Lifetime Oprtunity

Following the voluminous stream of real estate SMS spam back to its source: the outskirts of India’s cities, where a dizzying new economy blows up on vacant lots by dusty roads.

Realtors across India are using SMS spam marketing to elicit interest in luxury properties such as this one. ZUBAIR DARZI FOR THE CARAVAN
Realtors across India are using SMS spam marketing to elicit interest in luxury properties such as this one. ZUBAIR DARZI FOR THE CARAVAN
01 October, 2011

OVER TIME, every new literary form develops its own unique grammar and internal logic. Consider, for instance:









sms SD to 53456

Note, in this typical specimen, all the characteristics of the genre. With care, the SMS skirts the question of where precisely this property is located. There is a haiku-like brevity and rhythm to its structure. There are mystifying, telegraphic contractions of words: the subtraction of only the “e” from “university”, for instance, or the “po” from “opportunity”. There is a certain grandiosity built into the name of the development: “Empire Estate” sounds like a manor where Cecil Rhodes might have retired after serving the crown. There is mention of a price—just  `1.485 million—but no mention of what that money will buy. There is the seemingly misguided impression that, when we set out to buy a house, we look for proximity not to schools or hospitals but to Formula 1 racetracks and night safaris. And there is the final clarion note of urgency, the hint that this particular property may well be our last chance to own a home in the civilised world.

Every day, roughly 150 million individual marketing texts—a clear majority of them spam—are sent out to beleaguered mobile phone users in India. Last year, Jaspreet Singh, a mysterious man who owns Citi Flight Online Data Solutions Pvt Ltd and would only speak to me over the phone, told me that he sends 20 million texts a month. He rarely does this out of the Citi Flight office, which is composed of a handful of blue-laminate cubicles in a Connaught Place basement. Instead, he logs into his mass-messaging software from his laptop, wherever he is, and essentially presses ‘Enter’ a few dozen times a day. By Singh’s reckoning, half the messages he sends deal with real estate. By my reckoning, extrapolating from Singh, that translates into 75 million real estate come-ons daily—52,083 text messages coursing through the pipes every minute, beseeching or hectoring people into considering 2/3/4 BHKs or resi.plots in Supertech Unitech DLF M3M Amrapali gated communities condominiums towers estates in Gurgaon Manesar Noida Greater Noida Navi Mumbai Whitefield Old Mahabalipuram Road Sarjapur Road Thane Oragadam.

Nominally, of course, these messages are illegal. In mid-August, the ministry of communications and information technology announced that a new Do Not Disturb system, capable of blocking all unsolicited text messages, would be introduced by the beginning of October. Ministry officials also said that violators who managed to sneak their spam through would face fines of up to `250 million, although they neglected to explain how these unwanted messages could get through the new and improved filter in the first place. The existing filter system, put into place by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in 2007, invites telemarketers to purchase logins. With each login, a telemarketer can “scrub” 390,000 text messages—a process that entails comparing a list of recipients against the National Do Not Call Registry maintained by TRAI. The more reputed SMS-marketing firms, such as ValueFirst Messaging, conscientiously weed out the mobile numbers listed in the registry before sending messages out to the rest. Smaller telemarketers, especially shops that consist of one man and his laptop, choose to pour their texts, unscrubbed, straight into the messaging capacity they’ve bought from telecom companies or from capacity resellers. “If a customer gives me a database of numbers and assures me that they’re all opt-in customers of his, I can hardly check each one,” Singh explained. So he dispenses with the scrubbing altogether. “I lift the filter.”

For spam SMS advertisers, the most expensive aspect of their strategy is the purchase of vast databases of mobile numbers, but, in relative terms, even this is cheap. To buy a database of 100,000 numbers and send each one an SMS can cost just `4,000; larger databases of one million or 10 million numbers are also available for as little as two or three paise per number. (Singh boasted to me once that he could get a database so specific that it would only include the owners of Honda cars in New Delhi.) At these rates, it makes eminent economic sense to advertise through spam. For every 100,000 recipients, “we get maybe fifteen or twenty replies, and then maybe four or five of those will be genuinely interested, and one of those five will go on to buy, say, a `75 lakh flat,” Abhishek Rawat, a realtor working with Buniyad Properties in Gurgaon, told me. “That makes it all worthwhile.”

