COLUMN ONE

Mumbai billionaire's home boasts 27 floors, ocean and slum views

Mukesh Ambani is at the top of the growing list of billionaires in India, where some are proud of his ostentatious house while others see it as shameful in a nation where many children go hungry.

October 24, 2010|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from New Delhi — India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, is having a little housewarming in Mumbai this week to show folks around. It could take awhile. The $1-billion home, seven years in the making, is 400,000 square feet on 27 floors, all for a family of six.

Don't worry about parking. The building, which looms over the city's skyline like a Lego set gone awry, boasts a 168-space lot. Or avoid Mumbai's nightmarish traffic altogether by landing on one of three helipads.

Need to cool off after the stressful drive? Of course there's a swimming pool and yoga studio. Or, by some accounts, an ice room to escape the Mumbai heat, infused with man-made snow flurries. Then there's the mini-theater, three balconies with terrace gardens, the health club, spectacular views of the Arabian Sea (and the Mumbai slums).

It's being billed as the most expensive home in history. Anywhere.

"It's a stupendous show of wealth," said Hamish McDonald, author of "Ambani & Sons: A History of the Business." "It's kind of positioning business tycoons as the new maharajah of India."

The muscular display comes as India boasts 69 billionaires — a near-tripling since 2008 — and the country's stock market is flirting with its pre-global-meltdown high. Recently, an Indian record was set when 148 Mercedes-Benzes were delivered to a midsize city near Mumbai … on a single day.

On the smaller-fry front, India also added 42,800 millionaires last year, a 50% jump. And there's little end in sight as the economy defies trends elsewhere to race along at 8% growth, driven by a large domestic market, rapidly growing industries of all kinds and low labor costs.

India still lags behind China, which has 189 billionaires, according to the Hurun Rich List 2010, which tracks the newly monied there. But India's rich are richer: According to a local edition of Forbes in November, the wealthiest 100 Indians are collectively worth $276 billion, while their top 100 Chinese counterparts are worth $170 billion. (Put another way, the three wealthiest Indians have more cash than the top 24 Chinese.)

Top among these new maharajahs of wealth is Ambani, 53, whose $29-billion net worth from petroleum and petrochemical giant Reliance Industries makes him the world's fourth-richest person.

The land of Mahatma Gandhi may have long eschewed ostentatious wealth, but that started changing after 1991 when an era of greater entrepreneurial opportunity gave rise to a generation keen to strut its stuff. And these days, there is lots to strut.

"It's 'flaunt-it-if-you've-earned-it' thinking," said Alex Kuruvilla, head of Conde Nast publications in India. "For decades, natural instincts were repressed. Finally, people in India are able to live their dream."

The dream capital is Mumbai, home to nearly half of India's billionaires.

"In Mumbai, we sort of take it for granted, we expect to do things on a grand scale," said Shobhaa De, a socialite, columnist and author who said she's looking forward to Thursday's housewarming. "But it's a staggering residence by any standard."

Mumbai, formerly Bombay, is also home to some of Asia's worst slums. In a nation with 42% of the world's underweight children younger than 5, according to Washington's International Food Policy Research Institute, such wealth can be inconceivable, said Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.

"There are many billionaires here, but they don't reflect the economic health of our country," Gupta said. "I don't necessarily think most people see them as folk heroes, although some would."

Reaction to Ambani's new house has ranged from the gushing — "The new India! Well done," wrote one Twitter user — to the aghast. "Knowing that there are millions of people starving, w/o clean water, and adequate shelter, makes this hard to read," wrote another.

But columnist De thinks the rich-poor gap is overdone.

"The world is trying to send India on a guilt trip," she said. "Every country has its super-rich and super-poor. We're proud of our billionaires. They're our jewels."

Although "old" Indian money, most notably the Tata family of Mumbai, has funded numerous hospitals and other social projects, the new crowd isn't particularly famous for altruism.

"None of the top 10 super-rich billionaires of India have given any substantial amount towards any charity or for human welfare the way [ Warren] Buffett or [Bill and Melinda] Gates has," said in a recent article in the Hindu newspaper.

One reason may be a trust deficit, sociologist Gupta said. A 2005 survey by corruption watchdog Transparency International found that half of all Indians had paid bribes or peddled influence to obtain basic government services.

"If you suspect everyone of being corrupt, giving it away is tricky," he said. "Philanthropy grows with the level of trust in society."

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