Hafeez Contractor: The Slumdog Millionaire Architect


June 20, 2014

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The offices of Hafeez Contractor, India’s most commercially successful architect, are on Bank Street, just around the corner from the Mumbai Stock Exchange.

By Daniel Brook | New York Times

The prestige of the address, however, is undermined by the beleaguered state of the Raj-era building. In the reception area, a flat-screen displaying a loop of Contractor’s futuristic projects is mounted on a cracked, stained plaster wall. Upstairs, hundreds of designers sit shoulder to shoulder at long rows of computer monitors, packed in almost as mercilessly as on the commuter trains that ferry them to work each day. The office has struggled to keep up with the firm’s expanding work force and is perpetually under construction. Staff members were known to walk 15 minutes to the five-star Taj Mahal Palace Hotel rather than brave the employee-restroom line. Contractor has vastly increased his square footage by building a loft, but a day at the office now entails ducking through archways, dodging stray wires and ignoring the wail of power saws.


From this unlikely office, Contractor is helping to create the face of 21st-century India — a nation of flourishing wealth and entrenched poverty that looks, according to the economists Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze, “more and more like islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa.” More than anyone else, it is Contractor who is responsible for building those “islands.” He has done this in part by designing elaborate corporate campuses on the outskirts of cities, like his projects for Infosys, the Bangalore-based technology giant that employs more than 160,000 people. For Infosys, he built a software-development park outside Pune that features two avant-garde office orbs, which Contractor calls his “dew drops,” and a 337-acre corporate educational facility near Mysore that is laid out around a columned structure Contractor designed to look like St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. In New Delhi’s D.L.F. CyberCity, Contractor constructed a sprawling office development for blue-chip companies including Microsoft, KPMG, Lufthansa and American Express. His most famous project is Hiranandani Gardens, in suburban Mumbai, not far from the airport, where Contractor designed the domestic terminal. The 250-acre mixed-use neighborhood achieved some measure of fame when it served as the backdrop for India’s breakneck development in the 2008 film “Slumdog Millionaire.” In one of the movie’s more famous scenes, a character gazes out at the neighborhood’s skyline, dominated by what appear to be Greek temples stretched 33 stories into the air, and declares, “India’s at the center of the world now.”

The neighborhood, named for the billionaire real-estate-developing Hiranandani brothers, certainly bears its architect’s signature flamboyance. But what defines a Contractor project is the feeling that you are in a world apart. It houses more than 15,000 people and includes offices for more than 150 companies; it has its own school, its own hospital and its own recreational amenities, like Nirvana Park. All of this is supported by a vast system of backup power generators and sewage-treatment facilities that free the community from India’s notoriously dysfunctional infrastructure. At Hiranandani Gardens, you can almost forget you’re in a nation where 300 million people lack electricity. You certainly don’t have to worry about bathroom lines. Inside Hiranandani Gardens — taking a meeting at Colgate-Palmolive, lunching at Pizza Hut — there is little, save the auto-rickshaws buzzing down Technology Street, to remind you that you’re even in India. And that is precisely the point.


Contractor’s projects constitute a kind of alternate India, an archipelago of green zones in which Indian professionals inhabit a first world behind walls and security checkpoints, insulated from the chaos that has long hamstrung their homeland. Unlike most developing countries, India has pursued professional-services-led economic growth, opting for office parks over sweatshops. India “looks like no other developing nation,” the Mumbai-born pundit Fareed Zakaria has written. “India’s G.D.P. is 50 percent services, 25 percent industry and 25 percent agricultural. The only other countries that fit this profile are Portugal and Greece — middle-income countries.” Contractor has found his niche in building the offices where India’s professional services are produced and the residences, hotels and shopping malls where Indian professionals spend their time and money.

While the world wonders whether India, under the incoming pro-market government of Narendra Modi, can return to the blistering growth rates it was consistently posting before the global financial crisis, Contractor only obliquely acknowledges that the recent sputtering of India’s economy has affected his practice. Certain projects that would ideally be built quickly, he concedes, are instead being built in stages. Regardless, he prefers to look forward. The total acreage of an upscale satellite city he’s currently building near Delhi (when combined with a neighboring nature preserve) “will be larger than Central Park in New York,” he crowed. “Now that’s called creating history.”