A rally by members of the Noida Extension Flat Buyers’ Welfare Association (NEFBWA) in July following the Supreme Court decision dictating that their property—which had been acquired by the government—be returned to farmers. GAJENDARA YADAV / HT PHOTO

FOR A COUPLE OF WEEKS, I decided to respond to every single real estate SMS I received, out of some weird curiosity to see the properties behind these annoying alerts. Surprisingly, my interest often went unrequited; I would get a boilerplate reply—“Thanx for showing your interest. We will get back to you soon.”—and then nothing more. I felt unreasonably rejected; I’d bitten eagerly at the bait, only for the fishermen to cut away the line, gather up their tackle, and retire from the game. (I did bear a steep cost for my curiosity: The news that my number belonged to an interested customer seemed to ripple through the real estate industry, and the volume of spam exploded. On one Sunday, I counted 34 real estate solicitations.) Rawat was the first broker to call me back. A lanky 41-year-old with copper-coloured hair, he met me at the MG Road Metro station in Gurgaon, and I sat in the back seat of his car, next to his Hello Kitty lunchbox, while he and a colleague drove me out to see M3M’s Merlin in Sector 67.

Rawat’s grey Santro still has a ‘Press’ sticker on it because, until last year, he worked in the advertising department at a newspaper, selling space to real estate companies. But soon he realised that it might be more profitable for him to sell the real estate itself. He is a terrific salesman: convincing without being pushy, comfortable without being familiar, and very sharp. “Things were uncertain after the slowdown, but that’s in the past now,” he said. “India’s targeted GDP is around nine or 8.5 per cent, but even if it slips below that, Gurgaon will be untouched. And there’s enough of a land bank here to keep the real estate industry going for another ten or fifteen years.”

As we drove away from the centre of the city, the enormous malls of Gurgaon started to dwindle from view; instead, I saw muddy, vacant tracts of land or buildings under construction. Rawat went on talking. He explained that I had sensibly come to him during Merlin’s soft launch period, when a quarter of the flats were being put up for sale at reduced rates; the real launch was still a couple of weeks away. Of these flats, 20 percent had already been sold—and yet the floor plans for these housing units had only been released a day earlier. “So a lot of people bought flats without looking at the floor plans?” I asked. “Yes,” said Rawat brightly, pleased that I was learning fast.

Merlin is scheduled to come up in three years on a deserted road in Sector 67, a full 40 minutes from the MG Road Metro station, and surrounded only by swatches of land allocated to other developments. (Building in the boondocks, I realised, was not a zero-sum game; each builder needed his neighbour’s project to succeed to be able to point out to prospective buyers that his condominium stood in a thriving residential location.) Some construction labourers were playing a rambunctious game of cricket, using cinder blocks for stumps. A power pylon leaned at a tired angle over the road.

No work had begun on Merlin yet; I could only see large M3M banners and an idle work crew, whose foreman was loudly making the case into his cellphone that it wasn’t his job to clear sludge from a ditch. Instead, Rawat took me to see a sample unit in M3M’s adjoining Golf Estate development. “It won’t be exactly like this,” he warned. “The minimum cost here is, after all, `4 crore for a flat. But it’ll be similar.”

Sanjay Sharma of the realty firm QuBREX in Gurgaon. ZUBAIR DARZI FOR THE CARAVAN

It would have been sheer cussedness to not be entranced by the Golf Estate sample unit. A scale model of the entire layout showed clumps of white-lit buildings, rising like glowing stalagmites from the midst of a 75-acre expanse of land. The grounds included a nine-hole golf course and 20 swimming poolswhich, even to somebody who liked swimming pools, sounded excessive. The kitchens were stocked with Miele equipment (“the same people who did Barack Obama’s kitchen in the White House”, Rawat had said during our very first phone conversation), and the drawers had spoons and ladles in them. A plump copy of The Silver Spoon cookbook sat propped open on a stand, as if I had interrupted somebody in the act of making a soufflé. The bedrooms—three, all gorgeous—had books stacked on the bedside tables, titles so wildly out of the mainstream that they felt like genuine personal choices: Tom Bedlam by George Hagen and Wanting by Richard Flanagan, both of which, I would discover in an eerie coincidence, were described by New York Times reviewers as “Dickensian”.

Downstairs, in a cappuccino bar where Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Free Bird’ was being piped through ceiling speakers, Rawat poured me coffee, and I was introduced to Harsh and Anubhav, who have been working with M3M for the past year. Wearing shiny new suits, they both seemed to treat Rawat with a gentle disdain. Through the far window, Harsh pointed out that construction work on Golf Estate had begun six months earlier, but I could only see two desultorily built floors of a single block. Golf Estate still needed five-and-three-quarter towers, not to mention the clubhouse, the reversible golf course, the ice-skating rink and the other promised amenities, all to be built in the remaining two-and-a-half years. I couldn’t imagine how that would happen.

