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Race for Inequality

Editorial |

It might be churlish not to applaud the observations of the son of a gas-station-attendant turned billionaire, who seems to effortlessly multiply his inheritance, expressing confidence that his country, an emerging nation, would soon be amongst the “three richest countries” globally. At around $3 trillion, India is in the reckoning though nowhere near the USA’s $20 trillion gross domestic product.

Nevertheless, Mr Mukesh Ambani represents the “animal spirit” of entrepreneurship that takes its possessor places; in this case to the top of the list of Indian billionaires, which has such redoubtable names as Azim Premji, Lakshmi Mittal, Shiv Nadar, Dilip Shanghvi, Kumar Birla, Uday Kotak, Radhakishan Damani, Gautam Adani and Cyrus Poonawalla.

It is, however, the kind of meteoric rise that Gautam Adani, for instance, represents that leaves one less than enthused with Mr Ambani’s remark about the India’s “world-class digital infrastructure”, whereby each one of India’s 1.3 billion people will productively participate in the fourth industrial revolution and “solve the biggest unsolved problems facing humanity right here”.

One of the gravest concerns today is the growing gulf between the rich and the poor with most economies reporting increasing income inequality despite the phenomenal growth. The sinister manner in which growth is shared has the top one per cent earners capturing twice as much of that growth as the bottom 50 per cent.

Even in the EU and the United States, the poorest 90 per cent income groups have been squeezed, notwithstanding the higher access to technology because, post 1980, there have been humungous transfers from public to private wealth, irrespective of whether the country is developed or developing.

As the World Inequality Report 2018 argues, public wealth is now negative or close to zero in rich countries, circumscribing governments’ abilities to tackle inequality that has been extreme in Russia and the USA, while India earns the dubious distinction of being the world’s second-most unequal country. Its top one per cent rich owns 73 per cent of its wealth, to go by the 2018 Oxfam survey and 670 million of the poorest Indians saw no more than a one per cent rise in the survey period.

Truth to tell, a large rural population has suffered a decrease in earnings, especially post-demonetisation and, as even the government concedes, the farm sector is haunted by the spectre of climate change and could suffer a 25 per cent drop in farm earnings.

Considering these grim portents, empowerment of every Indian may only be a consummation devoutly to be wished for, but one that will take much more than pressing the digital switch that Mr Ambani and his ilk believe will do the trick. Regrettably, the best that India can celebrate is that Nigeria has finally dislodged it from its position as the land with the highest number of poor.