Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries (RIL), one of India’s two largest business groups, has been wowing people with his drive and ability for many years, especially since his father died five years ago and he and his brother Anil split the family business empire in 2005. Now he has amazed his peers, competitors, and observers again, but this time less laudably, by building a gigantic 570-foot high home in one of the plush areas of Mumbai.
According to a recent article in the Mumbai Mirror, a local daily, the 570-foot tower will cost $500 million and comprise 27 floors with car parks and maintenance areas, entertainment spaces including a small theatre, health and exercise rooms with pools, guest rooms, gardens, helicopter pads – oh yes, and four floors of family accommodation for him, his wife, three children and his mother. It is rumored there will be a staff of 600 (or maybe just 400, say some!) and it will be called Antillia after a phantom Atlantic island.
Even for the world’s 14th richest businessman, that is an appalling display of conspicuous consumption. And it is especially so when his estimated $20 billion of wealth makes him the richest businessman in a basically poor country, with people living in slums not far from the Antillia construction site.
Outrageous displays of wealth are of course nothing new here. Many of the old maharajahs who ruled much of the country before independence (some continue to live as if they still do) deserved ridicule for their sumptuous lifestyles in massive palaces, with hordes of servants, women, cars and elephants to care for their every need. ut business people have usually been more discreet, and their homes, while extravagant, have been relatively modest in scale.
When I first came to India in the 1980s, I was always told – and saw for myself – that the rich usually avoided public displays of wealth because they did not want to attract the attention of the tax authorities. That no longer seems to apply.
Lakshmi Mittal, Indian-born but with wealth acquired abroad as the world’s largest steelmaker, broke normal bounds in 2004 when he bought a vast and not very pretty $110 million pile in London’s exclusive Kensington Palace Gardens. In Delhi, he bought an old bungalow in the exclusive Aurangzeb Road and rebuilt it, though within the two-or-three story height required in that road.
Sunil Mittal (no relation), who runs India’s largest mobile telecom business, also kept within normal bounds when he built a house in the even more exclusive Amrita Shergil Marg, which is slightly bulkier and more stately than most of its neighbors, but not outrageously so. Others have built sumptuous homes on the outskirts of Delhi, as have families like Hinduja and Godrej on Mumbai’s Juhu beach.
But none of these is anywhere near as publicly extravagant as the Ambani tower. Bankers and business people are puzzled as to why he did it, because his public image is that of a hard-working and modest – though ruthlessly ambitious – company boss. Most are highly critical but will not speak on record – and a Reliance spokesman declined to comment. Some suggest it is part of his determination to outshine his younger brother Anil. It is also said, more practically, that land is so scarce in Mumbai that one has to build upwards rather than across a large plot – but that does not justify 27 floors for a family of six!
Whatever the reason, it puts into perspective a speech made by Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, on May 24. He attacked corruption and asked businessmen to discourage “vulgar displays of wealth.”