St. Soldier Group of Institutions chairman Anil Chopra. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
New Delhi: Throughout his formative years in the 1960s and ’70s, Anil Chopra had an overriding ambition: to join the Indian Army. The son of an academic father connected to the army, the olive green uniform was all he dreamt of. Back then, it was considered one of the most prestigious, even glamorous, careers.
“My neighbours even threw a party when I cleared my Service Selection Board,” he recalls.
Fate had other plans. Chopra’s mother, an educationist, insisted he opt for the life of a civilian. It was an army family (Chopra’s grandfather and uncle, too, were part of the forces), and she wasn’t happy about a household where every man seemed to be was posted out every two years.
The young man had no choice but to acquiesce. “Of course, I felt bad, but I had to respect my mother’s wishes,” says Chopra.
That’s how Chopra got into education. And that’s how he got into real estate.
Chopra’s mother used to run a school called Shishu Model in Jalandhar which had fewer than 400 students—a modest establishment when Chopra joined it in 1977. “It was a challenge to run a private school in India in the ’70s. The field was mostly dominated by either very old established elite schools or government schools. We literally had to go door to door for admissions. I used to pick up and drop the children myself,” the 63-year-old recalls.
In 1981, he and a few professors and teachers decided to establish a co-operative housing society. “We bought the land, registered it and divided the plots. It was a non-profit enterprise, of course, but I was amazed at how simple the procedure was.”
It is this that set him on the path of construction and realty.
“I learnt on the job what are yards, what permissions are required, which departments one needs to approach and I realized that this was a lucrative business opportunity,” he says.
This was in 1981 and buying property or land either for personal use or investment was relatively rare: few had the money.
Chopra remembers his own family wondering who would buy those plots of land. “People lived in the same mohallas where their families had been based for generations. They were not ready to leave the comfort of the known…”
By 1996, everything had changed.
“Reforms bahut tezi se aaye aur sab badal gaya (the reforms came very suddenly and everything changed)” he says, referring to the economic reforms of 1991. Not only did real estate become lucrative, it became much more streamlined. The Punjab Urban Development Authority (PUDA) was set up in 1995, development boards came up and “colonization”—as Chopra refers to urban development—began in earnest.
“Till it was streamlined, real estate was the place to park a lot of black money. If a sale was conducted in say 10 paise, then on paper only 4 paise would be shown. With the setting up of PUDA and other departments, it became easier to do business.”
The boom in real estate is considered to be one of the direct spin-offs of India’s economic growth. According to a January 2016 sectoral report by the Indian Brand Equity Foundation, real estate is the second largest employer in India after agriculture and is slated to grow at 30% annually over the next decade.
The next year, Chopra turned his attention back to the education business. He saw how the failing standards of government schools had created a vacuum for private players to step in. Established private schools had limited seats and charged high fees—demand far outstripped supply.
“Earlier, people were content to follow in their father’s footsteps. A carpenter’s son would become a carpenter, but today everyone wants to be an engineer or a doctor. And the route to that is through good quality education. The government has failed miserably in this regard. We may be schooling our children, but are they being educated?”
He refers to the Annual Status of Education Report findings which have revealed that Class V students can’t read a Class II textbook. The business of education tied up neatly with Chopra’s real estate pursuits, as he could claim that land purchased from the government was meant for educational institutions.
He is now chairman of the St. Soldier Group of Institutions as well as PPR Infrastructure Ltd. The former is a private education group, the latter a property group. Both are headquartered in Jalandhar. St. Soldier boasts 26 schools, most of them in smaller towns and cities of Punjab. State schools may have failed. Whether institutions like Chopra’s, that have come up to cater to the demands of an ambitious middle class, actually deliver, will be clear in the near future.
This is the 49th part in a series marking the 25th anniversary of India’s liberalization. To read more ‘Days of Our Lives’ stories, click here.[“source-ndtv”]