In February, Contractor took me to see one of his newest projects, an 85-story Y-shaped condominium tower called Minerva that is being built atop a former shantytown. As we rose in the steel-framed, open-air construction elevator, the oft-obscured fact that Mumbai is a tropical island revealed itself, with the Arabian Sea stretching out beyond the lush, green oval of the Mahalaxmi Race Course. We ascended to the 26th floor, just a slab of concrete that was poured 10 weeks earlier. From this vantage point, we had an excellent view of the kinds of buildings Contractor is known for building in city centers — luxury high-rises set in the middle of India’s slums. To our left, next to the most expensive home in the world — the industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s $1 billion personal high-rise — were Contractor’s sleek Imperial Towers, built on the site of one of the city’s first slum redevelopments. Moving from left to right, Contractor pointed to the Four Seasons Hotel, which he worked on. “Atria Mall is us,” he continued, “and we’re doing three towers in that slum” next to a modern building with a pitched roof. Squinting out over the metropolis from this altitude, it was easy to spot the skyscrapers, but the teeming, low-rise slums — just undulating mounds of tarp and corrugated metal — were harder to locate. When I spotted the shantytown, Contractor added, “That pitched roof is also us.”


To call Hafeez Contractor Bollywood’s starchitect would not do justice to his fame. He is more like a luxury brand. The entire headline on a billboard for a new housing development in Kolkata read, “Designed by the famed Hafeez Contractor.” The architect does product endorsements for companies as if he were a movie star: computer makers (HP) and airlines (Swissair). When Indians talk about Contractor, they generally call him simply Hafeez.

Stylistically, Contractor’s buildings have no signature, save a penchant for glitz. “I always say . . . that you definitely like a woman with lipstick, rouge, eyelashes,” he told me. “So if you make your building more beautiful with some appliqués, there’s nothing wrong.” Instead of a style, what most unifies Contractor’s projects is that they actually get built. Architecture has long been described as the most political of the arts, and the key to Contractor’s success is as much his mastery of the policy levers of the world’s largest democracy as his talents as a designer. Combining the skills of an architect with those of a political operative, Contractor can read new regulations and immediately find exploitable loopholes and work behind the scenes to shape legislation that serves his business. He cultivates friends in high places, and he has learned to time his public statements judiciously. “There are several good ideas that I have announced at the wrong time,” Contractor told me. “Just before [the] election, some party accepts it and — with good fortune or bad fortune — the other party comes, and he kills it.” Most crucially, he has mastered the art of rhetoric, of phrasing his private interests in terms of the public interest.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Contractor’s effort to redevelop Mumbai’s slums. When India became independent in 1947, only a small segment of Mumbai’s population lived in shantytowns; by the 1990s, after wave upon wave of job-seeking domestic migrants arrived, roughly half the city’s estimated 10 million people lived in them.

The local government has long been vexed by the problem. Until 1970, the city held that informal settlements were illegal, and it sent the police to clear them in periodic crackdowns. Then it switched gears and endorsed so-called slum upgrading, adding basic amenities like streetlights and public toilets to informal neighborhoods. But between the government’s penury, endemic corruption and the ever-growing size of the problem, progress was limited. Today Mumbai’s best-known slum, Dharavi, packs a population comparable to San Francisco’s into less than one square mile of urban space. Its jerry-built structures can rise several stories, the upper floors accessible by ladders that extend down into darkened alleyways. Though families are large and child labor is rampant, the average household income in the neighborhood hovers around $60 a week.

Contractor had long supported a grand bargain in which developers would be given the opportunity to build market-rate projects on valuable land covered by slums in exchange for providing new, free housing for slum dwellers. He argued for such a policy in the media as well as in private conversations with politicians. In 1995, when the conservative Shiv Sena Party took power in elections in Maharashtra state (Mumbai is its capital), Contractor saw an opening. But it required cozying up to one of the least savory figures in Indian politics: Bal Thackeray, the leader of Shiv Sena and a political cartoonist by trade, who openly admired Hitler and rose to power by pitting Mumbai’s ethnic groups against one another. His followers called him by the honorific Balasaheb. The local press dubbed him “the uncrowned king,” because Thackeray was not an elected official but a party boss. He controlled Mumbai through a devoted following of Hindu youths that he could call upon to paralyze the metropolis with protests — or riots — if he didn’t get his way.

