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.”