Ambani’s vertical palace vs Premji’s horizontal giving

December 7, 2010

In a contest between who is the most celebrated Indian billionaire, a man who donates $2 bln to education versus a man who builds himself a $1bln home, the winner is obvious. Right?

The founder and chairman of infotech giant Wipro Ltd., Azim Premji, is India’s third richest man, said to be worth $17 bln. In one gesture, he has given away more than ten percent of his wealth to a fund for rural education. Surely such a generous donation is most noble and worthy?

And yet the act which has had the deeper impact on the public’s imagination is the recent show of wealth by India’s richest man, industrialist Mukesh Ambani.

Tongues across the world have been wagging for weeks, some in admiration, most in condemnation, about his controversial 27-storey apartment block built only for a family of five. It’s easy to dismiss his new home as offensive in a city where more than 60 percent of the population live in slums. But when was it never thus? Since time immemorial kings and queens – and in modern democracies the business elite are the rulers – have spent ostentatiously on imported marble, rare crystal chandeliers and gilded gold furniture for lavish palaces and private monuments.

So why the bemused uproar that India’s industrial king did the same? His is just a vertical palace – and without slave labour or tax-payer dollars. And he’s taken up less land mass than most mansions do and created an international architectural first, which is already an icon in India’s City of Dreams.

Ambani's Vertical Palace

Why do we expect the uber rich to act the same as we do?  Ambani is said to be worth $29bn and the suggested $1 billion price tag for his new home is about 3 percent of that, which is probably less than most of us spend on our housing. Also, I wonder how much his critics give to charity themselves? Yet we expect greater generosity from the super rich?

Of course, we do. Because, unlike billionaires, for average earners the difference between necessity and desire (i.e., paying a mortgage bill and going out for dinner) can be a few dollars. So for those who have buffer after buffer, society expects a little benevolence, rightly or wrongly, just like it expects superpowers to step up to the bat when the world needs it. Hope lives eternal that the super rich will be a bit generous, especially when they live amongst so much deprivation.

And yet.

And yet when that happens, when Azim Premji gives $2bln — 10 percent of his wealth — to help educate the less privileged, the act goes largely unnoticed beyond the intelligentsia.

So in a world where the disparity between the rich and the poor is so huge, and it is only natural to aspire to acquire, is flaunting wealth still the true measure of stature?


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Ratan Tata – Gifted USD 50 million to Harvard Biz School. Nice.
Azim Premji – Gifted USD 2 billion for educating the poor. – Better.
Mukesh Ambani – Built a USD 1 billion home in a city of 60% slums. Shame!

Horizontal giving is much better than a vertical building!

Posted by x.wolfman | Report as abusive

Flaunting wealth is not the true measure of stature….never was. It is, however, the only measure that media accepts as news that sells. Premji is perhaps as known in India and abroad as is Ambani and for the same reason….they have both created and are part of industry lore. But the news glutton wants his daily fix of sensationalism, and there are enough journos to provide it. So while Premji’s contribution is respected and admired it is not retained as news for too long. A few hundred rooms and a few more hundred servants to cater to a family of 5 is what constitutes news today.

Make a list of charities that the rich contribute to or create. Then make a list of the flamboyance and flaunting of their wealth by the same people. Which list will people remember and read with more interest?

Posted by DaraIndia | Report as abusive

Mayawati spent Rs. 10,000 Crores of “PUBLIC MONEY” on building HER OWN statues — Can anything be more shameful?

Posted by 777xxx777 | Report as abusive

A very original and refreshing look at an issue, which had initially provoked outrage in me as well. Lyndee has rightly pointed out the age old contradictions in human nature – hypocracy and and voyeurism – sometime go hand in hand.Mr. Ambani has created enormous employment opportunities and shareholder value amongst millions of Indians.One can argue over taste but we should not grudge him this self-indulgence.

Posted by Sunil66 | Report as abusive

Creation of shareholder value and generation of employment is the byproduct of Ambani in persuit of garnering wealth for his self.
Philanthropic activity is a matter of personal conscience which is also a direct reflection of the environment in which one has ben brought up.
Hence to expect Ambani follwing the footsteps of Premji is purely wasteful.

Posted by vksraipur | Report as abusive

While I don’t in anyway condone Mr. Ambani’s 27 floor vertical mansion, we need to put Mr. Premji’s ‘philanthropy’ in perspective. Firstly, it is not philanthropy. It is a smart investment for his business and cool money for his foundation. He has just ensured that the >8000 Cr charity (to his own organisation), not only remains within his own organisation but is also tax free. Under the law, 80% of the money donated is exempt from tax! I definitely praise his willingness to give money to education, but please understand that these foundations or big corporations are nothing but a smart tax investment and tax exemption option for them.


Posted by Sandhya9 | Report as abusive

The Ambani Mansion looks rather ugly by its outside appearance. Is it just me or does anyone else think so too?

Posted by Windturner | Report as abusive

You are Right. It is just like Emperor’s clothes

Posted by nsriveer72 | Report as abusive

I wonder how the Ambani’s (one of the richest family in the world), for example, can sleep and live in a billion dollar mansion, while the poor farmers in Maharashtra, India, are committing suicide because they are so in debt having to borrow money from cutthroat money lenders, as the banks will not lend them at fair market value interest! This is because of crop failures (climate change), especially cotton, since they cannot buy the hybrid seeds, only genetically modified seeds made by Monsanto (US company making billions) which are more expensive and are high maintenance. Can you imagine how many farmers can be helped with a dillion dollars. Don’t give them free money but let them work for it and abolish the dowry system in India (one of the most corrupt country in the world)! SHAME!!

Posted by classylady64 | Report as abusive

Let us first calm down and comment without too much negativity or thrashing. I can see few comments above disheartening. You cannot say Azim Premji is giving money away to Charity is helping him save tax money. This is ridiculous. Please look at what our government has done over the past 60 years. Mr Premji has done what many governments could not do. Atleast he has done it. A strict no no to people who can comment against Premji. The only reason being our country has so many many many poor people, poor primary education system and governance, and lot of super rich people who throw away millions for family events and the left over food after the event is being consumed by the poor people living few meters away either on the road, footpath or dwelling. Dont ridicule people who do stuff like him. India needs more of them like him. Jai Hind!!

Posted by ratish | Report as abusive