Shiv Sena came to power on a platform of “free housing for slum dwellers” but lacked a concrete policy for putting it into effect. After the elections, Contractor says he set his staff to work on a comprehensive study of Mumbai’s slums. His team came up with a plan to allow market-rate development of skyscrapers with extended height limits in exchange for rehousing the slum dwellers. In a closed-door meeting, Contractor recalled, he presented his proposal and got Thackeray to endorse the grand bargain over the objections of his deputies.

As Contractor spoke with me, he couldn’t hide his disdain for Thackeray’s populist pretensions. But he had a grudging respect for his ability to get things done — specifically Contractor’s own agenda. “You need a strong guy,” Contractor said.

Although he credits Thackeray, Contractor calls himself “the real architect of slum-redevelopment policy.” It’s an audacious claim, given that the policy details were worked out by a committee on which Contractor did not serve. But whatever the extent of his role, in the years since enactment, Contractor has become the go-to architect for transforming shantytowns into plots that combine low-income apartments and ultraluxury condominiums. Inside the high-rises, several million dollars buys not only granite countertops and Arabian Sea views but also electricity that never goes out and water that always runs.

Given Mumbai’s surreal inequality, Contractor’s market-based plans have made him the architect that Indian intellectuals love to hate. P. K. Das, Mumbai’s best-known radical urbanist — he is known as an architect-activist — is the nemesis of market-friendly architects like Contractor. Das rails against slum-redevelopment policy as a ruse to privatize prime plots of real estate, tarring it as the “greatest bluff ever perpetrated on the city’s poor.” While Contractor claims his structures, with their reliable utilities and sewage treatment, model best practices for the rest of India, critics like Das worry that giving India’s most influential citizens high-quality infrastructure amid India’s poverty removes the political will to make basics like reliable power and potable tap water universal. Providing basic services to the rich and not the poor bespeaks “a state of underdevelopment, not a state of development,” Das told me in his studio.

Following the tour with Contractor of his Minerva project, we headed across town in his chauffeured white S.U.V. to have lunch at an upscale Indian chain restaurant in a shopping mall. The busy street life passing our windows — fruit sellers hawking their produce, young rag pickers filling their giant tarp sacks with scavenged recyclables, women in abayas going about their daily chores — seemed to be far removed, as if we were watching a documentary about Mumbai’s poor from the comfort of a well-appointed theater. At the Jacob Circle roundabout, a teenager gunned his motor scooter the wrong direction around the one-way traffic circle, his helmetless friend hanging on tight behind him. “Look at this guy!” Contractor offered, more in amusement than in anger. “Bombay” — he still calls it that — “has gone wacko.”


As the surname suggests, Contractor’s family has deep roots in the building trades. Family lore has it that his great-great-grandfather helped build what is now the University of Baroda, 250 miles north of Mumbai in the state of Gujarat. The Contractors were part of the tiny Parsee community in Western India privileged by the British. By the early 20th century, Contractor says, his ancestors were wealthy industrialists, well diversified into power plants and liquor.

Hafeez was born in Mumbai in 1950, part of the Midnight’s Children generation that never knew the British Raj. Despite the joys of freedom, it was an inauspicious time to be born — and not only because Hafeez’s father died unexpectedly just 13 days before his birth. The family was foundering. The newborn Republic of India looked with disdain on the Contractors’ industrial concerns. Private power plants would have no place in Jawaharlal Nehru’s state, and alcohol would be banned in Gandhi’s spiritual nation.

But if politics destroyed the Contractor family’s fortune, under Hafeez’s savvy guidance, politics would rebuild it. After barely securing a spot in architecture school, the young Hafeez excelled. His senior project was displayed at Mumbai’s leading contemporary art museum, and he won a postgraduate scholarship to Columbia University, where he earned a master’s in 1977. Contractor came to find Manhattan seductive, but unlike many Indian professionals, he vowed to return to India rather than use the fellowship as a ticket out. “The temptation was so great,” he recalled, “that I said, ‘Graduate in the afternoon, catch a flight in the night.’ And I literally meant it. I left for my flight from the farewell dinner.”

In the India he returned to, apartments meant for low-income residents were hemmed in by a square-footage limit that was part of the Urban Land Ceiling and Regulation Act, passed while Contractor was in New York. The legislation capped some apartments at just 40 square meters (430 square feet), but nearly as soon as the regulations were enacted, Indians found a simple way to flout them: Husbands and wives would buy adjoining units and then remove a wall to combine them. That was just the first step. The race was on to come up with a design that could conjure the feel of luxury within the still-modest 860-square-foot flats.

