Mukesh Ambani this week became the fifth richest man in the world but how does it help the poor?
It is no secret that inequality in India has grown faster than all other countries except Russia in the last two decades
It is no secret that inequality in India has grown faster than all other countries except Russia in the last two decades. Oxfam’s ‘Time to Care’ report last year had underlined how India’s richest one percent held more than four times the wealth held by 953 million people at the bottom. The combined wealth of just 63 Indians was higher than the entire Union Budget for the year 2018-19. Billionaires and big business have gained at the cost of ordinary citizens but the Indian Government has been remarkably coy in taxing the rich, who continue to be heavily under-taxed even as the man on the street bear the brunt of high prices of fuel and essential goods on one hand and unfairly high indirect taxes on the other. In contrast, despite the economic slowdown, effects of the pandemic and lockdown, the rich are becoming richer. Indeed, Mukesh Ambani, in the real-time ranking of billionaires done by business magazine Forbes, became the fifth richest person in the world this week, displacing American investor Warren Buffett.
The magazine, which had estimated Mr. Ambani’s net wealth last month to be 38 billion US Dollars, on Wednesday estimated his wealth at $75 billion Dollars or Rs 5.61 lakh Crore Rupees. What is more, it reported that on Wednesday itself Mr. Ambani’s net worth increased by a whopping $3.2 billion Dollars (2.38 lakh Crore Rupees).To put this in perspective, former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan estimated earlier this year that the Government would require just Rs 60,000 Crore to provide a cash dole to India’s workers in the informal sector rendered jobless by the lockdown. India’s health budget for this year was just 69,000 Crore and Education budget less than one lakh Crore. The disparity in wealth is also reflected in the disproportionate salary paid to corporate honchos. The Oxfam report had dramatically mentioned that it would take a female domestic worker 22,277 years to earn what a top CEO of a technology makes in a year. The CEO would make more in 10 minutes what the worker would make in a year, it pointed out.
But inequality is still not a political or public issue in the country. There is no public discontent in India either with the poor seemingly happy with the ‘world’s cheapest data’ that enables them to watch films and TV serials on their mobile handsets. It is not even an election issue though people in several other countries, including the US, are increasingly questioning why the government appears to work only for the rich. While politicians and media in India continue to ignore lopsided and wasteful expenditure by the government, US Senator Bernie Sanders this week opposed President Trump’s move to increase defence spending.
“My Senate colleagues have a fundamental choice: Vote to spend more money on endless wars while failing to provide economic security to millions of Americans. Or vote to spend less on weapons and cost overruns, and more to rebuild struggling communities in their home states,” he said. When will Indians hear their leaders articulate similar sentiment as clearly and loudly? Indians cannot afford to wait any longer. Government’s public expenditure on health and education, on agriculture and irrigation, on drinking water and energy must increase and now. As Mahatma Gandhi would have said, there is enough to fulfil every Indian’s need but not enough to fulfil some Indians’ greed.