India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, is in the news again for his obscene display of wealth. This time, Ambani has bought the most powerful and armoured Mercedes Benz for his personal security. This car, which follows his purchase of a Rs 8.5 crore BMW in April this year, has incurred import duties of 300%, adding to its hefty base price of Rs 1.5 crore.
Mukesh Ambani's total net worth hovers in the area of $22 billion so a few hundred thousand spent on cars is chump change. He owns 41% stake in Reliance Industries, India's biggest private sector firm and operator of the world's largest oil refinery and the IPL team, Mumbai Indians.
Ambani's home, Antilia, named after a mythical island in the Atlantic Ocean, is estimated to be the world's most expensive building at $1 billion. Requiring a staff of 600 to maintain, Antilia is 400,000 square feet with 27 stories, a multi-storey garage for 168 cars and three helipads. The residence's lobby alone has nine elevators. It also contains a spa, terraced gardens, temple, gyms, yoga studio and a theatre that sits 50.
Both Mukesh and his wife, Nita, came from relatively humble beginnings and such success is indeed admirable but I cannot help but wonder... what is the purpose of such an ostentatious lifestyle? I would perhaps question anyone who lives this way but what appals me is that the Ambanis sustain this lifestyle in a country where 30% of the population lives below the poverty line.
Ratan Tata, one of the pioneer industrialists of our time, described Antilia as an example of the rich Indian's lack of empathy for the poor. "The person who lives in there should be concerned about what he sees around him and [asking] can he make a difference. If he is not, then it's sad because this country needs people to allocate some of their enormous wealth to finding ways of mitigating the hardship that people have," he said.
Now, I would not question the Ambanis' fancy cars, flashing diamonds and 27-storey homes had they involved themselves with greater fervour in worthy causes. And by worthy causes, I do not mean the odd "charity gala" or throwing parties for Indian cricketers. Yes, the Reliance Foundation does do some good work, but is it enough?
Take the case of Oprah Winfrey, who has a net worth of $3 billion. Over the years, having donated millions of dollars to various causes, she has used her funds towards The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa and Rebuilding the Gulf Coast. She also enthusiastically donates to various fields of health research like HIV and AIDS, most notably to the Clinton Foundation, and routinely hands out cash and other prizes, worth thousands of dollars, to attendees of her shows.
Or how about Bill and Melinda Gates? They founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to enhance healthcare and reduce extreme poverty, and in America, to expand educational opportunities and access to information technology. With a net worth of $79.3 billion, Bill Gates donated $1.5 billion in 2014 alone!
Warren Buffet, the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway's net worth of $65.2 billion is greater than the combined 2013 GDP of Ghana and Cambodia. He recently donated $2.8 billion, exceeding his personal best of $2.6 billion, the year before.
In 2012, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet created The Giving Pledge, a campaign to encourage the wealthiest people in the world to make a commitment to give most of their wealth to philanthropic causes. In 2012, The Huffington Post reported that "81 billionaires committed to giving at least half of their fortunes to charity". As of January 2015, 128 billionaire or former billionaire individuals and couples have signed the pledge.
When asked whether Indian billionaires would consider giving away a large percentage of their wealth, spokespersons for several wealthy Indians, including Mukesh and Anil Ambani and Sunil Mittal, declined to comment. A spokesperson for Sun Pharmaceuticals chairman Dilip Shanghvi, who is worth $4.6 billion, said Shanghvi "would prefer not to talk on personal philanthropy."
A March 2010 study by Bain & Company found that Indians collectively donate 0.6% of their country's GDP to charity. Just 10% of charitable giving in India comes from individuals or companies, compared to 75% in the United States.
Now some might say there are fewer outlets to donate and the ones present are rife with corruption. That may be the case but what is preventing honchos like Ambani, Premji and others to band together and create an organisation, start a school, or build healthcare centres that only cater to the poor and the unemployed? Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre, while a landmark, is not serving the poor. In fact most poor cannot afford any treatment in a gargantuan facility like Harkisandas. You don't have to look to the US for inspiration. Ratan Tata and his family have been setting up a good example for Indians for years now. Sir Ratan Tata and Navajbai Ratan Tata Trust has been dispensing scholarships and a host of institutional and individual grants since its establishment in 1919.
In the end, the wealthy will choose to dispense their money the way they want. My only wish is that the Ambanis and other pioneers of India's industry open their eyes and realise that while they are swimming in money, there are millions of Indians who do not even have access to the most basic needs. There are millions of causes and an equal number of ways to donate, only if there is the will to create change and make a real difference in the lives of others.