DUBAI // The Indian ambassador to the UAE strives to live an austere life and avoid large, extravagant events, particularly in light of the drought that is affecting much of India at the moment. Talmiz Ahmad cited the "obscene display of wealth" by the expatriate community, which he called inappropriate. "I personally believe both as part of human values and indeed my own personal commitment that we have to be austere in our personal life and our public life," Mr Ahmad said.
This year, more than half of India's districts have been hit by droughts in what is described as the driest monsoon season in several years. Almost 700 million people are expected to be affected. Several Indian ministers have initiated an austerity drive led by the ruling Congress party. Its chief, Sonia Gandhi, urged her party leaders to give up one-fifth of their salaries. She is travelling economy class, and her son and Congress general secretary, Rahul Gandhi, have renounced flight travel and taken the train between states, further reinforcing the austerity message among politicians, bureaucrats and affluent Indians.
Critics have dismissed these gestures as political stunts, but Mr Ahmad said of the espousal of austerity in India emerged from real concern over the failure of rainfall and consequent drought, a situation that exacerbated the impact of the global recession on the country. "There is a very immediate requirement around us," he said. "India is a poor country. It has a very large number of extremely poor people. Display of wealth of any kind is offensive."
Mr Ahmad made his comments in response to a question about the lifestyle of elite Indians in the UAE, who continue to organise grand parties and gatherings despite the poor living conditions and salaries of many of their compatriots and worsening food crises back home. "I enforce it in my own life," he said, "and by and large events that I attend I ensure that they are modest in ostentation." Mr Ahmad's comments question the lifestyles of the large numbers of expatriate Indians in the Middle East and around the world, but he said he would not expect anyone else to follow his example.
"It's not my business to tell others how to run their lives," he said. "It's not appropriate to be intrusive because then you intrude into freedom of other people. However, it is a universally accepted norm that vulgar display of wealth in a climate of poverty and deprivation is not appropriate, and it is indeed offensive. I am not referring to any specific event, but this is a general view." He acknowledged that for diplomats abroad, the situation is sometimes unavoidable. "There are certain norms of public conduct," he conceded. "If I have a ministerial visit, I will host a banquet in a setting that is commensurate with seniority of guest. There is a fine line between vulgar display and stylish display. I would go for stylish display."
Noting that Indian diplomats and senior officials often have to meet expectations outside the country, Mr Ahmad said the embassy's National Day celebrations would be at the Hilton hotel in Abu Dhabi. "We do have to engage with five-star culture," he said, "but I avoid extremes of ostentatious display." Dubai and the UAE as a whole are often known as a hub for the affluent Indian community. Business tycoons, Bollywood stars and celebrities fly to Dubai for parties, gatherings and functions conducted by the large Indian community. Parties are often held in five-star hotels and plush auditoriums.
Fashion designers such as Manish Malhotra and others selling designer clothes and accessories have showrooms in Dubai that cater largely to the rich Indian community. Mr Ahmad was not alone in his call for more austerity. Several noted Indian expatriates also have made the point that the fortunate few must not forget the many. Sudhir Shetty, chief operating officer for global operations at the UAE Exchange, said: "I think more than 80 per cent of the Indians here live simple lives. However, it's the elite 20 per cent who live expensive lives. No matter what you tell them, they will not compromise."
Mr Shetty is also a prominent personality in the Indian community. "This kind of restraint unfortunately can't be insisted upon," he said. "I feel that expatriates should be careful, but also a lot more needs to be done by the Indian government locally if the problem of drought is to be resolved." K V Shamshudeen, chairman of Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust, who also ran a radio show advising Indians on financial problems, said there was "maximum need to be modest with spending".
"Iftar parties and other festivities organised by the Indian community over the last few weeks have largely been for people who eat very well everyday," he noted. "We must remember that there are many poor Indians here and back home who do not get a decent meal." Meanwhile, middle-class families in the UAE sometimes forget what is going on at home. "I must admit that I organised a grand party for a group of friends who came from the US last week," said Anthony D'Souza, an engineering consultant who lives with his family in Bur Dubai. "We often are disconnected with realities in India and lead lavish lives here. I feel we must exercise control [spending] in such an environment."