In the impeccably air-conditioned glass-and-steel sales office of the Minerva condominium tower, Contractor recalled how the Mumbai developer Kirti Kedia approached him and demanded apartments that included 10-by-14 bedrooms and 20-by-20 living rooms, straining the limits of the regulations before even considering necessities like hallways and bathrooms. “I said, ‘Come on, Kirti, I can’t beat arithmetic,’ ” Contractor recalled. “Kirti said, ‘Raja’ . . . he calls me Raja — raja means king — ‘that is why I have come to you.’ ” Contractor took out his red felt-tip pen and legal pad and showed me how he did it.

Starting with the living room, Contractor drew a 20-by-20 square — 400 square feet. Turning the height of the square into the diameter of a circle, a bit like Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Contractor shaved off the top two corners. This little move cut some 40 square feet off the room. He applied the same trick to the rectangular bedrooms. “And I got it. I beat the arithmetic. I showed him the plan the next day. . . . This was the rage of that time!” Contractor had outsmarted the regulations by literally cutting corners. The result was the Megh, Malhar and Raag Towers, a set of organic-shaped buildings. The towers weren’t finished until years later, but commissions for other buildings rolled in, and Hafeez became a household name. A 1987 print ad showed him standing atop his latest bullet-shaped high-rise holding airline tickets. It said simply: “Hafeez Contractor Flies Swissair.”

In 1991, when an economic crisis forced India to adopt I.M.F.-imposed free-market reforms, Contractor was perfectly positioned to benefit. Foreign capital poured into the country, and domestic companies boomed. One day, Contractor was sitting in the restaurant of the Taj Palace Hotel in New Delhi when he spotted Narayana Murthy, a founder of the software outsourcing giant Infosys. In 1981, Murthy started the company with six partners and $250 in pooled capital; now he was a billionaire. Though Contractor had never met the tycoon before, he seized the opportunity to pitch his services. As Murthy tells the story, Contractor walked up to him and asked, “Can I disturb you?” When Contractor introduced himself, Murthy recalls, “I thought, This guy is so humble, almost a zero-ego person, and yet he is the most creative architect from India. After just a brief chat, Murthy concluded that he wanted to work with Contractor.

In the early days of Infosys, the company was headquartered in an office building in downtown Bangalore. But Murthy saw no way to expand there. The city’s transit system was hopeless. Murthy recalled telling his colleagues: “Look, if we try to expand in the city, we won’t have enough car parks. . . . We will create India’s first software campus.”

Contractor was initially enlisted to add “show buildings” to Murthy’s new Bangalore campus, including the glass pyramid television studio from which the company beams its quarterly results to the world. (Murthy told me he liked I.M. Pei’s addition to the Louvre so much that he had Contractor build him one.) Soon Contractor was tasked with designing entire campuses for the company. “We fight a very tough battle here,” Murthy mused. “We go through all this pollution, traffic, noise, and we reach our campus, and in a jiffy we are expected to satisfy the needs — the technological needs — of the most advanced customer from the first world all day. We have to create an environment where it becomes easier.” To this end, Murthy demanded all the amenities of a large city behind the gates. “It has to have bookstores, it has to have food courts,” he said, “it has to have a swimming pool, it has to have a cricket pitch.”

As Sadaf Khan, an Infosys communications staff member, told me bluntly when I arrived at the gates of the Bangalore headquarters: “This campus is a different world compared to the rest of the city. When you’re inside the campus, you might as well not be in Bangalore.”

If the goal is to conjure a “different world,” Infosys’ campuses are indisputably successful. But not everyone is happy with the results. Varun Singh, a 30-year-old middle manager, was enjoying a smoke with his team of programmers outside the gates of the company’s Pune campus when he told me that employees didn’t have much access to the recreational facilities, “because we’re loaded down with work.” His underlings stood by nodding, impressed with his candor. Working in a chic, Contractor-designed “dew drop” wowed his parents when they came to visit, Singh continued, but on a day-to-day basis, the campus irked him. The location on the edge of town was inconvenient, and after the long ride from his apartment each morning on a company bus, he still had to walk a third of a mile from the campus gate to his office. (The golf cart that I traveled in, he informed me, was reserved for visiting clients and journalists.) Singh said he would prefer Infosys to operate out of a more ordinary office building in the city center. But Murthy tapped Contractor to build exurban campuses precisely because he concluded that expanding in India’s dysfunctional downtowns wasn’t feasible.

