Drive out of Delhi, across the heavily polluted Yamuna river, turn right and head towards the new $400m Formula One track – India‘s first – at Buddh. Take the Noida expressway, a six-lane speedway through what was farmland only a few years ago. Either side, skeletal concrete monoliths rise among the remaining fields. They are apartment blocks, homes for India’s new middle classes. Many projects have names that mix supposed European sophistication with a sense of bucolic rural idyll: Lotus Boulevard, Gardenia Glory, Blossom County. Then there is the “Brys Buzz”, an immense 81-storey glass and steel skyscraper, which is apparently “a dream born out of a vision to give the super-rich the home they deserve”.
In fact the Indian “super-rich” can afford something a little more exclusive. Vijay Mallya, India’s most flamboyant businessman and the chairman of the vast beer and spirits conglomerate United Breweries, has a sprawling coastal villa in Goa and a dozen or so other properties. Other tycoons live behind high walls and broad green lawns in mansions in the centre of Delhi. Mukesh Ambani, the chairman of Reliance Industries and India’s richest man, has built himself a home towering above the slums of the commercial capital of Mumbai. With a reported price tag of $1bn (£625m), it is the world’s most expensive private residence.
It is Mallya who is in the news in India these days. Watching Sahara Force India, the F1 team he leads and co-owns, compete in the country’s second ever grand prix last month, the 56-year-old multimillionaire bullishly rejected any suggestion from reporters that he might have avoided the fixture. After flying in from overseas he asked: “Was there any doubt about my presence here?”
Well, yes, is the answer. There was plenty of doubt. For Mallya, the self-crowned “king of good times”, has fallen on hard times. His seven-year-old airline has been grounded after authorities suspended its licence to fly on safety concerns. Crippled by debts which may exceed $2bn, Kingfisher had difficulty paying employees’ salaries. When engineers downed tools, its planes stopped flying. There were even reports, denied by Mallya, that the tycoon’s own private jet might be impounded by Indian airport authorities, which say Kingfisher owes them huge sums. Some suggested that the man described as India’s Richard Branson might choose not to come back at all.
But the Kingfisher saga is about more than just 4,000 jobs, an airline, large amounts of public money and the career of a maverick tycoon. It is about India. Economic growth is slowing – falling below the level seen by economists as necessary to keep up with the fast-growing population – and confidence is faltering. There are huge problems with key parts of the infrastructure – as shown by the three-day power cut that hit hundreds of millions in the summer. Graft is rampant, the currency weaker than it has been for years and public finances fragile. Cut-price tickets failed to boost tepid sales for the F1, with a third less seats sold than in 2011. The pundits say that is usual for a new grand prix, but like Mallya with his parties, his $95m yacht and his calendar girls, like the $200 caviar pizza at the new luxury hotel in Delhi, the event already seems part of an earlier time when nothing seemed capable of slowing, let alone halting the inexorable rise of India. And when everything was possible – even a high-end luxury domestic airline in a country where almost one toddler in two is malnourished.
http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/bp-working-for-few-political-capture-economic-inequality-200114-en.pdf The wider Indian economic story:
The Kingfisher is now grounded. The bird can no longer fly!