“There’s going to be an aqua gym here, and there’s a reflexology walk in the Merlin,” Anubhav said.

“Everything they see in Hollywood movies, they put in here,” Rawat said with a laugh. “Sometimes without knowing what they are!”

Anubhav and Harsh frowned. This was loose talk, they seemed to feel. Then Anubhav informed me that Merlin was named not after the Arthurian magician but after the Merlion, Singapore’s half-piscine, half-leonine mascot. “Because it will be Singapore-style living.”

They talked about the Merlion with such familiarity that I asked: “Have you gone to Singapore?”

“No,” Harsh admitted, and I felt wretched for having asked the question, as if I’d cheated in a game the rules of which I knew only too well. “Maybe we’ll ask M3M to take us there, as a reward, once this project is done.”

I lingered under the air-conditioning vent before stepping back into sun, waiting also for Rawat to finish a quiet conversation with Harsh before joining me. On the music system, there was a final crash of drums, then a few seconds of silence—and then the opening bars of ‘Free Bird’ again, the song on loop all day, an unchanging soundtrack in a landscape awaiting breathless change.

M3M'S GOLF ESTATE was the first of half-a-dozen properties I tracked down through their SMS advertisements, and also the first of many developments I noticed with the word “golf” in their names. I visited the Gardenia Group’s Golf City in Noida, and on the way there I spotted a billboard for Amrapali Golf Homes. I was told, additionally, of Greenbay Golf Village, Paramount Golf Foreste, Jaypee Greens’ golf-centric apartments, Supertech Golf Country, Antriksh Golf Links, Antriksh Golf View and, for good measure, Antriksh Golf View 2. For days, I was blind to the apparently emphatic appeal of this sporting reference, until I realised that golf had nothing to do with it. The appeal lay in the attendant facilities—large, open, private, green spaces, of the sort that only the very privileged in India enjoy. When I told Gautam Bhan, a consultant with the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, about this observation, he laughed and whipped out his cellphone. “I took this photo in the outskirts of Bangalore,” he said. It was of a plaque outside a housing estate called Golfshire, bearing the slogan: “Rank hath its privileges.”

The Indian middle-class aspiration of owning a home—the aspiration that these spam text messages target so aggressively—is now most likely to be fulfilled in places like Gurgaon and Noida, which are sprouting all over India, along the highways that leave major cities. “That’s where India is really growing—in these peri-urban areas,” Bhan said. “But city plans have no authority there, so they start to resemble these strange para-states that have exempted themselves from regulation. So then the elements of development become discretionary, dependent on the whims of these real-estate developers.” A developer would build his residents a pool, Bhan said. “That’s public in a sense that a lot of people use it, but it’s still private. But who will build you a Mandi House, a truly public performance space? Nobody.” Greater Noida, he said, would become not a settlement but a fabric of private developments lying next to each other.

The lack of planning authority and real estate regulation has, in part, been responsible for the Greater Noida crisis, where farmers objected to the way their land was acquired and the purpose it was acquired for. At one point in mid-July, 50,000 homeowners stood to lose their newly-purchased apartments—and my spam messages started to change in tone perceptibly, anxious to reassure me that their properties were untouched by this controversy. (“Buy before the rise of prices due to new land policy of govt,” one SMS exhorted, hawking flats on the upcoming Dwarka Expressway, which several people identified to me as the next big source of land-acquisition lawsuits.) Bhan described the role of aggregators, who use a mix of charm and violence to convince farmers to sell individual parcels of land. “Then when they have enough, they can coerce the holdouts to sell too,” he said. “And then they’ll sell this huge plot of land to a developer. In the absence of land market regulation, it’s like the Wild West out there.”

Bhan refused to believe, though, that an adverse court ruling in Greater Noida would have actually rendered 50,000 families homeless. “This economy is being built solely on speculation,” he said. “These properties are being built solely for investment cycles. Why else would you build halfway to Agra? If you have ten businessmen who occasionally want to get rid of black money, you’ll have an apartment building. These flats will be bought and resold and bought and resold. Nobody even needs to live there.”

The SMS printed at the top right leads to Paras Tierea, a residential project offering luxury flats in Sector 137, Noida. ZUBAIR DARZI FOR THE CARAVAN

IN NOIDA, REAL ESTATE MIDDLEMEN cluster like lemmings in a building called Chokhani Square and in a couple of adjacent buildings, next to the Sector 18 Metro station. From here, Vikas Singh, a 25-year-old salesman who works for a firm named Property Guru, took me on his motorcycle to Sector 75 to examine the site of Gardenia Golf City. In five years, Vikas had completed a three-year bachelor’s degree in chemistry in his hometown of Patna. (“In Bihar, things always run late,” he explained, grinning.) Then he obtained an MBA in Allahabad before coming to Delhi and joining Property Guru. Like the other young realtors I met, he was almost painfully polite—a deep disconnect with the intrusive, bullying text messages that led me to them.

