It is midnight and icy cold. The city is resplendent in Christmas lights. The faithful are headed for mass in the various churches of Delhi. Jasdeep Kaur Chadha, 38, mother of three, races her white Range Rover towards Bawana near the border with Haryana. She weaves in and out of trucks, sure of her route. A second Range Rover carries her security detail. She is out to check one of her bus depots — she operates four (out of the nine) bus clusters in the city. A nondescript wall looms in the dark. Kaur kills the engine. At the gigantic depot which houses 140 buses, her manager is waiting, register in hand. Kaur springs out, immaculate in a white shirt, expensive shawl and jacket, sparkling diamonds on her ears and hands — she usually makes these visits in track pants but cannot allow herself to be photographed in those clothes. It is clear the boss has arrived. A group of men — including a handful of turbaned Sikhs, their faces wrapped in thick shawls — follow her around.
“My colleagues have seen her. I am seeing her for the first time,” says G Sakthivel, a 21-year-old mechanical engineer from Salem, Tamil Nadu, posted here by bus maker Ashok Leyland to keep the vehicles in good condition. Clearly, women are a rarity amongst bus operators, and Sakthivel can’t wait to see how Kaur will handle these toughies. She had, after all, broken a strike call by drivers recently. Kaur checks registers, inspects CNG machines, talks to staff. She is cordial, aloof and caring — all at the same time. “I have appointed a task force. They tell me everything. If a driver does not stop at every bus stop, Delhi Integrated Multi-modal Transport System, or DIMTS, deducts money. I lose money,” says Kaur as she moves outside a barrack-like structure where drivers have bunked for the night. Viewed in this setting, it appears that Kaur, wife of Hardeep Chadha, who died in a shootout with his brother Ponty Chadha in November last year, has come into her own.
Probe a bit and you will realise the pain caused by the loss lingers. “I never knew in this Indian society being without a husband is so difficult,” says Kaur as her kohl-lined eyes turn moist. She is in her office in a Gurgaon apartment, which has a plush sofa, a table and a big photograph of her deceased husband on the wall. Now dressed in salwaar-kameez, Kaur controls her emotions and smiles as her 9-year-old son enters to know if the lawn can be opened for his play.
Kaur has, since the double deaths, moved out of the Chadha joint-family home in Chhatarpur. After spending some time in her parents’ home in Punjabi Bagh, a month ago she moved into a house with her children in a high-rise gated luxury apartment complex in Gurgaon. The complex she lives in is new with few residents; her house is laden with crystal and plush carpets. It has seven bedrooms and a temple. The drawing room has dim, sophisticated lights, expensive sofas, and a large glass table. A battery of servants looks after the family’s every need. A fleet of Range Rovers is parked in the driveway, manned by Sikhs. They turn on the engine every time she steps out. They switch it off once she clarifies she is not driving out.
Kaur owns — and runs — the closely-held Adie Broswon group which, she claims, has an annual turnover of Rs 600 crore. Apart from the four bus clusters in Delhi (she owns 450 buses, and wants to double the fleet), she has interests in sugar and alcohol. Adie Browson runs a business complex in Gurdaspur, Punjab, which houses a 6,500 tonne (crushed per day) sugar factory, a 6-million-case brewery (India’s total beer capacity is 270 million cases), and a distillery. She supplies beer to SABMiller and has launched her own brand called Rockberg. Two distilleries which her husband had initiated, Kaur has got them off the ground.
The businesses Kaur leads are all heavily regulated and are dominated largely by men. Core competence in sectors like liquor and sugar often means the ability to “manage the environment”. For the unconnected, this can be frustrating. Kaur is made of sterner stuff. “Whether in power or out of power, for us they (political parties) are all the same,” says Kaur. But she adds: “My husband used to say there is a lot of money in liquor.” While Kaur is seeking to build a future in liquor, Ponty Chadha’s Wave Group, inherited and run by his son Manpreet or Monty, is hedging its risks, though it controls the Rs 14,000-crore liquor market in Uttar Pradesh, by diversifying into real estate, sugar and entertainment. Kaur makes it clear she does not want to discuss her nephew’s businesses. On whether the two groups are getting more professional, she says: “I don’t know how thekas (liquor vends) can change.”
Though the Chadha brothers died in a shootout and the matter is in the courts, Kaur doesn’t come across as bitter about her brother-in-law. “Even to use political contacts, you need brains. The excise that Ponty Veerji earned for Uttar Pradesh is important. I wish I had learned the business from him,” she says. Her words indicate warmth for the Ponty Chadha faction of the family but contact with them is minimal. “It’s ok. If I’m living alone, that’s a big step,” she says.
Kaur says the toughest time for her after Chadha’s death was when she opened the sugar factory within days as the sugarcane crushing season was underway. “I did not know anything about business. I was a plain, simple housewife who got married at 17,” says Kaur who got her education at Delhi’s Holy Child School. After the shootout, she began to steer the group on her own. “After all this (the shootout), I do not trust anybody so easily. I can go lower down and interact with peons, secretaries. My managers know ‘Yeh toh neeche se pata kar lengi’,” says Kaur. She says meeting bankers and politicians without her husband was not easy initially as she worried about what people might think. “My daughter said those who talk behind your back don’t matter, and those who are talking on your face: b***s to them,” says Kaur, laughing.
A woman asserting her authority is normally perceived by her male subordinates with a curious mix of mirth and resentment. Kaur’s case is no different, though when you enter her world you also feel the raw power of her authority. “How did this bus get scraped?” Kaur asks at the depot, raising her voice for the first time. A hush falls, the men go into a huddle, closing ranks; little information is given out. As Kaur gets ready to leave, one employee walks out and after stumbling a few steps, touches her feet. “He is totally drunk,” says Kaur, unperturbed, her laughter ringing out.
A cluster bus strike in October, in which DIMTS, the government arm in the cluster system, intervened, saw the Aam Aadmi Party getting into the fray. “Since elections were round the corner, it had to become a political issue,” says Kaur. Still, Kaur dealt with the strikers sternly and the crisis blew over. DIMTS now knows Kaur is in charge.