Heidi J. Shrager
RATHDHANA, Sonepat, Haryana
for (San Francisco Chronicle), November 4, 2007

Only 2 years ago, Kartar Singh was living on $5,000 a year on the farm near Sonepat, 30 miles north of New Delhi,

Kartar Singh is an unlikely millionaire. He's missing most of his teeth. He dries buffalo dung patties on the roof of his new house. He keeps more cows than cars inside his sprawling garage.

Two years ago, Singh was a farmer earning less than $5,000 a year in this tiny north Indian village. Today, he is worth millions.

The nation's poor farmers have mostly watched from the sidelines as middle- and upper-class Indians have climbed to new heights of wealth in an economy bursting with opportunities. But across the country, farmers like Singh have seen their ancestral land - located on the outskirts of overcrowded cities - turn to real estate gold as developers scramble to build suburban retreats for a rising tide of urban professionals.

The reversal of fortune has made these farmers a glittering exception in a country still crippled by poverty, where 380 million people live on less than $1 a day, according to the World Bank.

Last year Singh, whose village of Rathdhana is located 30 miles north of New Delhi, sold 10 acres to a developer for $1.69 million, nearly seven times the price he was first offered five months earlier. The 80-year-old farmer has since built four homes: one for each of his three sons and a fourth for his cows and buffalo. In a clear sign that he is still breaking in a pair of rich man's shoes, he built two kitchens in his own home, but put the refrigerator in a guest bedroom. :D

When asked why, he shrugged and answered, "Why not?"

Down the street, Sanjay Saroha, gave a visitor a tour of his new house, which he built after unloading 12 acres for $2.1 million last year. "We are having fun," said Saroha, 32. "There's no pressure. We work only to manage our money now."

Rathdhana's fate was thrown in reverse in 2002, when the village's 2,800 acres of fields were rezoned from agriculture to private residential development. However, farmers in surrounding villages didn't make out as well; there, the state government seized more than 6,400 acres for public use such as industrial parks, infrastructure and public housing, paying no more than $50,000 an acre.

It didn't take long for villagers to act on their luck. Many became property dealers working with land speculators, while a few consolidated land holdings to gain more leverage and hike up the price. Sure enough, the offers kept climbing.

Suresh Saroha (no relation to Sanjay Saroha), is a member of Rathdhana's largest landholding family, with 81 acres divided among 13 siblings. He recently turned down $15.2 million for a 30-acre parcel. "I'll sell at the appropriate time," the 43-year-old farmer said coyly.

Driving the development boom across India are so-called townships, planned communities complete with homes, malls, hotels, schools, hospitals and central business districts. With names like "Green Escapes" and "Greenwood City," they promise a modern luxury version of a 1950s American model town.

"Townships are coming up like mushrooms," said Kavas Kapadia, a professor at the School for Planning and Architecture in New Delhi and head of its regional planning department. "Land prices are running away; they're getting completely out of control and completely unrealistic. But the developers say there's a market, and they're right."

For the farmers, township mania has unfolded like a bizarre sociological experiment. People who five years ago couldn't afford fuel, furniture or an education, suddenly have enough money for marble driveways, wrap-around balconies, imported cars and all-night binges at five-star hotels.

About 70 percent of Rathdhana's land has been sold to developers planning townships, and nearly all of the roughly 1,000 sellers still live in Rathdhana. Yet there is little talk of improving the village. A stroll through its rutted dirt lanes is a study in contradictions.

Imported SUVs with tinted windows roll past dreary, concrete one-room homes and cow paddocks. Barefoot women with bundles of hay balanced on their heads walk past pink mini-mansions rising like misplaced birthday candles. Flat-screen televisions, air conditioners and washing machines fill new houses, yet power failures plunge the village into darkness on most nights.

Many observers, from village elders to financial advisers, say the sudden wealth has had a negative effect. An alarming number of the newly rich are squandering rupees like Monopoly money, failing to seek investment advice, send their children to good schools, or install so much as a swing set in their villages, they say.

"This is the absolute worst thing that can happen to farmers," said Vijayan M.J., director of the Delhi Forum, a farmer advocacy group in Delhi. "I don't think anything can compensate for the loss of one's fields. It is an entire community which is getting shattered."

Both Singh and Sanjay Saroha have shunned financial advisers, life insurance and pension plans, which could cost them in the long run, some experts warn.

Saroha, who is illiterate and says he doesn't want the stress of learning how to read, invests in the commodities market by giving thousands of dollars to a friend without signing a single financial document. He shakes his head when asked if he's worried someone will take advantage of him.;)

"Money brings us honor and power. At the bank, queues are not for us anymore," he said. Instead, he is escorted straight into the manager's office. Shopkeepers spring to attention when he walks in.

But the life of a millionaire has also brought challenges beyond money management. :)

"There are many tensions now," said Singh. "People are demanding money. How much should I give to this son, how much to that son?"

Narender Singh, a former vegetable farmer, earned less than $5,000 a year before selling 8 acres for $1.1 million in 2006. Even though he used his windfall to become a landlord, he says he is bored.

"It was a very busy life, my health was good," said the 60-year-old Singh, his teeth stained black from decades of smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. "Now, it has become difficult to pass the time."

Rathdhana's young bachelors, meanwhile, are facing another problem. After Dharamjeet Saroha's father sold 7 acres for nearly $2 million last year, a stream of fathers from miles away came calling, said the 22-year-old, clad in two gold necklaces and three gold rings.

For others, the problem is deciding how to spend their money. One recent weekday afternoon a group of men strolled lazily through the village.

"What is the rate of agricultural land in the USA?" asked one man to a passing visitor. "Would it be smart to invest in land there?"
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