A two billion dollar stor(e)y

Antilla, a $2 billion home in downtown Mumbai. The richest residence in the world.

Its immodest stats have been flaunted all over the press; 600 working staff for maintenance, 6-floor parking for a capacity of 168 cars, three helipads, a movie theater, personal health-centers for each of the five family members, lush sprawling gardens on every level, over-stretched 27 floors (that in standard measurements would have resulted in 60 floors), and all the jazz one could ask only Alladin’s genie for.

Obviously, this has led to heated debates. Some view Bill Gates’ – and other Western billionaires’ – philanthropic lifestyle as the modest comparison that should be adopted by India’s rich. Others suggest the evident contrast between rich and poor in India is woeful: a $20 home next to a $2billion one. Having walked on Mumbai’s Altamount road just a few months back, home of the Antilla, I can vouch for the bitter display of inequality.

Even India’s Prime Minister has had something to say. He, politely, asked India’s rich to “show moderation and to lead by example.” Hmmmmmmmmm…..

. . . . .  This case holds an interesting argument. On one hand, there are social and environmental ethics involved, while on the other, its his money afterall. Frankly, who the hell are we to be potential financial advisers telling him how to spend his billions?

Lets give Mukesh Ambani a break. He hasn’t done something unheard of. Historically, showing off money and power has been a hobby of the rich – Ancient Egyptians, Mughals, modern day Westerners, and Arab Sheikhs. Everyone has participated…everyone is guilty.

Shah Jahan, the great Mughal emperor, built the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his wife. The Taj Mahal was constructed using materials from all over India and Asia – at a time when the only form of inter regional transport was that of the foot. Over 22,000 laborers and 1,000 elephants were employed during the entire 22-year construction period. What made it worse was that all the 22,000 workers had their hands mutilated (so that building a replica of the Taj would be impossible.) The same can be said for Egyptian pyramids. The amount of money and resources spent on such structures, if calculated in today’s denomination, has been an incredulously brutal waste.

Our response to the Taj Mahals and the Pyramids of Giza? The United Nations (UNESCO) names them World Heritage sites. 

Back to modern India. 2 billion dollar homes are not built everyday. Antilla must be given its due rather than be the topic of bitching at dinner tables, “Oh, Ambani is a crazy man.” 

The prime concerns of lavish living, are these:  social inequality and environmental inefficiency.

Social Inequality: Had Mukesh Ambani had not spent his money the way he has, would India’s social inequality woes have ceased to exist? Or, realistically, diminished even marginally? Social Inequality exists as it has since the times of ancient India thousands of years ago. It may not have been as stark as it is now, with Antilla in the frame. But the cover-page doesn’t change the contents of the book.
On the contrary, Antilla is a brand ambassador of the new power rising in India. Else, all Mumbai had to offer was British era built infrastructure, overcrowded trains, and slums (as shown to the world in Slumdog Millionaire.)

To those suggesting Ambani should have given away $2 billion to poor instead,  I would like to ask: how much do you, Sir/Ma’am, give to the poor or social initiatives as percentage of your total wealth?

Meanwhile, $2 billion have trickled down the Indian economy. Laborers, manufacturers, engineers, consultants, drivers – there have been jobs created, and families have been given whole new livelihoods. I’m glad he spent his money this way; there are people who have been rewarded for their hard-work, tangibly.

The real downside of the whole episode is this: If one rich man has done it, it paves way for other rich men to do the same. People are inspired to lead such inefficient lifestyles, leading to inefficient consumption of society’s limited resources. The environmental consequences can be troubling. Honestly, I can’t defend this aspect of the argument with a fitting argument. But here’s what we’re doing, like we do all the time: on 9/11 2752 people were victimized. Over time, America has waged wars on the Middle East and plunked hundreds of billions of dollars; and the general American population is still haunted by that memory. But today itself, as you read this post, close to 30000 people have died all around the world from under nutrition related issues. Which one is more pressing in terms of lives lost? Where have we focused our energies instead?

Give Ambani his due, he’s created a marvel.
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3 thoughts on “A two billion dollar stor(e)y

  1. The reason for the bitching about Mukesh Ambani is obvious. It isn't about resources or environment or something like that. Its more primal. Jealousy. Social inequality? Yes, definitely. But we aren't comparing his house to the slums. We're comparing it to OUR homes. Well written article! :)

  2. India is perplexing and weird. I think we Americans are getting hyped about it. I have loved reading your blog today, thanks for letting me know about it. Let's meet when you're back!

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