The Unveiled Truth Slumdog Billionaire

In the old town of Mumbai you can find the Dharavi slum, a place where one million people live in squalor, on less than a dollar a day. Yet just six miles from this tragedy, in a billion dollar house with twenty seven floors, lives the fourth richest man in the world, a man who’s spent years accumulating wealth whilst feuding bitterly with his only brother. As Shirin Sadeghi writes in a powerful new piece, this perverse proximity is a perfect lesson in the infinite paradoxes, and failings, of human nature.

New in Ceasefire, The Unveiled Truth - Posted on Wednesday, November 3, 2010 22:00 - 8 Comments

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By Shirin Sadeghi

In the old town of Mumbai, festering along the waterway is a place where humans live.

It is one of poor old Asia’s poorest and oldest living quarters: the Dharavi slum. Amidst the oozing sludge that perpetually encircles the corrugated tin huts, you can find children, playing. On the hottest days, they wade in the filth, relieving themselves of the heat which rises above 45 Celsius. Everyday, they walk through it to meander through the pathways between their homes.

One million men, women and children live in this squalor – it really is the only word to describe such conditions. They share what little they have with each other. The children, in stark contrast to their exorbitantly wealthy neighbors in nearby Cumballa Hill, grow up to be rather healthy in the mind, having learned social interaction from a young age and having had an abundance of friends and family to grow with.

The wealthy do grow up, as the isolation naturally instills in them, with a distinct inability to interact normally, happily, with others. Amongst the beautiful things in life – a mother’s affection, a brother’s companionship, and the joys of having playmates – the wealthy suffer great poverty.

And so it is that just beyond the squelching odors of Dharavi, about 6 miles to the south of the city, one can find the new home of Asia’s wealthiest man, the 4th richest man in the world, with a personal fortune of $29 billion: Mukesh Ambani. He made the headlines this week when it was announced that his 27-floor, $1 billion house was due to be completed within days.

His wife and 3 kids will finally have enough room to avoid each other completely while still maintaining the semblance of a family. All 27 floors are for just the 5 of them.

What is extraordinary and yet ordinary, considering the habits and temperaments of the obscenely rich, is not merely the sad tale of a man who felt no shame in living in such unnecessary luxury amidst such dire poverty, but the well-known “relationship” Mukesh has with his brother Anil.

By all accounts (and court records), these 2 billionaires despise each other. They have been quarrelling like mice for the last bit of cheese of the vast amount of wealth they inherited from their father, Dhirubhai Ambani, who made his first million dollars when he was in his fifties.

Their disputes have raged into the court system – for these two brothers there is no limit to the accumulation of wealth, nothing will satisfy them, it seems. So they fight over billions while their neighbors in Dharavi fight to stay alive, from one day to the next. The UN estimates that the average Dharavi resident survives on less than a dollar a day.

It is exquisitely fascinating to imagine how the petty cash an Ambani spends in a single day on unnecessary trinkets, elaborate menus, the latest fashions in clothing and home interiors, or whatever else a billionaire fancies on a day-to-day basis, could literally turn the lives around of every single resident of Dharavi.

(c) Shirin Sadeghi

The people of Dharavi could eat nutritious food every day. Their slum could be cleaned, paved, fitted with water and sanitary plumbing, rebuilt as sturdy homes rather than perilous huts. Later, schools could be constructed too.

True, unbeknownst to many outsiders, Dharavi, with its illegal housing, and illegal businesses pulls in quite a lot of wealth per year (estimates start at $500 million annually) but obviously that money is not going to the people who are left with no choice to live in this slum, with its open sewers and infestation of vermin.

The Ambanis literally have the means to change the world with their wealth. Instead, they squabble over it amongst themselves. They are so far removed from the basic humanity that all people are born with that these two brothers cannot even be satisfied to share their wealth with each other, let alone with others.

It is impossible to understand from the outside. And from the inside, this mentality is not even seen as a problem of human decency. At play here is that deadly sin through which the deepest poverty of the soul becomes most apparent: greed.

