As India celebrates its 74th Republic Day, it is a moment to reflect on the sanctity of the country’s constitution, which in recent times has been stirred but remains sacrosanct. It is also a day to showcase our military might and culture as the traditional parade winds down the erstwhile Rajpath in New Delhi. There are also the intangibles, which are not on display. Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra showed how majoritarianism is not absolute, but we the people of India are now grappling with another divide, the shadow of stark economic disparity.
One per cent rich in India now own more than 40 per cent of the country’s total wealth and the have-nots — the bottom half of the population — share just 3 per cent. It is no longer just anecdotal that India is a country comfortable for the rich.
The latest report by Oxfam — an umbrella of organisations fighting global poverty — is worrying not just for what it exposes but also for what it implies. India is the fastest-growing economy in the world, but by casually leaving its poor behind as collateral damage as these numbers indicate, it now has an unfathomable pool of forgotten people.
Every second almost two Indians are pushed into poverty
But in this perception game where the image is bigger than even the constitution, it will be odd to lay claim to the ‘superpower’ tag when the widening gulf between the rich and the poor has parted like the Red Sea, its extent unseen in other emerging economies.
Every second almost two Indians are pushed into poverty, and their ecosystem remains stagnant, oscillating between price hikes and joblessness. India’s wealth distribution has been imbalanced for decades, but the new pandemic reality is staggering. India now has a 350 million population that faces food insecurity; it ranked a dismal 107 out of 121 nations in the last global hunger index, a report dismissed by the government. With a competitive population, China continues to reverse its scale.
The lack of government data will not airbrush how the poor face an existential crisis. It is almost as though mocking them the rich are shining with their halo of wealth. The country has 166 billionaires and while that is a positive, disproportionate fortune creation begs introspection on the how and why.
The rapid rise for the elite few needs just a quick form check. In 2000, the country had only nine billionaires. During the pandemic, as the poor migrated home and the middle class shrunk by 32 million, Indian billionaires saw a whopping 121 per cent surge in their wealth. Gautam Adani, the second richest in the world, saw his wealth multiply by more than eight-fold; just a few in the country are more equal than others.
The glaring economic inequality can no longer be hidden, nor does it take into account structurally weak areas of minimum or daily wages where the poor fall off the train without a fuss. What it has done though is to expand the definition of the marginalised. Lines around caste, gender, and social milieu are still drawn, but in this realignment, healthcare remains prohibitive and lack of education a glaring barrier to social mobility.
At 2.1 per cent of the GDP, the healthcare budget is vastly inadequate, its repercussions highlighted by the pandemic crisis. Healthcare in India caters to the upwardly mobile for whom private hospitals have cutting-edge treatment or for medical tourism but could just as well put a board outside saying, poor keep out.
Oxfam suggests that taxing India’s ten richest at 5 per cent can fetch enough money to bring children back to school, and the rich at the top can dismiss it as additional CSR, but policies ultimately rest with the government. The report also flags taxation inequality; 64 per cent of GST was collected from the bottom half of the population, while from the top layer of 10 per cent the collections were a meagre 4 per cent. Much rests on the forthcoming budget, which will reflect the intent or the lack of it for course correction. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will need to show more empathy than she has over the rising price of onions.
The goalposts of basic deliverables have not shifted, but there is plenty of movement around it as opportunities dissipate. Women have come off the ladder, post-pandemic 90 per cent of the female population is no longer in the workforce.
Enabling big corporate houses while burdening only those who are desperately seeking a push isn’t a pretty picture. For the sake of India’s progress, the latest findings are accounted and not dismissed like the hunger index making the affluent a one-sided benchmark.
The playground of the rich has turned on its head the much-brandished slogan ‘Sabka saath sabka vikas,’ rhetoric alone cannot fill an empty stomach. There were many pandemic premonitions, but this quiet tilt that makes a minuscule percentage of the chosen people wasn’t one of them and needs a recalibration. Growth comes only when it gives hope to every stratum; for now, as the rich get richer, the poor are firmly in survival mode.