By P Sainath*
On November 25, 1949, after Ambedkar handed over the draft constitution to members of the Constituted Assembly, he said, “I am handing over this fine document to you in some trepidation. We have entered the world of paradoxes. In politics there is democracy, in society and economy there is no democracy at all. In politics there is democracy and equality, in society and economy there is none. And one day the tension between democracy in politics and the complete absence of it in economy and society will explode in our political democracy.” Truer words were never spoken in an Indian legislature.
For me the central thing, the canvas – whatever you may call it – is the astonishing growth of inequality in the last 20 years. Social inequality has been embedded now for as long as we can remember, and longer than we can remember. To this we have introduced new inequalities in the economic sphere that have deepened and entrenched the existing social and economic inequalities.
Let me give you an idea. Some of you might have seen in newspapers a report quoting Oxfam, saying that today the top 1% of the Indian population owns 58.4% of total wealth. Oxfam has taken the figures from Credit Suisse’s “Global Wealth Databook”. Credit Suisse is a very large multinational bank. Since 2000 it has been putting out this “Global Wealth Databook.” Now this “Global Wealth Databook” is actually focused, as you can imagine, on wealth. Put alongside the UNDP’s Human Development Report indices, the National Sample Service (NSS) decile-wise wealth holdings, each for 10% of the population, and my favourite data source, fobesbillionairs.com, you won’t believe the kind of numbers that are coming out with.
Oxfam basically was analysing Credit Suisse’s data, along with some other datasets. It tells us that eight individuals, eight billionaires, own wealth equal to the share held by 50% of the globe’s population, which is 3.5 billion human beings. It is very interesting to know how it came down to eight, because in 2010 Oxfam counted there were 388 billionaires who owned wealth equal to the share held by the bottom 50% of the planet. In 2011 that fell down to 310 or something, in 2012 it fell to 210 or something, in 2013 it was 182 individuals.
It is a spectacular growth of inequality post-Wall Street collapse. There began gigantic transfer of wealth from poor people to rich. Trillions of dollars were raised from public funds to revive Wall Street, to revive banks, to revive all those institutions that had actually looted the public and the global economy. By 2015, it was down to 62 billionaires having wealth equal to half of the globe’s population. And this year it’s eight billionaires! Just imagine the rate at which the concentration of wealth is occurring.
And what about India? In India 100 individuals own their share of household wealth equal to that of 69-70% of the population. But I would you like to see how it compares even this figure of 58.4%, which comes from the very same Credit Suisse report, with other countries, especially the quintessential capitalist economy, the United States (US)? Everyone, left or right economists in the US, agree that the US is more unequal than it has been in its history since 1929. In fact, the results of the last American presidential election have everything to do with that.
In a country which is more unequal than it has ever been, where for the first time the younger generation is going to have lower living standards than the preceding generation, Joseph Stiglitz gives you an interesting figure in “The Price of Inequality”. In the US, the top one percent’s share of wealth is 42.2%. But in India it is 58.4%! The Credit Suisse’s first report said that the figure for the US was 34%; at that time it was 26% for India. But it is now 58.4% for India; it has more than doubled. That is the rate at which inequality has grown. There are countries more unequal than India, in financial terms, in economic terms. I am not getting into the social part right now. Russia has a greater degree of concentration of wealth post-market reforms. But in no country between 2000 and 2016 has inequality grown faster than India.
A young economist, Srujana Bodapati, working in Thought Works in Gurgaon, has applied the data to the NSS and to the Forbes billionaires list. Last year, 15 individuals in this country owned a greater share of household wealth than the bottom 50% of the Indian population. By the way, for the first time in our history, the bottom 10% share of wealth has turned negative. It is now minus (-) 0.7% because of indebtedness; for the second decide, the 10% just above the first decile, the share is 0.2%. Two years ago it was 0.5%. As for the third decile, i.e. the top of the bottom 30%, the share is 0.5%. You know what does that means? It means your bottom 30% own a wealth share equal to 0% because +0.2% and +0.5% is wiped out or neutralized by minus (-) 0.7%. In short, your bottom 30% share of total household wealth is 0%.
Now, one individual of the 15 richest, that one individual, anyone can guess his name, has a wealth share of 0.57%, which is greater than the wealth share of bottom 30% population. And then, if you get into the fourth decile, another 5%, it simply means that Mr Mukesh Ambani has a greater share of total household wealth than 400-odd million human beings.
Think about it. Nobody can sustain these levels of inequalities. And as I said, the new inequalities are feeding into the already entrenched inequalities of caste and untouchability. One of the things that Bezwada Wilson was saying about rehabilitating safai karmacharis is – it costs Rs 3 lakh to rehabilitate one safai karmachari. The government says there are two lakh safai karmacharis, while others say there are three lakh to be rehabilitated. Three lakh into three lakh equals Rs 9,000 crore, that’s about the sum our banks gave Mr Vijay Mallya to keep him living in Mayfair, London. One individual and your entire manual scavenging class can be rehabilitated on that amount. And how much of the money has the Government of India spent for the Dalit and Tribal sub-plans? I don’t know how many thousands of crores are lying unspent. It just shows you how it’s feeding back into older, more entrenched inequalities.
Now just consider that one individual owns more wealth than 35% of the population. It means that something is seriously wrong for you. Also, consider that in 1991, when Forbes began its calculations, there wasn’t a single dollar billionaire in India; today they are 94 of them. The numbers are just going up. The data are available for free, you can locate them on Credit Suisse’s “Global Wealth Databook”. Its India table is on page 148. You can go up straight there and get the comparisons with all other countries. They rarely consider that the quantum of 10% wealth shares has turned negative.
Also, while considering, as many of our economist claim, that a rising tide lifts all the boats, they rarely answer, what about those without boats? They simply drown! The total wealth of the country is Rs 2,031 trillion or something like that. The only way the top 10% could have gained a lot is by pushing the bottom 10-30% much lower. There’s been a gigantic transfer of wealth from poor to rich. That’s taken place for the last 25 years of neoliberal globalisation, privatization and more privatization.
*Excerpts from the keynote address “Shrinking Democratic Spaces and the Role of Civil Society” delivered in Ahmedabad on January 28, 2017 to mark the 30th anniversary of Janvikas. Click HERE for full text