Ambani’s vertical palace vs Premji’s horizontal giving
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.
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 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?