Saturday, October 16, 2010

LSE, Casino Capitalism, Nita Ambani and her Indian Renaissance

“Rerum cognoscere causas (to know the causes of things)” literally means (“Fortunate is he, who is able to know the causes of things”). The latter half of the phrase, "rerum cognoscere causas", is the motto of not only the London School of Economics but also the University of Sheffield, Humberside Collegiate, the University of Guelph, the Science National Honor Society and the German newspaper Der Tagesspiege.
I was reading “A history of London School of Economics & Political Science 1895-1995” by Ralf Dahrendorf , one of the illustrious Directors of LSE in which he has mentioned about I G Patel’s farewell message in 1990 titled ‘LSE into the 1990s’ in which he said that ‘and knowledge for the sake of knowledge as well as for securing social mobility are among those that LSE has always valued’. The 1988 Education Act was castigated by him as an ‘elaborate charade’ of a policy from the Government which had made up its mind to cut their funding. IG Patel called it ‘letting the crime fit the punishment’. The LSE grew in size and left its historical total of between 3000 & 3500 students far behind in 80s. The Number now stands at 9000 plus and about 38 % of the funding come from overseas students. The proportion of post graduates declined from 50% in the early 70s and could never go up. The proportion of overseas students kept on increasing and now stands more than 60%. ‘ There can be little doubt that the reasons for the increase were not only academic”. ( Dahrendorf). Most students had their career uppermost in their minds and careers meant money making LSE more as a center of ‘casino capitalism’ ( prof Susan Strange).
The commercialism of education due to financial exigencies is a serious challenge which LSE ( and most of the other Russell Group of Universities ) are facing in UK. It is in this regard that I wish to write on a lecture by Ms Nita Ambani this evening in LSE!
We had an interesting seminar which is first in the series of CJ Modi/ Narayan PhD Fellowship public lecture this evening (October 15) titled “Towards an Indian Renaissance: Building Institutions of Excellence” by none other than Nita of Ambani fame! Well, I for one was extremely curious as to what qualifies Madam Ambani to speak on a topic as vast as Indian Renaissance and to add to the curiosity was the fact that the seminar was to be chaired by Lord Desai and introduction of Madam Ambani was to be done by Lord Nicholas Stern, IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government, Director of the India Observatory and Chairman of the Asia Research Centre at the LSE.
There were illustrious guests to attend the seminar including Mukesh Ambani, Mr Nalin Suri, Indian High Commissioner in UK among others. I was surprised at the indulging and very flattering manner in which Lord Desai introduced Nita Ambani. She was introduced as the Chairperson of Reliance Foundation, Chairperson of Dhirubhai Ambani International School and Chairperson of IMG-Reliance joint venture. Lord Desai indulged her by mentioning her as the architect of the IPL cricket team Mumbai Indians and an accomplished Bharatnatyam dancer! We were further informed that Nita Ambani is leading the Reliance Foundation and the new world-class university being set up by it. Lord Desai also mentioned that “written questions” will be taken by him at the end and that students from a prestigious institute like LSE will not ask ‘silly questions’!
Nita started by saying that she is not an economist and that she is a proud Indian. Most of us were terribly impressed by her power point presentation which I feel is the best I have seen till date. It covered 3 slides on how great LSE is with 16 noble laureates (well including Prof Paul Krugman who taught me in Princeton and to the best of my knowledge has been in Princeton for most part of his career and the likes) and a slide each on KR Narayanan and B R Ambedkar who are proud alums of LSE. She then came to the topic of the evening. She mentioned that India is looking to leapfrog on the strength of its unique endowment - a burgeoning and an incredibly huge young population. This demographic dividend, this soft power will drive the nation's trail-blazing journey to global leadership. Isn’t it amazing how, we Indians, have this tremendously wonderful talent of being eternally optimistic and seeing always positive in the worst of the scenario! At a time when the entire world is going in for measures aimed at reducing Total Fertility Rate (TFR) to as close to 2 (natural replacement rate) as possible, India has a TFR of 2.78, it was a bit amusing to observe how our inability/failure to contain population explosion was interpreted as a ‘soft power’ capable of giving as ‘Demographic dividends’. She then talked about her dream of seeing India, which was classified as a ‘third world’ country at the time when she met Mukesh (sic) climb to third most powerful nation in coming years! She impressed upon the importance of family values and mentioned that the two icons in her opinion are Dhirubhai Ambani, her father-in-law and Mukesh Ambani, her husband, from whom she has learnt so much. I wonder whether Ambani brother’s fighting like cats and dogs and putting the entire nation to amazing levels of embarrassment is also a part of ‘these family values’. The fight is so beautifully captured by Gurcharan Das in his book “Difficulty of being good” when he talks about envy and jealously and the fights between Mukesh and Anil Ambani. I also wondered what did Anil Ambani do (or didn’t) that he is not worthy of being considered as an icon by the lady Nita Ambani!
Nita described how she led the ecological transformation of the Jamnagar Refinery site of Reliance Industries Limited and the establishment of a world-class township there. She mentioned that Jamnagar which was a ‘desert’ and used to receive only 400 mm of rainfall before Reliance came there, now receives 800 mm of rainfall! It baffles me, with my limited knowledge how setting up of an industry would double the rainfall in just few years! She calrified though by saying that mango trees were planted in 1800 acres of land and that Reliance now exports not only their products from Jamnagar refinery but also mangoes amidst applause!
Ms Ambani also enlightened us on IMG-Reliance venture under which 29 young sportspersons identified from remote areas will be sent to IMG Florida for the best sports training.
Ms Nita, the Ambani mentioned that an Indian renaissance is all about knowledge and inclusion. The national aspiration is high and the key to leveraging this opportunity hinges on its capacity to harness the power of knowledge. For the young and aspiring Indians to collaborate and compete with the best in the world, education ought to get the primacy and the urgency it deserves. World-class institutions of learning and youth development with audacious vision and timeless values are imperative for an India in transition. She informed us that she is basically an accomplished educationist and a proponent of social development for two decades and how she has made significant contribution to education, healthcare, environmental protection and sports. Nita Ambani as chairperson of Dhirubhai Ambani International School provides leadership to 12 schools which educate 15,000 children. She mentioned that 6 of her students have been sent to LSE and that Reliance University is being planned to be set up as the world class institute because Mukesh Ambani is very upset as to why not a single university from India is appearing among the top 20 Global Universities! (Lord Stern in his concluding remarks later welcomed the idea and said the LSE is open to collaborate with such a prestigious concept!).
She also enlightened at length about Mumbai Indians and how she has been motivating the team to excel. She quoted from ‘Gita’ that the team should just excel and results would follow. She informed that Saurabh Tiwari is already included in the Indian team and she also mentioned about another 18 year fast bowler from Orissa who is a part of the Mumbai Indians and ‘who will be selected in the Indian team in 10 months time”. I really wonder how she knows so precisely (and we talk of and condemn the fixings in Pakistan!). I tried locating the name of the player later but couldn’t unfortunately. She also played a small video clipping of Mumbai Indian team.
She spoke about ‘education for all’ and ‘healthcare for all’ (without elaborating what she meant and how Reliance is going to contribute in trying to achieve these two objectives). She of course mentioned setting up of a world class health care institute by Reliance where health services will be provided at an ‘affordable cost’ (for whom? By whom? Whose affordability?)
She talked about four movements in Indian modern history – first being Indian independence in 1947, the second being the Green Revolution and the third being 24th July 1991 when India took the path of liberalization ( and Reliance was incidentally the largest single beneficiary) . She says the fourth movement is that “India itself is a movement”. (& there were huge applause. It was merely coincidental that most of the regular clapping and cheering originated from few individuals who otherwise looked too aged to be LSE students!).
As she sat down amidst thundering applause, I quickly wrote down my question which basically was regarding her understanding on ‘education for all’ and ‘healthcare for all’ and how Reliance intends contributing to these noble causes. But even before anybody could submit questions to Lord Desai, he took out three questions and read them out. Nobody saw, I swear, how these questions reached him! They were of course all in praise of madam Ambani.

