Last September 28, a group of retired military officers demonstrated at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. “Though we are old veterans, we still have the strength to challenge your atrocity,” read the placard of one protester.
Their animus was directed at one of the NCR’s biggest residential builders, Kabul Chawla. In 2008, nearly 200 army officers had put down deposits on apartments at Park Serene, a high-rise complex Chawla was developing. A big drawing card was the prospect that the officers could live together in retirement.
Six years on, the protesters say Chawla’s firm has collected almost 100% of the price of the Park Serene apartments from 400 buyers, payments the protesters estimate at over $35 million. But the company has not completed the units. “They put their life savings in it,” said Brajesh Kumar, a retired army major general and spokesman for the protesting officers, who have taken their grievances to a national consumer commission. “They thought that after their retirement they would move in. It’s not a happy situation.”
As complaints mount against Chawla, developer of two dozen other major residential complexes near New Delhi, many of these veterans are struggling to find a place to live.
Chawla doesn’t seem to have that problem. Even in New York, he enjoys the comforts of a 4,050-sq-ft condominium in the Time Warner Center that has five bedrooms, a media/playroom, soaring ceilings and Central Park views.
Though Chawla denies owning the apartment, saying that he stays there but that it belongs to his cousin, The NYT has unearthed correspondence among real-estate brokers involved in the apartment’s purchase, as well as other sources, tying the condo to Chawla.
The ownership of the unit on the 68th floor of the Time Warner Center’s south tower is obscured by a corporate veil: A Delaware company with a Singapore address and a name, NYC Real Estate Opportunities, evoking the ambitions of an international buyer.
This is not unusual. Of the 192 condos at the Time Warner Center, nearly two-thirds are owned through shell companies, a Times investigation has found. Often the names of the people behind these companies are shrouded in secrecy. And 68AF is among the most carefully cloaked.
When the apartment was bought outright in February 2012 for $19.4 million, the backlash against Chawla had begun in India.
Chawla, who is in his early 40s, got his start in the real-estate business more than 20 years ago when he put up a building on property owned by his father. While his family name was well known in India — his cousin was the astronaut Kalpana Chawla, who died aboard the space shuttle Columbia — Chawla’s company, BPTP, was little known until 2005, when he began aggressively purchasing farmland near Faridabad. BPTP began buying land at prices as low as $12 per square yard, which it would later sell for more than 10 times that. “No one showed interest in developing this area for 14 years, until we started in 2005,” Chawla’s company said in an email, pointing that the land had been cut off by 2 irrigation canals.
By the fall of 2009, BPTP said it had pre-sold 10,685 apartments and 5,657 residential plots at Parklands, which Chawla envisioned as a community that would include apartment buildings, lots for single-family homes and commercial establishments.
By 2012, the company was overseeing more than two dozen projects on nearly 2,500 acres. It had 22,000 customers and sales of $1.6 billion, according to a company news release at the time. Today, many of those customers appear to be unhappy. They have flooded Facebook pages, real estate forums and consumer websites in India with complaints about BPTP and have staged protests at some of the company’s properties.
In an interview at his corporate headquarters near New Delhi and in emailed responses, Chawla and his company said BPTP was highly professional. He acknowledged delays in some projects but blamed them on a “plethora” of external factors, including government setbacks in infrastructure development. Chawla’s company said it hoped to deliver the military officers’ apartments by this summer. “All developers are facing this,” he said in the company’s conference room.
At one of the Parklands apartment complexes, called Park Elite Floors, a buyer, Neeraj Jagga, said there had been little progress in three years and that much of the project appeared to have been abandoned. A video Jagga made of his unit last winter shows crumbling bricks and plaster, unfinished walls and floors, no windows and rusting balcony railings. A recent visit to the site revealed no progress, he said.
He bought one of the 4,194 apartments in the sprawling Park Elite Floors, most of which were sold in the spring and summer of 2009. Jagga, who works in commercial printing, said BPTP had given various reasons for delays, including claims of a contractor dispute. “It’s been five years,” he said. “Everybody is stuck.”
The company has denied wrongdoing. In the case of Park Elite Floors, the company said while work had slowed, the project had not been abandoned and that it had offered possession to 1,274 of the buyers. However, Amit Jain, who heads a consumer association representing apartment owners in a Delhi suburb, said BPTP is one of many companies that are taking advantage of a housing shortage and a loosely regulated system with few consumer protections. “I would say he is not a bad guy,” Jain said. “He is doing what most of the builders are doing. They’re good people but they are enjoying the largess of this failed state.”
BY STEPHANIE SAUL AND LOUISE STORY