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Indian Industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani Dies - 2002-07-07

One of India's most successful industrialists, Dhirubhai Ambani, 69, has died in Mumbai, nearly two weeks after he suffered his second stroke. Mr. Ambani rose from a gas pump attendant to found the country's biggest private sector company, and become one of the world's wealthiest men.

Dhirubhai Ambani's story has enthralled Indians for many years. It is the stuff dreams are made of.

Mr. Ambani, the son of a village school teacher, left India at the age of 17 to work as a gas pump attendant in Yemen. He returned to Mumbai in 1958 to set up a tiny trading business with about $300.

Two decades later he established The Reliance Group - now a multi-billion dollar industrial empire that encompasses textiles, oil, gas, energy, telecoms and financial service sectors.

In the process, Mr. Ambani transformed the way big business operates in India. Until he came on the scene, industry was funded largely by financial insitutions, who lent money only to a tiny clique of elite business families.

Mr. Ambani turned to the middle class Indians to fund his dreams, and became the first Indian industrialist to raise substantial capital through the stock markets.

His generous rewards to those who held his stocks helped him create an army of 3.5 million shareholders, making his stock one of the most widely held in the world, and leading a newspaper to say "he taught the country's blue-blooded industrialists that to create wealth one must first learn to share it."

As hundreds of people paid tributes to Mr. Ambani, most, like well-known industrialist Jamshed Godrej, remembered his entrepreneurship. "He has also shown the type of entrepreneurial spirit - that somebody who had nothing once in his life is today so well-known, so well honored, and so well respected," he said. "His achievements have been absolutely outstanding. I do not believe that within contemporary India we have any other example like Mr. Ambani."

Mr. Ambani's life was not without controversy. His critics accused him of manipulating India's often corrupt administration to influence government policy in favor of the industries he owned, and ruthlessly eliminating competition. In his life, Mr Ambani dismissed the criticism as the "price to be paid for success."

Top politicians, industrialists and filmstars visited the Ambani residence Sunday. In a statement, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said "the country has lost an iconic proof of what an ordinary Indian fired by the spirit of enterprise, and driven by determination, can achieve."

Many Indians agreed, saying Mr. Ambani's life had reaffirmed their faith in democracy, the ability of a man to rise from nowhere to become one of it's most successful and celebrated citizens.