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The Hanging Gardens of Bombay

In India the Prime Ministers is worried about the way the rich flaunt it . . .

In India the rich are getting richer; the poor, naturally, are a long way behind. There are thirty-six "dollar billionaires", and their combined fortunes add up to about £96 billion, according to an article in the Times (26 May) about the recent annual conference of the Confederation of Indian Industry in Delhi. Among the tycoons present was the sixth-richest Indian, who has nearly £5,000 million: and the article was accompanied by a photograph showing another tycoon, Yohan Poonawalla, an industrialist, posing beside "two of his Rolls-Royces".

Yet another tycoon, Mukesh Ambani (oil, retail, and biotechnology), is building for himself in Bombay a "sixty-storey palace" (Guardian, 31 May). "Draped in hanging gardens, the building will house a floor for a home theatre, a glass-fronted apartment for guests, and a two-storey health club." The bottom six floors are for car parking, and at the top is a place to land a helicopter. Ambani has six in his family, and a full-time staff of 600, making a satisfactory ratio of 100 servants to one Ambani. His new retreat will have more floor space than the Palace of Versailles.

Some of these rich Indians have come to live in Britain. The richest of them all, Lakshmi Mittal, currently lives here, carefully looking after his £19,000 million (other sources say it is in fact £32,000 million: no doubt it is difficult to count all that money exactly – by the time you had finished, there would be a lot more interest to add on). In 2002 Tony Blair kindly wrote a personal letter on his behalf to the Romanian government when he was trying to buy the Romanian steel industry. Mittal had recently given £125,000 to Labour Party funds, but Blair (the head of the Labour Party) did not know anything about that – he told us so. He said he was simply helping a "British company".

Mittal, the head of the company, is an Indian citizen and intends to remain an Indian citizen; his company is registered in the Dutch Antilles (West Indies); his steelworks are in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa; and of his more than 100,000 employees, fewer than one percent are based in the UK. So what Blair called a "British company" was not actually all that British. However, after Mittal with Blair's help got hold of the Romanian steel industry, and the Romanian steelworkers were making a sizeable contribution to his profits, he was properly grateful to Blair; in July 2005 he gave the Labour Party two million pounds, and in January this year he gave it another two million (Guardian, 16 January).

Admittedly those gifts were only petty cash to Mittal. In 2004 he bought a nice house in London for £57 million – then the most expensive house there, though now this record has been eclipsed by someone who paid eight-four million for a flat in Park Lane. Also in 2004, he spent thirty million on his daughter's wedding.

Not all Indians are so fortunate. According to the same Times article, two out of every five Indians "live on less than a dollar [about 50p] a day and have seen little evidence of growth apart from rising food prices". Bombay, where Ambani's palace is being constructed, is said to be the sixth most populous city in the world,, and an academic report said that one half of the people there "live in slums or are homeless; they live in tenements and huts, on pavements, along railway tracks", and "under bridges", and there is "terrible poverty, squalor and deprivation".

The lavish extravagance of the Indian owning class, as against the poverty of most Indians, has got Manmohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister, very concerned. He made a speech at the conference, saying that "the electronic media carries the lifestyle of the rich and famous into every village and slum. Media often highlights the vulgar display of their wealth." He went on: "An area of great concern is the level of ostentatious expenditure on weddings and other family events. Such vulgarity insults the poverty of the less privileged, it is socially wasteful and it plants the seeds of resentment in the minds of the have-nots." In fact these inequalities of wealth "can led to social unrest"

Someone earning 50p a day would have to keep going for thirty-three million years to reach the amount of money owned by the chap in the audience at the Delhi conference. Faced with such absurdities, you could choose to work for a more just society; or you could ask the rich to make it less obvious how enormous the gap is. The Indian Prime Minister has chosen the easier option.

ALWYN EDGAR