On either side of the access road to Golf City lay more upcoming developments—Supertech Cape Town and Supertech North Eye—and the dust raised by construction was so thick that we both started to gasp and cough as we rode through it. Work on Golf City had barely begun, so Vikas parked his motorcycle outside a Gardenia office and we went in to see a sample unit. When we returned, just 10 minutes later, we had to push a blanket of dust off the seat.

An armed security guard stood at the door to the Gardenia office, his gun considerably more impressive than the weapons of Noida’s constabulary. Vikas must have noticed me staring at the pistol, because he whispered, “That’s his own gun. These guards get `1,200 added to their salaries if they bring their own guns.”

“Why do you need him?” I asked Vikas.

“There’s always so much cash on the premises,” he said. “When people pay black money, we have to hold it here before taking it to the bank.”

Vikas assured me that Golf City would be ready for occupation in three years; this must be a sort of glib industry standard, because I later realised that I had been offered that exact timeline at nearly every property I visited. These deadlines are inevitably elastic because, according to Sanjay Sharma, the managing director of a realty firm named QuBREX, the penalties for lethargy are not high enough. “When they say three years, they know they’re lying,” Sharma said. He knows of one project that was launched in 2004 and has still not unveiled its apartments. Another developer sold one phase of flats, did no work for three years and, having overshot his deadline, merely launched a second phase. (Back in Gurgaon, in fact, Rawat had tried to soothe me about M3M’s ability to complete Merlin by pointing out that one of the company’s promoters had thrown his daughter a `1 billion wedding, a price tag that had whisked Delhi’s tabloids into a fine frenzy. “And if they have that much money for a wedding, you can be sure that they have money to complete the project,” he said. In fact, the father of that bride was somebody else, but somehow I thought it was kind of Rawat to offer this lie as comfort.) Only recently have regulators started to decide that this attitude needs changing; in August, the Competition Commission of India levied a `6.3 billion fine on DLF, India’s largest real estate developer, for, among other things, “abnormally delay[ing]” its Belaire project in Gurgaon. “I got so fed up with delays that I decided I’d work only with two builders,” Sharma told me.

Sharma is an affable but perennially harried man. His office in Gurgaon has seven phones, including his mobiles, and they each rang at least once when I visited him there; he gets around 60 real estate spam messages a day, and although they annoy him too, he admitted that they help him do his job. (On a whiteboard jammed with text about marketing strategies, I spotted, with a circle around it, the term “Raw Junk SMS”.) In the vending of real estate, he said, the humble SMS was utterly vital. If a developer sent forth a fleet of spam messages and sold out his property instantly, no expensive print advertisements or Google AdWords investments would be required. On an SMS, news travels cheap, and it travels fast. “Even if I was a developer, the first thing that would occur to me is SMS,” Sharma said. “Hours count in this business.”

Sharma has a PhD in computer science, but he decided very early, he said, “to move from cyberspace to the real estate space”. Frequently, Sharma conducts interviews with real estate developers, which he videotapes and uploads onto YouTube. In one video, Sharma asks one of M3M’s promoters why Golf Estate was initially offered as “invitation only”, his fingers marking out air quotes. “We start selling like that because, you know, the people in this group are very small,” the promoter replies. “We know our customers very well. Munjal will buy. Virender Sehwag will buy... We know the people who will buy.”

By a twisted market reality, according to Sharma’s analysis, prolonging the construction of a project works for both the real estate developer and the real estate investor—and, by his reckoning, roughly 70 percent of buyers are investors, people looking to flip the apartment as soon as it is profitable to do so. Builders will accept advance payments for buildings whose foundations aren’t even glints in a bulldozer’s eye, and then promptly use that money to buy land elsewhere. “If these builders were suddenly asked not to sell any more projects, I’m telling you, most of them couldn’t balance their books tomorrow,” he said.

For the investor, a delay allows more time for the price of an apartment to appreciate, making a flip potentially more profitable. Sharma thinks that less than a quarter of real estate investors in Noida and Gurgaon actually make money, because the risks are massive. But the rewards, if they come, sound magnificent. “I know one woman who bought a flat for `70 lakh. She paid maybe `7 to 8 lakh as an advance, and then she paid interest on a home loan for around a year and a half,” he said. “So say she paid `1.5 lakh of her own money in total. In a year and a half, the price of the apartment touched `1.5 crore, and she sold. So she made a profit of `80 lakh. And that’s not even the best story I can tell.”

