The Kolkata-based group has earned trust and respect for its commitment to quality over the past three decades. Having drawn inspiration from his father, Late Shiv Kishan Mohta and other great personalities like J R D Tata, Swami Vivekananda, Lee Iacocca, Mohta has carved a niche for himself in this field. Being inclined towards the real estate business since an early age, he has proved how perseverance and hard work can bring success in the long run. He is also the present President of CREDAI Bengal, the state’s chapter of the Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Association of India (CREDAI), the apex body for private real estate developers in the country. As president of the association, he has enormously contributed to the development with his strategic thinking and policy making skills.
Q. How did your father influence you in your early years of becoming an entrepreneur?
A lot of what I am today goes to my father, Late Shiv Kishan Mohta. Back in those days, it was almost certain that Marwari family boys would join the family business. I have grown up seeing the nitty-gritty of business in my family and it is in the blood. I was encouraged to join business so that it could expand. Hence, I consider that period as my training phase.
Q. Your family was in the ball bearing business. What propelled you into a real estate business?
When I was in my twenties, I went abroad on several business trips to countries like Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Hongkong, and Singapore to meet various companies and large trading houses for business meetings. I saw wonderful developments everywhere, high rises, design meeting function and I felt an urge to look beyond the trading and investment business. I wanted to create something which was brick and mortar, literally. This was the time I decided to look at construction and real estate.
Q. Tell us about your first venture.
By 1990, I had five years of experience in real estate; I felt that the time was right to ride alone. I took a plunge and started with Merlin Projects Ltd. Our first residential project was about 60,000 sq ft in Hazra, a prime location in South Kolkata. The owners were residing in a place called Seraikela, close to Jamshedpur. One fine morning, I along with my assistant and broker for the deal, took a train to Seraikela, had lunch with the owners and on the same day we closed the deal.
Q. Which are the major projects this group has undertaken so far?
Our accomplishments consist of over 50 residential and 20 commercial complexes and 500 independent bungalows covering more than 20 million sq.ft floor areas till date. Merlin Group has innovated with various formats and core project. In the housing space, we have premium housing, essential housing and country homes. In the commercial space, we have mixed use projects like office and retail mall and Stadium such as Acropolis, specialty malls i.e. Homeland Mall, and info-tech buildings.
We are also a key stakeholder in South City Projects which is Kolkata’s showcase project in township development. The South City brand has extended to Colombo with South City Altair, an iconic 68 storied tower designed by renowned architect, Moshe Safdie, who designed the Marina Bay Sands Resorts, Casino and Shopping Mall at Singapore. Additionally we are also developing Industrial Estates and a Spa Resort and retreat project here.
Q. As the President of Credai Bengal, what is your opinion on Real Estate scene of the city?
Currently, the real estate scene in Bengal is quite healthy. Unlike other cities, the market in Kolkata is much more user-oriented and less dependent on investors. In fact, ninety percent of the stock is sold to actual users. The prices are kept at a realistic level so that it is not beyond the reach of our customers.
Residential projects in Kolkata within a budget segment have higher demand. We have launched about half a dozen projects in the past one year and I’m happy to say that fifty percent of the inventory is already sold. The success could be attributed to our excellent track records and credibility.
In the recent past, there has been rapid growth in E-commerce. While Bangalore, NCR, Hyderabad, and Pune are some of the cities which are doing great in this respect, Bengal is stuck at the lowest. It shows to what extent we arelagging behind and where our economy is headed. However, we hope that Bengal picks up the pace.
Q. Is affordable housing a challenge in Bengal?
I think this is a challenge in the entire country. Unless projects are subsidised by some way or the other, it is impossible to have a large supply of affordable housing. This happens because the cost of construction or taxation or other necessities is quite high. Today, urban land ceiling, conversion policy of the land, plan approval process and the process of environment clearance are very cumbersome. It takes almost one to two years to get various approvals and clearances and as a result the cost of development goes up due to interest.
If the approval process of affordable housing projects is fixed within a few months, the cost of development automatically goes down. This brings down the prices for ultimate buyers. I firmly believe that various laws should be amended to make them development friendly. Urban land ceiling laws should be scrapped or simplified, Land use plan (LUDCP) for various area in West Bengal should also be introduced.
Service tax should be removed and stamp duty and registration charges should also be reduced. Also, if other duties like approval charges can come down, then a lot of people can benefit and afford their own houses. I have seen in several foreign countries like Singapore, Malaysia, and China, where the respective governments have given thrust on housing, the quality of citizens have improved. Once a person has his own house, he becomes more responsible and the crime rate also goes down. Therefore, it acts as a boon for the society.
