Sunday, May 18, 2008

Juxtapositions: L.A. Heat Wave, Asian Disasters and Mukesh Ambani's House

It's hot in Los Angeles today. In the high 90s, I'd guess, which can be pretty miserable if you're out and about, especially when you get into a car that's been sitting in the sun for a couple of hours, as I did earlier today. I turned on the air conditioner and was uncomfortably cruising home on the freeway for about ten minutes before the car cooled down enough to be tolerable. Oh, poor me.

Meanwhile, the government of Myanmar is still balking at opening the borders of its country to allow access to foreigners who want to offer aid to victims of the cyclone that killed an estimated 78,000 people. The U.N. ambassador from Myanmar has even accused the French of sending a "war ship" to anchor just off their shores. It isn't a war ship, of course, but a ship laden with food and medical supplies, along with medical personnel. Over two million people were affected by the cyclone and are desperately in need of this aid.

Over in China, it's estimated that ultimately the Sichuan earthquake will have claimed 50,000 lives; many more will have suffered injuries and losses. Fortunately, aid is being accepted there. Three days of mourning have been declared by the Chinese government. On Monday, in a unique and moving gesture, "China will ask its 1.2 billion people to observe three minutes of silence before sounding their car, truck, train, ship and air-raid horns in a collective cry of grief."

And in Mumbai, India, Forbes Magazine reports that Mukesh Ambani and his wife are building their dream home, a skyscraper palace costing almost two billion dollars. "When the Ambani residence is finished in January, completing a four-year process, it will be 550 feet high with 400,000 square feet of interior space. . . [N]o two floors are alike in either plans or materials used. At the request of Nita Ambani, say the designers, if a metal, wood or crystal is part of the ninth-floor design, it shouldn't be used on the eleventh floor, for example. The idea is to blend styles and architectural elements so spaces give the feel of consistency, but without repetition. . . Atop six stories of parking lots, [the] living quarters begin at a lobby with nine elevators, as well as several storage rooms and lounges." (Thanks to pro organizer Jeri Dansky for the link to the San Francisco Chronicle's online column by Mark Morford about this. Jeri must have been amused to read that, in spite of the enormous amount of space they'll have, the Ambanis still require several storage rooms!)

Now, obviously, on the global scale of things, my little complaint about hot weather hardly rates a blink of the eye when compared to the tragic natural disasters that have occurred half-way around the world. And I suppose that my modest townhouse would rate hardly the blink of an eye from the Ambanis as far as their definition of "suitable" housing goes, even though I find living here quite comfortable. But I'm hard pressed to think of a greater juxtaposition than that between the people, many already incredibly impoverished, who suffered through those disasters and a guy who's worth around $63 billion and is in the middle of constructing a home the size of a world-class hotel.

To get a little perspective, we can note that Mr. Ambani's net worth is over two-thirds the GDP of the entire country of Myanmar. But, let's stay closer to home: Mr. Ambani's hometown, Mumbai (formerly Bombay), is a huge, sophisticated metropolis in a country that is chronically beset by crushing poverty. According to IndiaOneStop, "India still has the world’s largest number of poor people in a single country. Of its nearly 1 billion inhabitants, an estimated 350-400 million are below the poverty line, 75 per cent of them in the rural areas." The nominal per capita income in India is $1,089.

I know that there will never be exact parity of wealth throughout the world, nor do I even think that's a particularly necessary or worthy goal. I have no problem with exceptional people reaping exceptional rewards (Mr. Ambani inherited his wealth, but that's another issue). However, to paraphrase Stan Lee, I do think that with great wealth comes great responsibility. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, two incredibly wealthy individuals, have given away huge amounts of money through their own charitable foundations (yes, Mr. Gates lives lavishly, but even he didn't spend nearly as much on his house as Mr. Ambani is spending!). Perhaps Mr. Ambani has been generous with his wealth, too, although if he has, it may have been handled privately; a brief review on Google provided no indication of charitable giving.

So, I've been pondering the quirks of fate that lead some of us to be born in favorable or unfavorable circumstances. I've been wondering about the randomness of natural disasters and our vulnerabilities when they strike. But of all these juxtapositions, there's one that I find the most mystifying:

When so many people are so needy, how can anyone build a $2 billion house?

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob


Marilyn said...

I have been dismayed and oh so sad the government of Myanmar hasn't allowed relief workers into their country. It looks like today, weeks later they are allowing the workers in. I just cry when I see the pitiful plight of the people. I have thought it was too bad some of the government officials didn't feel the brunt of the devastation. I know that is not being kind, but I am just so sad about the lack of response from their leaders.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

It is hard to understand the government's refusal to accept help. The situation is tragic.

It's difficult enough to coordinate aid even when everyone is willing: witness Katrina.

I'm hopeful that the citizens of Myanmar will get the relief they need.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Sorry, Marilyn -- I accidentally clicked "publish" instead of "preview" when responding to your comment. Just wanted to add a thank you for sharing your thoughts.