NEW DELHI - Tycoon Mukesh Ambani kept his title of richest Indian as the fast-growing economy minted 17 new billionaires in 2010, driving the total to a record 69, according to a Forbes rich list Thursday.
Ambani, chairman of India's biggest private sector firm Reliance Industries, retained his top slot as the wealthiest Indian for a third consecutive year with a net worth of 27 billion dollars, Forbes India magazine said.
Ambani was closely followed by London-based steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, at 26.1 billion dollars.
The record number of billionaires "is yet another clear signal the centre of gravity will increasingly shift to India and China over the next decade," said Indrajit Gupta, editor of Forbes India.
Indian entrepreneurs are displaying "their ability to harness the unprecedented wealth creation opportunities that exist in this part of the world," Gupta said.
But the rise in the number of billionaires comes amid warnings by anti-poverty groups that the gap between wealthy and poor is growing steadily in the country of 1.2 billion people.
Some 836 million Indians live on less than 20 rupees (45 cents) a day, according to a government report, while Indian statistics on health, infant mortality, malnutrition and income are worse than those for sub-Saharan Africa.
Growing inequality, as well as endemic corruption and poor public administration, is seen as fuelling a raging Maoist insurgency in impoverished areas of the country.
Information technology tycoon Azim Premji, who controls outsourcing firm Wipro, moved into third spot on the list with 17.6 billion dollars, displacing Ambani's younger brother Anil, who heads Reliance's telecom, financial and utility businesses.
Anil Ambani, who recently reconciled with his brother after a venomous feud over a division of family assets, fell to sixth spot with 13.3 billion dollars as a slump in his companies' shares pushed down his wealth by 24 percent.
The top 40 Indians' collective worth now stands at 243 billion dollars, up from 229 billion a year ago, but still shy of the 351 billion dollar record notched up in 2007.
Still, their riches are more than double the collective fortune of China's 40 wealthiest people last year, which totalled 106 billion, according to Forbes.
India's rich suffered huge losses in 2008, when the combined net worth of the top 40 slid 60 percent and only 27 were billionaires as a result of the global financial crisis.
"The huge correction in Indian wealth which occurred in 2008 is fast becoming a distant memory," buoyed by a rising stock market and an economy growing by nearly nine percent, the magazine commented.
Brothers Shashi and Ravi Ruia, whose Essar Group holds interests in steel, oil refining and power, were collectively fourth with a total wealth of 15 billion dollars, while Savitri Jindal, chairman of Jindal Steel and Power, stood fifth with 14.4 billion dollars.
This year’s list also signals a second wave of Indian capitalists accumulating massive fortunes after an initial slew earlier in the decade, Forbes said.
While the first wave of billionaires was typified by IT, steel and energy fortunes, this wave features more pharmaceutical and property titans.
The biggest gainer in percentage terms was media baron Kalanithi Maran, owner of Sun TV Network, who took a more than one-third stake in domestic low- cost airline SpiceJet. His net worth rose 74 percent to four billion dollars.
But some fortunes took a hit. Property baron Kushal Pal Singh, owner of debt-laden DLF, lost nearly a third of his wealth despite a real estate rebound.