bilkul jeene nahin degi.

You are a second-generation entrepreneur. Your father is a totally self-made man,and he is still very active.

He is a self-made man. We are fortunate that he is active. He is 82 plus. Our office—my father built it in 1983—is in Vasant Vihar. In 2006,we shifted the corporate office to Noida. He said the project is so big and we have to deliver on time,so he started operating from Noida.

Tell me more about him,because he is one of India’s original,self-made entrepreneurs.

I am very proud to say that Jaiprakashji,my father and founder of the company,has built a large number of difficult projects in the country,a fact few people know. Between 2002 and 2007,our company participated in the development of more than 7,000 MW hydro power. No one knows that in the last Five-Year Plan,a 1,000 MW project was the largest hydro-power project commissioned in Himachal. In all these days of high inflation and high interest rate,the Rs 7,000-crore Karcham Wangtoo project,the Rs 12,000-crore Yamuna Expressway and the Rs 3,000-crore Formula-1 project was delivered to the nation. He was the original entrepreneur in the post-reform era when he thought of hydro-power as a potential in the private sector and that is something we are very proud of. But,as a human being,as a leader,he has displayed time and again that there should not be any difference between preaching and practising and that is why he is respected.

What is the most interesting thing he tells you?

He says,‘Stand in another man’s shoes,and think of what his viewpoint is,then you will find a solution’.

How is your group different from the others,even other family-run groups? You have a very large family working in the group. How do you keep peace at a time when brothers fight,father and children fight,cousins fight?

Our middle-class values,our upbringing. We all remember when the first refrigerator came to our house,we all remember when the first TV did,how we would watch Hum Log,how we would watch all the Test matches together,how we enjoyed the film Bawarchi.

You are a Rajesh Khanna fan.

My father is,I am too. My father says,“Mein toh bawarchi hoon,main sirf logo ki problem solve karna chahta hoon.” He shared his wealth not only with his partners in a fair way,but with the employees too. Today,we have more than 15,000 employees who own shares. Way back in 1977,he had 14 partners and we got a car only when he bought 14 Ambassadors. In 1982,when we got a colour TV,he bought 20 of them so that each household gets one.

Where were you when the Asian Games were held?

I was at BITS,Pilani.

There has been a big change in Delhi’s mindset,India’s mindset,between when we were preparing for the Asian Games and when we were preparing for the Commonwealth Games. Does it make you reflect on how India has changed in the last 30 years?

During the Asian Games,I was a young engineering student,an 18-year-old. In fact,recently I met Zafar Iqbal (former hockey captain) and he was the captain on that fateful day (when India lost). After that,the team was to go to Australia and VC Shukla said they cannot go. Rajivji (Rajiv Gandhi) said no (they will go),sports mein jeetna haarna hota rahta hai. I feel a lot has changed in that we spent more money during the Commonwealth Games but delivered less.

Do you see the heavy debt in your company weighing you down? Is that making you slow down?

If you have to grow,equity and debt come together. You can’t grow without debt. But we have taken several steps to reduce our debt.

Does the group take a breather now or are you still planning big projects?

We would like to consolidate at this point. This project has taken a lot of energy but we are thankful to god that it has ultimately seen the light of day.

What is your view on Akhilesh Yadav because you only got to know him lately?

I have known him for the last six or seven years. Like Rajivji,he had no political baggage. Rajivji was the first to say,we have to clean the Ganga and the Ganga Action Plan Authority was made. He also said,you have to prepare India for the 21st century. Akhileshji is one of the most educated CMs India has. He is young and one can clearly see political vendetta is not on his agenda. By starting this project,people all over the country can say that in UP,hard work and investment are appreciated. I feel UP has a good chance under his leadership.

One evidence of political agenda not being weighed down by vendetta is the fact that this project is open,because many people felt that maybe this will get stuck in the maraamari that goes on in UP all the time.

You are right. It was almost like this project was a litmus test. Everyone was waiting to see whether this project will see the light of day or not but he (Akhilesh Yadav) has taken a very visionary and wise decision.

You keep saying things that your father says to all of you…words of wisdom,original lines. Do you have any for your staff,your colleagues,your shareholders? Because you are a desi entrepreneur,you went to government school in Delhi,there is nothing elitist about your background.

I am very proud of our upbringing,our middle-class value system. I am deeply inspired by the life and time of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. I am a great follower of Gandhiji. I want to be remembered as a good son of a great man.

After highways,power,cement and real estate now,what comes next for you?

We are keen to be in fertilisers. We believe that instead of importing fertilisers,India should actually make fertilisers.

Transcribed by Ritwika Mitra

First published on: 14-08-2012 at 01:25:00 am
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