Fast Company

The Immoral Home of a Billionaire

Forty percent of the Forbes list of the world's ten richest people for 2008 is occupied by Indians. That's a significant percentage -- particularly for a country in which an estimated 26 percent falls below the poverty line, a benchmark that is calculated according to the basic number of calories a person can afford to consume.

One of the notables is Mukesh Ambani, head of India's most valuable company, Reliance Industries. Valued at $43 billion, Ambani falls fifth on the list, right under steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal. Of this sizeable fortune, he is reportedly using close to $1 billion to build a 27-storey home for himself and his family (of five) in Mumbai.

Designed by Chicago based architectural firm Perkins+Will, the building will have six floors of parking space for 168 cars (and reportedly an additional floor for the cars to be serviced in-house), a movie theatre for an audience of fifty, a health club, living quarters on four floors and three helipads. All for one family.

If you've ever been to Mumbai, or even if you haven't, you likely know that tens of thousands of people live in what can pretty much be described as abject poverty. Slums and five star hotels stand shoulder-to-shoulder, beggars rap on the windows of imported Benzs, and the waiters at the city's affluent restaurants will never afford the food that they carry.

If there are any signs of revolt, they aren't apparent. The rich and the poor go about their business without undue hindrance or protest. Viewed by more fractious nations with some amazement, the high levels of acceptance perhaps stem from a traditional belief that the sins of previous lives impact one's standing; good behavior in a current life will lead to a better existence upon rebirth.

So why then amongst this landscape of acceptance is Ambani's flamboyant display of wealth worth talking about? Perhaps because in comparison with fellow billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, Ambani's sense of civic responsibility and moral conscience seems weak.

Unlike his father, Dhirubhai Ambani who was known for his self-made fortune and acknowledged for being something of a philanthropist, Mukesh inherited much of his current wealth and is better known for spending his money more self-indulgently (although he has set up a few hospitals and charitable institutions.) He recently bought his wife an Airbus 319, valued at $59 million, for her birthday. That the 51 year old Ambani should be using his money to do more than further his business prospects is incontrovertible, but to what extent?

In determining an individual's moral obligation with regard to his wealth and its distribution, a famous example cited by philosopher Peter Singer comes to mind. If one sees a small child drowning in a pond upon walking by, refusing to save the child at the cost of some minor inconvenience to oneself (like ruining a new pair of shoes) would widely be deemed callous and indeed immoral. "Similarly," writes Singer, "if for the cost of a pair of shoes we can contribute to a health program in a developing country that stands a good chance of saving the life of a child, we ought to do so."

Ambani's expenditure on his new high rise could, if donated to the UNHCR, provide 2 million wells to provide safe drinking water in developing countries or provide therapeutic feeding kits to feed 100 million children. He could sponsor close to 4 million children for one year through Children's International – providing them with food, clothing, medical care, and education support. He could fund 10 million trainee teachers in Kenya for 5 weeks through Oxfam. Instead however, he has chosen to build himself another multi-million dollar place to sleep at night.

What motivates some to donate their wealth to needy institutions? According to sociologists like Paul Schervish, the wealthy donate in order to find purpose and happiness. Others believe that philanthropy on the part of the rich is motivated by a desire to ease their consciences or generate favorable publicity. Still others speculate that the rich are propelled to give away their wealth by a sense of duty. Interestingly, the Vatican has added 7 "modern" sins to the traditional ones, one of which is being "obscenely wealthy."

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3 Comments

  • Eben C

    Why would it be any more or less immoral than any of the other expensive structures around the world? Certainly a businessperson like this creates more wealth for India, employs more Indians and spends more money in India than any politician, NGO, or even Mother Theresa for that matter.

    India desperately needs economic development and activity of all kinds--including luxury building. Do you realize how many jobs are going to be created by the building of this house? And all that money will be earned and train people in better building standards, of which India is in desperate need. If it was given away, it wouldn't reward people for working hard or taking chances--or taking on government bureaucracy. Was the Taj Mahal immoral--it was a similar luxury in it's day--perhaps even more so.

    Poverty persists in India not because of wealthy people but rampant corruption, superstition, discrimination, red tape and a general disregard for reason. Women are treated as second class citizens and the lingering caste system messes everyone up (unless it's changed dramatically since I was there ten years ago). I feel a more appropriate question is why isn't the government doing its job? It's easy to bash rich people, but in my opinion, they're the ones who have often taken on the bureaucracy and succeeded. There is no respect for efficiency or equality in Indian government and I didn't see many journalists holding politicians feet to the fire--instead they wrote puff pieces like this intended to inflame feelings of inferiority and find convenient scapegoats.

    The prosperity that India does have is due to free markets, lingering poverty remains from its attempt at socialism.

    And BTW--If you're deferring to the Vatican for moral leadership, may god help you.

  • Dennis Kim

    The manner by which this man lives is not found only in india. Bill Gates does do many great things, but im sure there are other many other americans who believe in the Mukesh Ambani way.

    Those who are poor or in poverty have put themselves in that position. If they want wealth and success they should be willing to work for it instead of sitting around and sucking the resources of those who actually do work.

    circumstance and situation be damned. moral duty and obligation to our less fortunate brother be damned.

    This man lives and breathes the free market mentality and freedom of reaping as much wealth as possible and saying whats mine is mine and whats yours is yours. i dont care for suffering or pain or hunger or lack of education.

    its not his problem. its his money because he earned it. its no one elses. poor people should just learn to help themselves. they wont learn by us trying to help them. lets face it, they must like being poor. right?

    This man is the free market mentality and way. the people with the most power and money get to keep it without any rules or guidelines for moral obligation

  • James Belle

    He seems extremely selfish and isn't worried about showing it. do 5 people really need 168 cars?