As Mark Twain said, “to be satisfied with what one has; that is wealth. As long as one sorely needs a certain additional amount, that man isn’t rich.” And thus the Ambanis, whose unsatisfied grins seen in newspapers throughout the world grimace for ever more profit, and whose greatest enemies are each other, are anything but rich and certainly not to be idolized as they no doubt wish to be, towering above the suffering people of their land.

Shirin Sadeghi is an Iranian-American writer and Middle East Consultant. She is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and has previously worked as a Producer and Reporter for the BBC and Al Jazeera Television.

Her weekly column, ‘The Unveiled Truth’, appears every Wednesday.

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8 Comments

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Kalfardaa
Nov 4, 2010 3:28

Great article with a lot of soul! The reflection of a truly capitalist world! It’s funny how the construction of the most expensive house in the world amongst some of the poorest comes at the precise time when the biggest capitalist swept the American mid term elections on the votes of the very people their economic model exploits.

cool
Nov 4, 2010 4:48

yeah wealth is whack, awesome cartoons!!

judge pubert gillicuddy
Nov 4, 2010 19:28

great article. the eternal human struggle is between the ‘have’ and ‘have-not’s’. that building represents a crime against humanity. he will be condemned throughout human history. thank you for highlighting that for me. also, i liked your drawrings.

Usayd
Nov 4, 2010 20:50

Excellent article, and comic!

I found something similar in South Africa – the huge disparity between rich and poor is unbelievable – next door to some of the nicest houses I’ve ever seen are slums (known as townships) where thousands of people live, many without running water and electricity.

My biggest issue is how so many of the affluent have settled for it as “the way it is,” often overlooking the socio-economic conditions of people – not to mention a history of colonial oppression.

keeji
Nov 4, 2010 22:10

Why should those who have take care of everyone else? They pay their taxes and live in a democracy. The masses can vote. There is no reason for a creation of an equal state. Welfare just breeds a state with a complacent population. Judging the ambanis on their family situation is ridiculous, I’m sure many in those slums have family squabbles. Its patronizing to look at poverty striken people as ‘noble savages’

Omer
Nov 4, 2010 23:41

I would dispute the claim that there is such a thing as a “basic humanity that all people are born with”. Human history is nothing if not full of inhumanity. One would be either blind or wilfully naive to ignore the vast corpus of evidence for humans’ wicked nature.

Londoner
Jun 13, 2012 18:41

Ok Im really struggling to understand a) the point of this article and b) how you suggest India be helped?. first of all the ambanis are not responsible for the economic development of India. Such vitriolic writing is very populist but ultimately self serving, what are you saying thats useful here? In actual fact Ambanis house cost £44m to build, obviously once its built it has accrued that large value im not even sure why that has anything to do with mumbai’s slum apart from being adjacent to it I guess success in India is not something you are really concerned with. In actual fact the Ambanis Reliance rural schools in Maharashtra and Gujarat looks after the education of 15,000 other children. You forgot to mention that? Yes India is poor but mumbai is a booming city attracting people from all over the country, such paradoxes are going to exist.

You say: ‘The wealthy do grow up, as the isolation naturally instills in them, with a distinct inability to interact normally, happily, with others.’ – So wealthy people are unhappy? Should we all live in Dharavi? Its easy to demonise the wealthy rather than writing an article on development solutions……………………..

Please do more research next time, here is some recommended reading:

http://www.reliance-news.com/reliance/nita-ambani-supports-%E2%80%9Ceducation-for-all%E2%80%9D/
http://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/report_charity-begins-at-home-says-nita-ambani_1445032

Indianer
Mar 7, 2014 12:35

The Londoner’s comment seems to be a response from the well oiled Ambani PR network that constantly looks for articles that are against the Boss…15,000 students sounds like a big number, but honestly that is peanuts for what the Ambani’s can do for India, while they are not bribing and buying of politicians and journalists..Their hospital supposedly started for charity is actually a preserve for the rich! and the poor cannot afford it.
No wonder Bill Gates and Warren Buffet where shocked with the lack of philanthropy in India’s rich. Philanthrophy in the end seems to be more of a Western worldview…definitely not one in the Indian sub continent

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