Millennium Post

When Goliath owns David

India is witnessing a disparity of historic proportions, with 10% of Indians owning 77% of the money. In the last year alone, 73% of India's earnings have gone to 1% of our richest

When Goliath owns David

A little bird flew by me the other day and threw down some figures; numbers that made my hair stand on end. But truth be told, I was not taken aback, for this trend has been gathering steam for more than a while. What numbers are these? Well, the first one is already up there in the sub-head, that 10 per cent of India's rich today control 77 per cent of the money in the country.

And if we talk of Year 2017 alone, of all earnings generated, 73 per cent had gone to 1 per cent of our richest, making them even more opulent, while 67 million Indians who comprise the poorest half of the population saw only a 1 per cent increase in their cash reserves. Over the last year, as many as 80 crore Indians (59 per cent of our population) are now surviving on free foodgrain distributed by our magnanimous authorities.

This is in a country where it is estimated that by Year 2022, we will produce 70 new millionaires every day. The number of billionaires in India has already jumped to 119, up from only 9 in Year 2000. The fortune of these billionaires has increased by 10 times over the last decade and their wealth was higher than the entire Union budget of India for FY 2018-19, at Rs 24.42 lakh crore.

I dug a bit deeper and the little bird turned out to be handing me scraps from a recent Oxfam report; a report that also states that many ordinary Indians are not able to access anymore the healthcare they need, with 6.3 crore being pushed into poverty because of healthcare costs through the pandemic – that's almost two people every second.

Disparity intensifying

The yawning gap is only widening still. Look at this number – for the average daily worker in a textile mill, reaching the CEO's salary will take 941 years. He shall be rather old, but hale and hearty, I hope. Let's move to the Reserve Bank of India, which informs us that the average income of a person living in Bihar, for instance, is Rs 126 per day, with Rs 46,292 being the average per capita income in the state.

While the authorities barely tax the wealthiest citizens, Government spending on public healthcare ranks among the lowest in the world. In place of a well-funded health service, we have somehow promoted an increasingly powerful commercial health sector. The results are clear to see – decent healthcare is a luxury available only to those who can pay for it. While the country is a top destination for medical tourism, the poorest Indian states have infant mortality rates higher than those in sub-Saharan Africa. India accounts for 17 per cent of global maternal deaths and 21 per cent of deaths among children below the age of five years.

And neither you nor I shall forget through our lifetime the queues of wailing people outside crematoriums and burial grounds during the height of the Second Wave of the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic; or, for that matter, the shortage of beds and medical oxygen cylinders that could have saved thousands of gasping Indians from premature passing. We have since been told in our Parliament that no one suffered or perished due to the lack of oxygen supplies in India in times of deathly need in April and May this year. Clearly, we desperately need to wipe out the gory visuals of emerging dead bodies in the Ganges from our disgorged minds.

Shuttle-cock theory

As a youngster, I played badminton and was pretty darned good at it too. Some decades later, though, along with crores of my fellowmen, I feel like a shuttle-cock, being hit and flung over the dreaded net from one side of the court to the other. One the one side, I fill petrol and diesel in my cars, cringing when I pay the bill. On the other, I buy edible oils, cardamom for my tea and vegetables for my plate – here again, I simmer away and singe as my pockets are emptied faster than I can recoup.

Finally then, to get away from it all, I hit the highway and end up paying toll through my nose. And then again, as petrified me reaches some resort somewhere with my two little Indie cats, I hiss and claw louder more fiercely than them when I am told the tariffs by the hoteliers. I argue with the hospitality manager and I realize that he is even worse off than me, having kept the shutters down for months through the pandemic and now making up for whatever losses he has incurred by dramatically increasing prices.

We can't blame anyone for this turn of events, except an Almighty that chose to again subject us to a once-in-a-century pandemic, or our greater new Almighty who are all turning a blind eye to anyone with a strident voice or the temerity to voice an opinion. Dissent has clearly gone out of favor and nepotism holds fervor, gathering a fan following of hoodlums and hooligans like never before.

Fuelling the country

That brings us to a deadly discussion point – is India now surviving on petrol and diesel levies, with excise duties well over 30 per cent and climbing? Mumbaikars have been paying over Rs 100 per liter of petrol for a while. At the time of going to press, they were paying around Rs 108 per liter of liquid gold. In Delhi, the price crossed Rs 100 in July and now, it is around Rs 102. Decades back, as a young journalist, I wrote a column on the Administered Pricing Mechanism and the shift to free-market pricing. Today, for years, we have had free-market pricing on petroleum products, but even a wiser me is left scratching my head to understand what is happening to petrol and diesel prices. They should be down, but they are going up still.

As are suicides in India today, amongst our women, youngsters, senior citizens and males in particular... In the 18 to 60 years age group in males, suicide rates are up 14 per cent over the last two years. As lockdowns shut down factories and offices and work-from-home became a new way of life, India's male earning family members lost their livelihoods, feared for their well-being and fell into deep depression. They faced a financial morass, resorted to excessive drinking and instances of roadside fisticuffs, scuffles and outrage skyrocketed. Once spent of liver and spleen, with their savings and premature Provident Fund withdrawals done and dusted, many took the extreme step and literally bit the golden bullet.

Given this backdrop, I don't understand what is happening to our conscience and backbone. This is the same country that, in 2012, came together as one when an innocent and fearless girl was abused and mutilated in a moving bus in the National Capital. Today, with hundreds, thousands, lakhs and crores losing their jobs, many of them committing suicide, we are silent, walking with our tail between our legs.

What can be done?

A few simple steps can actually go a long distance and alleviate the misery. The authorities need to invest in making quality essential services available to every needy person, funding this by taxing the wealthy assertively and assiduously. The Government needs to provide people-focused services and end the under-taxation of Corporates and rich(er) individuals. It has happened in Europe and the United States. The irony is that overseas, many of the very rich voluntarily have paid more taxes than they were supposed to, to protect their country through a never-before crisis. Governments were proactive as well – they bailed out airlines, pharmaceuticals, hospitality and other companies, but only in exchange for a hefty stake in these Corporates.

Sadly, India has been different, our approach only picturesque, focused as we are on visual manifestations and affiliations. Today, at the height of a crisis on almost all fronts, we are confronted by hoardings that dot our petrol stations and line our highways, with the authorities demanding that they be thanked for doing their jobs, albeit belatedly and opportunistically.

The good news is that vaccinations are catching on, though way behind schedule. The international media and fraternity is scoffing at us, with our senior leaders being given the cold shoulder by the most powerful of nations. Much of India's media has become the butt of ridicule and mimicry across the world. This is a wake-up call – one that needs to be addressed soon, lest we lose the remaining wee-bit of credibility that we built over the 74 years of our independence. We are a global power. We need to ensure that this mantle is not knocked off our head, or Goliath will end up owning David.

The writer is a communications consultant and a clinical analyst. He can be reached at Views expressed are personal

Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

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