Contractor is changing the makeup of those dysfunctional downtowns by building luxury residences alongside the slum redevelopments he advocated for with Shiv Sena. In those constructions, the two Indias sit side by side, but still painstakingly sealed off from each other. As the architect explained to me, his firm lays out the redevelopment-site plans with an eye toward keeping the slum dwellers and the condo buyers segregated. Each group is from a “separate class,” he said. “If you had it combined, neither the slum guys nor the prospective clients would like it.”

According to Contractor, prospective clients and slum dwellers alike support his efforts. At the ribbon-cutting for what would be the first slum-rehousing apartments abutting the site of his Imperial Towers, the tenants who inhabited the 2,500 huts that covered the 13-acre site conducted a religious ceremony to mark the opening. Contractor says the women put on their finest saris and approached him and the developer reverently with an oil lamp. “They were taking our aarti,” or making an offering, Contractor recounted, “giving us as much honor as they’re giving to a god. So I asked this lady, ‘Why are you doing this?’ She said: ‘Do you know what you have done to our lives? We, all ladies in the slum, cannot go to a toilet after the sun rises and before the sun sets, but you are giving us tap water, 24-hours water.’ ”

The day after meeting Contractor, I visited the low-income housing next to the Imperial Towers. Beside the nine-story concrete parking garage that constitutes the condominiums’ base, teenage boys were absorbed in their game on an improvised cricket pitch. Inside a building bearing a spray-painted mural of Bal Thackeray and other local heroes on its facade, an old man was busy at an ironing board he had set up in the stairwell as an informal laundry business. Up one flight and down the dimly lit hallway, I met the seven members of the Khan family in the 225-square-foot apartment they received after the community voted to give developers the right to build the multimillion-dollar flats.

The Khans’ original home had been on the footprint of the building where they live today. Back in the 1950s, the family patriarch moved to Mumbai as this community was being carved out of steep, flood-prone jungle land that nobody else wanted. Until their slum was razed, the Khans were living in a 90-square-foot hut with only corrugated metal sheets to keep out the rain.

When I asked the Khans if they were satisfied with the redevelopment, every member of the family agreed enthusiastically. Even when they become eligible to sell their flat — after 10 years of residency, as mandated by the redevelopment policy — they told me they planned to stay. The access to jobs, markets and services afforded by their central location outweighs the temptation to part with their 225 square feet of Mumbai, which was worth, they estimated, $65,000.

In order for a developer to secure the rights for a coveted plot, 70 percent of the shantytown’s occupants have to vote in favor of that builder. Developers vie to win over influential community members, sometimes promising to sweeten the deal with add-ons. Contractor mentioned providing a free refrigerator in each unit. When I noted the rampant rumors that development companies pay cash bribes for votes, Contractor didn’t deny it. “Every country has to go through this kind of a phase,” he said. “In your country, it was the 1920s and 1930s.”

In their apartment, however, the Khans told me that there had been only one developer making an offer for their slum and that there were no handouts. The community simply accepted the baseline offer to redevelop the parcel to the minimum standards required by the law. Contractor points out that under the law, the slum dwellers’ costs are covered by the developers for 10 years. But the Khans said there were additional fees associated with the elevators and the fluorescent lighting in the common hallways. Before redevelopment, they had to pay only a 50-cent tax to the government each month; now they have to come up with nearly $9 a month. Covering that cost takes nearly every member of the Khan family pitching in to augment the $50 a month that 37-year-old Amina earns as a maid.

As for Contractor’s story of being thanked for 24-hour running water, the Khans told me they get running water for only one hour a day — 30 minutes in the morning and another 30 minutes in the evening. When the water goes on, they fill up buckets to use for the rest of the day or night. Just next door, in the Imperial Towers penthouse (asking price: $20 million), the swimming pool is the size of seven slum-redevelopment apartments combined, and it is always full. Still, the Khans insisted, they were satisfied with this situation.