Now few juicy tidbits about Ambanis
Ambani, his wife and three children have moved into their new home, a humble 27 storied building which is named Antilia, after a mythical Island. It contains a health club with a gym and dance studio, at least one studio, a ballroom, guestrooms and a range of lounges and a 50 seater cinema. There is even an elevated garden with ceiling space to accommodate small trees. The roof has three helicopter pads and there is also underground parking for 160 cars, which will come in handy for guests at Ambani's forthcoming housewarming party. Forbes has predicted that this is the costliest building ever constructed for residing a single family anywhere in the world.
From the top floors of the 173m high property are spectacular views of Mumbai and of the Arabian Sea. The 53 year-old tycoon is not only the richest man in India but the fourth richest man in the world. In total there is reported to be 37,000 square metres of space, which is more than the Palace of Versailles. To keep it running smoothly requires 600 staff.
According to Forbes magazine, Ambani, who owns much of Reliance Industries, the oil, retail and biotechnologies conglomerate, is worth £27 bn. Ambani does not appear to be influenced by calls by the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, according to Laura Roberts of Telegraph for business leaders to be "role models of moderation".
Mr Ambani will throw the first party at his new pad on October 28. For many, however, the gleaming tower will be an uncomfortable reminder that India's economic renaissance has delivered extraordinary benefits to a handful of hugely wealthy "Bollygarchs" but little to the 800 million Indians who live on not much more than $1.60 a day.
Mumbai has a chronic shortage of quality homes, and visitors arriving at its airport are met by a patchwork of mottled tin and tarpaulin, the building materials of the city's slum-builders. For decades, the slums have existed next to the luxurious bungalows and high-rises of India's super-rich, but not even the maharajas of past centuries showed the opulence of Mukesh Ambani, critics say. "Mr Ambani is building an edifice to his own ego," one newspaper said. "It will not go down well with the public. There is growing anger about such absurd spending."
Mr Ambani, whose Reliance Group is India's largest private company, with interests from oil to retail, has made speeches in which he professes to understand such concerns. "We cannot have islands of prosperity surrounded by oceans of poverty," he said in one.
Maybe today’s talk on Indian Economic Renaissance was one such concern of the rich and wealthy. I wonder how IG Patel, the then Director of LSE would have taken this mockery on social equity and concerns of the rich and famous in Hongkong Theatre which truly turned into a centre of ‘casino capitalism’ this evening . Thankfully, Howard, the present Director wasn’t there during the seminar and my respect for him has gone up further for this ability to differentiate between what’ relevant and useful from what’s necessary evil atleast financially!


  1. " architect of the IPL cricket team Mumbai Indians ..."

    May be Lalit Modi would be the next speaker...

    “India itself is a movement”

    Bollywood-esque ...
    Surprised to know that LSE invites such "intellectuals" to deliver a speech..

    Anyways, it was a nice read...

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