India was one of the world's poorest economies when it won its independence from Britain in 1947. Incredibly, 60 years later, the country's emerging economic clout has made it Asia's top spot for billionaires. This year, for the first time in two decades of wealth tracking, we counted more Indian than Japanese billionaires in our annual ranking of the world's wealthiest people.
India produced 36 people with 10-figure fortunes, worth a total of $191 billion, versus Japan's 24, who are worth a total of $64 billion. Three Indians even made it to the list of the top 20 of the world's richest. Only the U.S. had more billionaires in the top global ranks.
It was a vastly different story in 1987 when we began tracking fortunes around the world. That year the only Indian to make the cut was the Birla family, with a net worth of close to $2 billion. The Birla family remained the sole Indians on the list for seven years until 1994, when Dhirubhai Ambani of Reliance Industries made his debut with his petrochemicals fortune. Aditya Birla and Ambani have both passed away, but their sons now take their spots.
Kumar Birla became chairman of his family's commodities conglomerate in 1995, at age 28, after his father's death. Ambani's sons Mukesh and Anil inherited their fortune in 2002, but the brothers couldn't get along or agree on how to run the conglomerate. They split up the empire four years later, with help from their mother, who brokered a peace settlement. The feuding paid off. Their combined wealth was $7 billion in 2005. Two years later, Mukesh was worth $20.1 billion and ranked No. 14 on the list. Anil was at $18.2 billion, ranked No. 18.
The Ambani brothers are probably India's biggest gainers, but they aren't its richest. Steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, who lives in London and built his fortune entirely outside India, entered the list for the first time in 1996 with $1.5 billion. He's now the world's fifth-richest person, worth $32 billion.
India's outsourcing boom created early tech tycoons Azim Premji of Wipro and Shiv Nadar of the HCL Group, who joined the billionaire ranks in 1999 and 2000, respectively. Over the years, several other Indians have also created fortunes in the information technology and telecom sectors.
They include Infosys Technologies co-founders N R Narayana Murthy, Nandan Nilekani and S Gopalakrishnan. India's first self-made telecom billionaire, Sunil Mittal of Bharti, made the grade in 2004 after listing his flagship company.
Yet truthfully, India was a relatively sleepy place for the world's wealthiest until three years ago. With just nine billionaires in 2004, none ranked higher than 58. That's when wealth began taking off, with the fast-rising stock market and booming real estate sector bringing prosperity as never before.
In the past three years, the Bombay Stock Exchange's benchmark Sensex index soared from 6,000 to more than 15,000 recently. The collective wealth of Indian billionaires jumped sixfold from $32 billion to $191 billion in that time.
Veteran investment banker Nimesh Kampani, chairman of the JM Financial Group and until recently, Morgan Stanley's Indian partner, says that friendlier tax laws, notably the 2004 elimination of capital gains tax on the sale of equity shares, encouraged entrepreneurs to list their companies. In the past, punitive taxes forced businessmen to stash away their personal wealth in a complex web of trusts and private holding companies.
"A lot of hidden value and assets have now come out of the closet," says Kampani.
The new rich aren't shy about flaunting their wealth. Flamboyant liquor tycoon Vijay Mallya counts a fleet of vintage cars, a stud farm with 200 racehorses and a castle in Scotland among his personal toys. Mukesh Ambani's new home will be a 27-story tower in South Mumbai.
Newcomers to the list in the last couple of years reflect the country's hot new sectors. They include Naresh Goyal, who founded and runs Jet Airways, India's leading domestic airline, and Tulsi Tanti, who built Asia's largest wind farm. Some folks who took their companies public became billionaires overnight, such as Kalanithi Maran, who runs regional broadcaster Sun TV.
The sizzling real estate market brought to light numerous property barons, including Kushal Pal Singh of the DLF Group, Ramesh Chandra of Unitech, Pradeep Jain of Parsvnath Developers and Vikas Oberoi of Oberoi Constructions. Singh was the fourth-richest Indian this past year.
A recent listing of DLF has boosted his fortune by $11 billion, making him worth $21 billion. The fast-growing pharmaceuticals sector, cashing in on the global generics market, minted new billionaires such as Dilip Shanghvi of Sun Pharmaceuticals and brothers Malvinder and Shivinder Singh of Ranbaxy Laboratories.
Almost all billionaires are looking to expand outside India. Aditya Birla Group's Hindalco Industries paid $6 billion to buy Canadian aluminum giant Novelis earlier this year. Tata Steel, part of the Tata Group, in which Pallonji Mistry is the largest shareholder, forked over $13 billion for Corus. Mallya snagged Scottish Distiller Whyte & Mackay for over $1 billion.
If the stock market keeps rising, this tide of good fortune will continue to create many more of the newly rich, bankers say. Kampani, for one, predicts India will have 100 billionaires by 2009. Newcomers could emerge from the financial sector as privately held brokerages, insurance firms and private banks go public. Keep an eye out for mining magnates and diamond merchants, who so far have preferred to be super-secretive, says Kampani.
"There's lots more that lies beneath," he adds.