kingdom for a phone – The Hindu

In July this year, luxury handset manufacturer Vertu declared bankruptcy. Since 1998, the UK-based company has been synonymous with extravagant mobile phones. Starting at 1.5 lakh and going all the way in excess of 25 lakh the phones were hand assembled using materials ranging from Ostrich leather and pure gold to diamonds. Perks like these made Vertu phones a choice for a select few, mostly movie stars, businessmen and… farmers from Gujarat.

Like Pravin Joshi, a cotton farmer and trader from Ahmedabad, who rather proudly shows off his Vertu Signature Touch — a shiny titanium-encased Android smartphone that costs around 7.5 lakh. “I just did not want an iPhone, everyone has one,” says Joshi. The phone came with a dedicated 24/7 concierge service, but that isn’t top priority for him. “I particularly liked the camera and ringtones of this Vertu,” he explains, referring to the Hasselblad-certified camera and the ringtones composed exclusively by the London Symphony Orchestra.

Dreaming big

Joshi didn’t just buy a Vertu — he also became an influencer, minus the Instagram handle, convincing his friends to buy one as well. “I was amazed after using Pravin’s phone,” says Joshi’s friend, Kamlesh Vora. “I was on the lookout for a jeweller to customise my phone, but after hearing about the extensive customisation I could do with a Vertu phone, I immediately ordered mine with an engraving of my daughter’s name, ” says Vora, who owns date farms on the outskirts of Bhuj, in Kutch.

After four of his friends bought Vertu phones from the same store in Mumbai, the boutique manager promised Joshi a visit to the Vertu factory on his next trip to England. “I just hope they come back into business soon,” he adds.

The phone is a big deal for Joshi, for whom even going to a restaurant for a meal with his family was a rarity, 15 years ago. His life changed when the contract garment manufacturing boom led to a rise in cotton prices. It fuelled his growth from a small farmer with two acres to a landowner with multiple farms outside Ahmedabad. Today, his cotton trading company supplies to giants like Walmart, GAP and Zara, to name a few.

Like Joshi, there are many farmers from Gujarat who have seen their aspirations turn to reality thanks to rapid industrialisation and the growth in agriculture. A previously neglected sector, farming has prospered for some, in the last decade or so, thanks to a couple of years of generous monsoon and an improvement in power infrastructure. While the recovery of cotton in the last decade is responsible for creation of a lot of wealth, it’s also landowners who have seen land prices skyrocket thanks to the push for industrialisation.

Four-wheeled pride

But it’s not just Vertu phones, another luxury item that seems to have caught the locals’ fancy is the Audi car. Commonly known in Gujarat as the ‘char bangli vadi gaadi’ (“the four bangled car”, a colloquial reference to their logo) is often showcased as the vehicle of the elite in local TV soaps and it even has pop songs dedicated to it.

Manikant Shah, a chilli farmer from Rajkot, had been wanting to buy an Audi, but didn’t want the hassle of driving all the way to Ahmedabad to service it. So when Audi opened a sprawling new 1,00,000 square feet showroom and service station in Rajkot, he booked himself a ₹65 lakh SUV in the very first week.

Why the Q5? “The Audi Q5 looks very good,” explains Shah, adding that the road leading towards his farm isn’t that great, but the Q5 “drives smoothly over the bumps.” A practical man, if there was ever one. But it’s not just farmers who have a change of fortune — landowners of previously cheap plots in rural Gujarat found themselves rich thanks to rapid industrialisation that started a decade ago.

Like the Vadodara-based Manjula Mehta, a home-maker and mother of two. Mehta lucked out in early 2007 when a piece of land she bought with friends turned out to be where Tata Motors wanted to build their Nano factory in Sanand. “My kitty friends and I contacted some brokers and after a couple of months we bought six bighas (1.5 acres) of land after pooling in ₹10 lakhs each,” explains Mehta.

Lucked-out land

“Our land was right next to the proposed Tata plant, so we sold our land for ₹2 crore.” That’s probably what a modern day fairy tale sounds like, except in Mehta’s case, it turned into reality. With her bumper prize, the first thing Mehta did was buy — of course — an Audi car to surprise her husband on his 55th birthday. “I had never bought a car before, I just went to the Audi showroom and asked for one worth ₹50 lakhs” explains Mehta. That sure was one lucky husband.

The people of Gujarat have always been known for their conservative approach to spending, but with the cotton boom and land prices skyrocketing, the dry State has seen enough millionaires per square foot to rival Silicon Valley. And while there is no shortage of options for the rich to spend their new wealth, most of their decisions are based on what their friends and relatives are doing.

“With the growth of social media everyone wants to be the first, whether it is to visit an exotic foreign destination, get a new watch or a handbag,” says Krupa Solanki who organises private sales of luxury handbags in Ahmedabad, where brands like Dior and Burberry find many takers. Not surprising considering how over the past decade, everyone from Audi to Rolls Royce have set up shop across Gujarat and more brands are on their way.

And with the proposed Bullet train project set to connect Ahmedabad with Mumbai, there’s no telling what’s going to catch the average rich farmer’s fancy.

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