To the untrained ear, I told Sharma, this sounded like a cross between a Ponzi scheme and a bubble: investments in, quite literally, castles in the air, to be sold and resold for multiplicative values, predicated on an asset that was in the builder’s best interests to not deliver, and utterly vulnerable to the sort of single, well-directed pinprick administered by Greater Noida’s farmers.

Sharma agreed, in large part. “There isn’t a bubble of real homes,” he said. “If all these apartments were actually built, and built fairly to schedule, I guarantee you that they would find real buyers. The demand is out there. But there is a huge bubble in imaginary homes—in homes that will be delayed indefinitely or just never get built. Of all the projects launched in the last year and a half, the majority of them are going to fail, for one reason or another. And a lot of people are going to lose a lot of money in this.”

ONE DAY, UNABLE TO RESIST  the lure of the night safari any more, I called Prithvee Properties and was invited out, yet again, to the warren of offices near the Sector 18 Metro station in Noida. For 45 minutes, a woman sat across a table with me, going over the Logix Group’s plan for a patchwork quilt of land plots. She explained that 40 percent of the phase currently being sold had been snapped up in one-and-a-half months, and on a map she pointed out the Formula 1 racetrack, Gautam Buddha University and the site for the night safari. (“In three years it’ll come up, pukka.”) For each statement, though, she sought confirmation with a glance at Ram Menon, a senior executive who otherwise sat placidly to her side, and who broke his silence only to deliver oracular statements about the potential of this property. “You can buy 1,800 square feet for around `43 lakh, and you’ll see a 25 percent appreciation right after December, after the Formula 1 race,” he called out once, in a bored tone, from behind a newspaper. The only time his voice swelled with animation was when the night safari came up in conversation. “They won’t even be Indian lions!” he exclaimed. “They’re imported! They’re African lions!”

Thus sold, I got into a car with Deepak Sharma, who had promised to show me around the site. He had mentioned that we needed to travel 45 km from the DND Flyway that connects Delhi to Noida, but he’d done it with such artful nonchalance that, mentally, I must have been prepared for a 15-minute drive. We got onto the Noida Expressway, and soon buildings began to yield to fields brimming with water, foot-high stalks of rice pushing towards the sun. A board above our heads thanked us and urged us to visit Noida again; we were “just” 25 km away, Sharma said, and the proposed airport lay another 17 km after that.

The Yamuna Expressway, running through Greater Noida to Agra and scheduled to be completed in December, began to appear in the distance, a streak of brown that slashed across the horizon. Once that was completed, Sharma assured me, I’d be able to get to the property much faster. Meanwhile, though, the driver swung the car onto a service lane running parallel to the expressway. We chugged further into Greater Noida, the car now heating up under the midday sun.

A full 35 minutes into our expedition, Gautam Buddha University flashed by to our left. On the map in Prithvee’s office, the campus had appeared to nestle cosily alongside the expanse of the night safari park, but Sharma pointed it out only after five more minutes: a vast swatch of scrubland, whose most exotic residents now seemed to be a pair of oxen. Another five minutes later, past the grandstands of the Formula 1 circuit and less than 100 km from Agra, the service lane turned into a mess of dirt and rubble and standing water. The car stopped. To our right, a field of yellow-headed sorghum had just ended, and a vast, empty lot of land took off and ran away into the distance. No work had begun, but 16 sections of sewerage pipe lay arranged in neat pyramids, as if this emphasis on order was sufficient to demonstrate ownership of the land. There was nothing else.

“So this is it,” Sharma said, squinting into the sun.

“And where’s the plot I would buy?” I asked.

“The phase we’re selling is at the far corner,” he said. I couldn’t see it, he explained, because the shrubs came in the way.

“So I can’t visit it?” I asked. “How would I buy a plot of land I haven’t even seen?”

Sharma shuffled his feet in some embarrassment.

“Can we at least follow this dirt track till the end of the property?” I asked.

Sharma smiled uneasily. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve never done that.”

We stood there a while longer, gazing upon a development that was not really a development, next to a racetrack that was struggling to become a racetrack, opposite a night safari that was years away from looking like a night safari, in an aspiring township that was still mostly fields and disputed land. At that moment, the only evidence of the existence of Logix Empire Estate Resi. Plots was that piece of spam SMS, stored on the phone in my pocket.