Contractor sees his slum redevelopments as studies in communal harmony in which both rich and poor “enjoy their own freedom, but they don’t disturb the other guy’s freedom.” But Sheela Patel, the director of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers, an organization that advocates for the urban poor, considers the rehousing units “vertical slums.” In many redevelopments, she said, “the space between the [buildings] is six feet, so the first three or four floors don’t even get sunlight during the day.” Patel served as the sole NGO representative on the committee that helped redesign the slum-redevelopment policy after Shiv Sena won the 1995 elections on its free-housing pledge. “This thing of 70 percent of the community agreeing to do it, that was our contribution,” she said. “The developers were violently against that.” But, she says, in the decades since the policy was enacted, greed and corruption have rendered it “one more thing that it is done in the name of the poor but hasn’t improved the quality of habitat for the poor in the sense that it was meant to be.”

“If you ask me what am I most happy about, I wouldn’t say I made a building for the richest man or that I made one of the tallest buildings in this city,” Contractor told me in the Minerva sales office, puffing his chest and flexing his biceps for comic effect. “What I’m really happy about is one fine day, I got an idea for slum redevelopment. I used to say that until we do something about the slums, we’re not going to have anything. We must have a good social-housing policy.”

But critics like the Mumbai writer Naresh Fernandes dismiss Contractor’s enthusiasm for market-based policy as self-serving folly. “Instead of building the sort of public-housing projects that have proved effective in London, Hong Kong and Singapore,” Fernandes wrote in his 2013 book, “City Adrift,” “Mumbai decided that its housing crisis should be left to the whimsies of the private sector.” As a result, only those slums located on the most desirable plots of land have proved tempting to developers. When Shiv Sena enacted the redevelopment policy, Fernandes wrote, it estimated that it would rehouse 800,000 slum dwellers. Now, nearly two decades later, it has served only 127,000.

Contractor stands by the policy and insists that even his high-end projects are not exercises in excess but models of best practices. They set standards for a developed India that the government must emulate. In talking about the potable tap water on the Infosys campuses, Contractor offered: “If Infosys can do it, why can’t the Bangalore city do it? Why can’t the Mumbai city do it?”

His voice took on a pleading tone: “If we can do it, why can’t you do it?”

Indeed, in America’s development, what began as private amenities available only to the rich — indoor plumbing, electric lighting — were eventually incorporated into public building codes and universalized. In neighboring China, the pro-market reformer Deng Xiaoping argued, “Let some get rich first,” and in the decades since his reign, even average Chinese have seen remarkable improvements in their living standards. Today 99 percent of Chinese have regular access to a toilet; in India, the figure is only 49 percent.

Some argue that if India really is following this well-trod path of development — just with a late start — the concerns of Contractor’s critics are misplaced. But China’s rise out of poverty was based on an authoritarian model that is a nonstarter in democratic India. And even America’s broad middle class is beginning to look like a 20th-century anomaly. Besides, Contractor’s projects suggest India is on a different path altogether.

India’s social commentators dismiss Contractor’s gaudy creations as real-life Bollywood sets. But taste aside, they are nothing to sneer at. Developments like CyberCity and Hiranandani Gardens are more than just symbols of India’s rise; they are a key part of it. Inside Contractor’s corporate campuses, with their private, reliable infrastructure, it’s always business as usual; outside the gates, you’re at the mercy of the nation that hosted the largest blackout in human history, which left 600 million people without power in 2012. When, for example, the Bangalore authorities initiate a multiday shutdown of their municipal water system for “maintenance,” as they have been known to do, you can still make tea with the tap water at Infosys headquarters and get back to your spreadsheet. And by permitting Indian professionals to approximate a Western standard of living without emigrating, Contractor’s residences can lure Indian executives back to world-class businesses in Mumbai and Bangalore instead of New York and Silicon Valley.

Discussing the blackout, Amartya Sen told an audience in Jaipur last January that the media neglected an important fact. “Two hundred million of those 600 million people never had any power at all,” he said. Equally notable, though, is the converse: That for the privileged few working on an Infosys campus or living in one of Contractor’s residential compounds, the generators kicked in and the lights stayed on. The Indian poor live in perpetual darkness, and the Indian rich live in perpetual light.

Sen concluded by exhorting his countrymen to “start making intelligent use of the resources that economic growth generates” to close India’s unconscionable social gaps. It is a sensible prescription. But it is not a politically pressing one in the world’s largest democracy, because the nation’s problems are no longer an issue for its most fortunate citizens. They live in a different world now, even when they are right next door.