Nagpur, November: "In the heaven's lap," beams a signboard erected in the middle of nowhere. It is gold, promises the agent. "You will get double-returns if you invest here."
Ironically, the only thing that you see here is the board amidst the wild grass and widening cracks on what was once a cotton or soybean field. Beyond this place is forest, but the agent claims those were farm houses that have been sold out!
For miles, there's no sign of life. A hillock along the layout is blissfully peaceful. In that sense, the promise is fulfilling: The place is indeed akin to a heaven!
But if you want electricity, water and roads, well the heaven here may not have any of these and chances are you might end up driving into hell.
"It's just an investment," reasons the agent, whose daily job is to drive tens of prospective customers in an air-conditioned Innova to his firm's layouts - barren farmlands off Nagpur-Wardha highway that have been divided into small plots. That's what he has been doing for the last five years, and made heaven his home!
"You can sell it in six months when the prices appreciate," he adds. And how the prices will appreciate is not his cup of tea! "They will," he says, "automatically."
Which means the next buyer would wait for the heaven to fall on the layout on it's own, or the developer simply defines heaven according to his own wisdom.
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For a plot that's not been converted into non-agriculture use, is still under a gram panchayat and 50 kms from Nagpur, it sounds far too exorbitant. But the agent is upbeat. Tens of his customers have believed in him and bought land at that price.
His USP: this place is close to MIHAN, SEZ, New Nagpur, Meghdoot, and a host of other projects that he can coin imaginatively. "There's a golf course coming up here," he adds. "And I've even heard that a film city is being planned nearby."
It sounds music to your ears. Only, all those projects are on paper, and the land being sold as 'gold mines' is actually barren agriculture land that has no sanction as layouts from revenue authorities and is under the local Gram Panchayat.
Two things have been selling thick and fast in and around the orange city in the past few years: land and dreams! Both are linked intricately and driven by a hype created by proposed projects like the cargo hub and towering claims made by the state's leadership, the local politicians (who are among the leading developers), and bureaucracy. It's a joint venture that has been in place for a decade now.
Everyday tens of agents take the potential investors on a roller-coaster ride into the area up for the grabs: agriculture fields-turned-arid plots, dubbed as "pure gold". Most layouts have no approach roads, forget basic amenities or electricity.
Starting with a power-point presentation on their laptops - showing MIHAN, SEZ, and the new VCA stadium as the beginning of a new developmental era of the region, they'll sell their layouts around the "growth hubs" as "gold mines".
Read, for instance, an advertisement hoarding put up at a city square: "Dream big; buy land at affordable prices." Or this: "Grow with us; realise your dreams!"
However, with the global and national trends in money markets and real estate sector slumping down and no project actually taking shape here, the bubble that has been on gas could burst anytime, wrecking thousands of small investors who have put their hard-earned money in tiny pieces of land driven by the lure of making fast bucks in quick time from what earlier looked a promising run.
Newspapers advertisements from real estate sector have surged. Rough estimate suggests the real estate ads now constitute 30 per cent of revenue of newspapers in Nagpur. And in pure quantum, it runs in several crores of rupees. Almost all the newspapers now have a weekly supplement exclusively for real estate sector.
No one wants to spoil the party in Nagpur when it comes to land deals and talks about SEZ and MIHAN, but the signs of fatigue are ominous, and the first ones to wilt if the sector collapses would be the gullible investors, says a developer.
As Sanjay Patil, a tea-vendor who started his shop two years ago right at the intersection of roads leading to "nature's paradise", quips: "The only thing going up apart from land prices here is the wild-grass." Patil, who awaits customers at this isolated area 40 kms from Nagpur, stands amidst two big signboards erected by two real-estate firms just opposite each other. They beam: "Grow with us!"