Cyrus Poonawala blasts Modi government for 'socialist' decision on his palace

Update: 2023-04-03 06:29 GMT
Cyrus Poonawalla (Bloomberg)

Most Indian tycoons prefer to keep any gripes with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government to themselves.

But for health-care billionaire Cyrus Poonawalla, an eight-year wait to move into his $120 million Mumbai mansion has become too frustrating to remain silent.

The property, a former maharajah palace that housed the US consulate for more than half a century, is on a 2-acre plot on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Poonawalla bought it from the US government in what was the city’s most-expensive residential deal at the time, but it’s unclear whose land it sits on: both the Maharashtra state where Mumbai is located and the defense ministry claim ownership. The Indian government has halted the sale ever since.
Inside A Serum Institute Of India Ltd. Pharmaceutical Plant And Interview With Billionaire Chairman Cyrus Poonawalla

“The government of India is not providing any rationale for holding it up,” Poonawalla, who made his fortune with the world’s largest maker of vaccines, said in a recent interview in Dubai. “From what I understand, they don’t want this huge amount of about $120 million to go to the US. It’s just a political and socialist decision.”

While Poonawalla didn't mention Modi by name and has generally expressed support for him, he's a rare example of an Indian mogul willing to question the decisions of a government that has strong backing from the business community and is becoming bolder at cracking down on dissent. India’s fast economic growth and infrastructure push have boosted the stock market in recent years, lifting with it the fortunes of tycoons including Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani.

The stymied sale of the grand, decaying property in Breach Candy, one of the most elite locales in the south of Mumbai, has also been an enduring source of tension between New Delhi and Washington as the US attempts to draw India closer into its orbit as an Asian bulwark against China. Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is among the politicians who have lamented the situation.

Modi has repeatedly said that he and his government welcome “constructive criticism.” India’s defense ministry declined to comment on the stalled sale, while the Maharashtra government didn’t reply to a request for comment.

“The US government is working with the government of India to reach a satisfactory agreement to complete the lease transfer of the property,” said Christopher Elms, a spokesperson for the US embassy in India.

The palace, known as Lincoln House, was erected in 1938 by the Maharajah of Wankaner and sold to the US government in 1957 on a 999-year lease. Due to surging demand for visas, the consulate moved to a 10-acre plot in the city’s northern Bandra-Kurla Complex business district in 2014 and put it up for sale. Poonawalla’s family bought it the following year, with the intention to stay there on the weekends, according to a 2015 interview.

Like Lincoln House, other luxurious homes in Mumbai face similar disputes. South Court, built by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, has been unoccupied for decades. The British Deputy High Commissioner rented it soon after the South Asian country gained its independence in 1947, until 1983. Since then, the Pakistani government and Jinnah’s daughter, the now late Dina Wadia and mother of Indian industrialist Nusli Wadia, have claimed the property.

Poonawalla, 81, owns privately held Serum Institute of India Ltd., giving him a net worth of about $17 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

After considering manufacturing race cars, Poonawalla set his mind on vaccines at the suggestion of a veterinary expert from his family’s stud farm. He founded Serum in 1966 by raising $12,000 selling horses and borrowing money from his father, one of the pioneers of thoroughbred breeding in the country.

The company started by releasing an anti-tetanus serum and later introduced shots against diseases including diphtheria and measles. During the pandemic, it became a key supplier of Covid-19 inoculations to developing countries by mass producing the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca Plc and Oxford University, as well as the one from Novovax Inc. However, it was dogged by setbacks that hampered its ability to fill orders, from a ban on exports to a factory fire.

Serum, now led by Poonawalla’s son Adar who’s been chief executive officer since 2011, is still growing its offerings.

It recently began making a shot against human papillomavirus, and trials for its malaria vaccine in conjunction with Oxford have shown up to 80% protection against the disease, according to Poonawalla, who added he wants to keep the company private to avoid the reporting constraints that come with a public firm.

It’s going to be “a blockbuster product for us,” he said, referring to the malaria shot.

Meanwhile, the billionaire said he won’t give up his fight for Lincoln House. He still lives in Pune, a city about a three-hour drive away from Mumbai where Serum is based and the family’s stud farm is located.


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