Q. How will the real estate bill ( RERA) affect Bengal?
The bill will bring real improvements in the industry in the next three to four years. There will be a huge difference between casual and serious developers. This bill will have a moderate effect on professional developers like us, who always comply with the various regulations and Laws, but there are a few who don’t, and bring bad name to the industry as a whole. The RERA provisions will help in controlling such unscrupulous Developers.
Developers, who are committed to quality and good service to the customers, will have better days and the fly-by-night operators would not be able to continue with their business. Those who did not have the intention to do business in a disciplined manner are going to be ones affected. As a result, people will have more faith in developers with credibility and CREDAI welcomes this.
Q. While urbanisation has been an instrument of economic, social and political progress, it has led to serious socioeconomic problems. How can one create a balance in this regard?
Well, one cannot stop urbanisation, but definately make it organised. In India, about twenty-seven percent of our population is urbanised and I think by 2030 more than 40 per cent of the population will be urban, leading to a huge shortage of affordable housing and tremendous pressure on urban infrastructure. One of the main reasons for it is the growing income of the people.
There is this continuous improvement in the income level. The people in lower income group are getting in the middle class category and the middle class has gone a level higher. As a result, in near future, a major part of the population would be able to invest in new properties, but support from the Government is also necessary to make it a reality. They need to reduce tax charges, interest rates and stamp duty to make the future of the country brighter.
People migrate to urban areas because of the facilities such as job opportunities, health education, entertainment available here. If these are made available in the rural areas as well, the mass influx will be less. This calls for creating more jobs, setting up educational institutions, providing better health facilities and welfare schemes in those areas. This will also reduce the present socio-economic disparity. With an increase in population, there will be an increase in demand too. So, the government has to be ready for it.
Unless we have some kind of infrastructure to cope with the urban population explosion, it is not possible for all to have a healthy lifestyle. It’s a very tricky situation and the government must take it seriously. It should be dealt with utmost priority otherwise, there will be serious law and order problems and health hazards. We all need to understand the demand and work towards it.
Q. What has the government done to boost this line of business?
I must say that this Government has taken real estate and urban infrastructure very seriously. It was not on the earlier government’s priority list. But this government understood our requirements and many of our demands were met which had been long pending.
The present Government is also very receptive, because whenever we come up with suggestions they take necessary initiatives so that important things get implemented. It will be great if they could scrap the urban land ceiling laws and introduce SEZ for IT and ITES sector, this will ultimately attract investors to Bengal.
Q. You have worked across the country. What holds you back in Kolkata?
Kolkata is my own city. I have my roots in this city. This is the place where my children and I have grown up. I believe I must give something in return. I love the city and my friends are here too. Although I have projects across the country, even in Colombo, but Kolkata is my comfort zone.
Q. Tell us about your future projects.
We have numerous ongoing projects in Kolkata, mostly residential. We have some in Pune, Bhubaneswar, and Colombo. But most of the business is in Calcutta. Some of them include 5th Avenue in Bidhan Nagar / Newtown, Iland in Picnic Garden, Merlin Waterfront in Shibpur, Merlin Legacy in Paddapukur, Merlin Regalia near Sealdah, and Merlin Maximus in B T Road. We are also coming up with a few high end residential projects in Tollygunge.
Q. What is that you keep in mind when you start a project?
We focus on the customers, their background, requirements andaspirations. Based on these details we source the land and plan theproject.
Q. How do you perceive the future of the real estate business in Kolkata?
It is very bright and becoming more professional. Developers will be more transparent and accountable. I believe Real Estate is now almost like the Automobile Industry, both have huge competition, innovative marketing, customer services, and it demands innovations in products. With increasing competition, things will only get better.
Q. How is Merlin different from other Real Estate groups?
We were one of the first professional groups in the real estate sector. We set up our website way back in 1997 when only a few could access the internet. We started with our direct marketing, customer service wing and after sales service then. All of this contributed to our growth and as a result, we have the maximum brand recall today. Our motto is to treat customers as kings because after all he’s investing his life savings with us.
Q. Do you have any message for young entrepreneurs?
Kolkata has a bright future with youngsters coming up with brighter ideas. One needs to work hard and focus on their carrier plan. They should be able to come out of their comfort zone and look for dynamic opportunities. I strongly believe that one has to fight his own battle.
They should gain experience and draw inspiration from places where things are up to the mark. This city can provide a good working atmosphere in contrast to other cities. Also, Kolkatans are very warm and supportive. So, young entrepreneurs can easily start their careers in Kolkata.