Ostentatious house is symbolic of India's rich-poor gap

By Mark Magnier
Sunday, November 21, 2010

NEW DELHI - India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, had a little housewarming in Mumbai recently to show folks around. A visit to his abode takes awhile. The $1 billion home, seven years in the making, is 400,000 square feet on 27 floors, all for a family of six.

Don't worry about parking. The building, which looms over the city's skyline like a Lego set gone awry, boasts a 168-space lot. Or avoid Mumbai's nightmarish traffic altogether by landing on one of three helipads.

Need to cool off after the stressful drive? Of course, there's a swimming pool and yoga studio. Or, by some accounts, an ice room to escape the Mumbai heat, infused with man-made snow flurries. Then there's the mini-theater, three balconies with terrace gardens, the health club, spectacular views of the Arabian Sea (and the Mumbai slums).

It's being billed as the most expensive home in history. Anywhere.

"It's a stupendous show of wealth," said Hamish McDonald, author of "Ambani & Sons: A History of the Business." "It's kind of positioning business tycoons as the new maharajah of India."

The muscular display comes as India boasts 69 billionaires - a near-tripling since 2008 - and the country's stock market is flirting with its pre-global-meltdown high. Recently, an Indian record was set when 148 Mercedes-Benzes were delivered to a mid-size city near Mumbai . . . on a single day.

On the smaller-fry front, India also added 42,800 millionaires last year, a 50 percent jump. And there's little end in sight as the economy defies trends elsewhere to race along at 8 percent growth, driven by a large domestic market, rapidly growing industries of all kinds and low labor costs.

India still lags behind China, which has 189 billionaires, according to the Hurun Rich List 2010, which tracks the newly monied there. But India's rich are richer: According to a local edition of Forbes in November, the wealthiest 100 Indians are collectively worth $276 billion, while their top 100 Chinese counterparts are worth $170 billion. (Put another way, the three wealthiest Indians have more cash than the top 24 Chinese.)

Top among these new maharajahs of wealth is Ambani, 53, whose $29 billion net worth from petroleum and petrochemical giant Reliance Industries makes him the world's fourth-richest person.

A 'flaunt it' mentality

The land of Mahatma Gandhi may have long eschewed ostentatious wealth, but that started changing after 1991 when an era of greater entrepreneurial opportunity gave rise to a generation keen to strut its stuff. And these days, there is a lot to strut.

"It's 'flaunt-it-if-you've-earned-it' thinking," said Alex Kuruvilla, head of Conde Nast publications in India. "For decades, natural instincts were repressed. Finally, people in India are able to live their dream."

The dream capital is Mumbai, home to nearly half of India's billionaires.

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