Debunking the Myth of a ‘Shining India’
Oxfam recently released a report “Survival of the Richest” during this year’s World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland. The report highlighted the significant wealth gap in India. The report revealed that a mere 1% of the population received over 40% of the wealth generated in India between 2012 and 2021, while only 3% of the wealth was distributed among the bottom 50% of the population. It also underlined that the number of billionaires in India surged from 102 in 2020 to 166 in 2022. The report also mentioned that in India, the impoverished segment of the population is unable to meet their basic needs for survival due to the dire economic conditions they face. This uneven distribution of wealth has the potential to worsen social and economic disparities within India and spillover to a protracted social conflict.
In 2022, the net worth of India’s richest man, Gautam Adani, witnessed a 46% surge, while the collective wealth of the country’s top 100 wealthiest individuals surpassed $660 billion. Notably, Adani secured the second position on the Bloomberg wealth index and experienced the highest increase in his wealth, worldwide. The lack of a tax on unrealized profits enables wealthy individuals to accumulate asset value without paying any taxes on it. In the Indian context, imposing a one-time tax on Adani, for his unrealized gains during the period 2017-2021 could have generated a staggering $21.95 billion. This amount would have been sufficient to hire over five million primary school teachers in India for a year. In India, such revenue generated from the proposed tax could lead to a substantial 33% increase in health expenditure, given that India is home to the largest number of impoverished individuals in the world, with 228.9 million people living in poverty.
Oxfam’s report suggests that India’s poor and middle-class bear a disproportionate burden of taxation compared to the wealthy class. The lower half of the population contributed 64% of the total goods and services tax (GST) revenue, while only 4% came from the top 10%. These figures underscore the significant economic inequality that exists within India and highlights the need for more equitable tax policies. An excerpt from the report quoted ordinary Indian citizens, Yusuf, a taxi driver, and Shahana, a housewife from Ghosiya Colony living under dire conditions. It stated that “The cost of gas cylinders used for household purposes in India was Rs. 450, but now it has increased to over a thousand rupees.” This has left people in a difficult situation between prioritizing their children's education and providing them with basic needs such as food.
At the onset of the pandemic in India, individuals from underprivileged communities, including those belonging to certain scheduled castes, tribes, and the Muslim population, experienced a more significant surge in their unemployment rates compared to other groups. Oxfam India’s CEO Amitabh Behar expressed concerns that India is swiftly transforming into a country exclusively for the affluent. He stressed that the country’s underprivileged communities such as Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, women, and informal sector workers are facing challenges due to a system that prioritizes the survival of the richest.
The affluent class has also influenced sectors beyond the socio-economic domain. In India, Mukesh Ambani, a billionaire, owns 72 television channels that can reach over 800 million viewers. In 2022, Adani acquired a 27.26% equity stake in India’s NDTV. Later Adani’s conglomerate took majority control of the company. So, the concentration of media control within the hands of a small number of extremely wealthy individuals grants them substantial power to sway political discussions, which could present a significant challenge in enacting progressive reforms. According to Oxfam, imposing a 2% tax on the total wealth of India’s billionaires could provide nutrition support to the country’s malnourished population for the next three years. Similarly, a 1% tax on their wealth could sustain the National Health Mission, India’s largest healthcare initiative, for over 1.5 years.
Despite the India’s renewed attempts to conceal information, certain trends are impossible to overlook. The World Inequality Report 2022, among many others, remains an eye-opener. The report stated that “Over the past three years, the quality of inequality data released by the government has seriously deteriorated, making it particularly difficult to assess recent inequality changes.” Similarly, Oxfam’s Inequality Kills Report 2022 stated that Adani saw his wealth grow eight-fold during the pandemic. He utilized his connections with the state to become the largest operator of ports and the biggest thermal coal power producer in the country. He held market control over power transmission, gas distribution, and recently privatized airports, which were once considered public goods. So, the Oxfam’s latest report underlines that India has now become one of the most unequal countries, globally, in terms of both income and wealth disparity, with a notably rapid rise in inequality. It has exposed and amplified existing inequalities within the Indian social fabric.
The writer is a Lahore-based independent researcher.
*Opinions expressed in this article are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The South Asia Times