The Story of Independence: 125+ Billionaires, 363+ Million BPL

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By Suresh Kr Pramar

“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom…” Jawahar Lal Nehru, India’s First Prime Minister, at midnight of August 14, 1947.

“Freedom and power bring responsibility. The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity. The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over.

“What shall be our endeavour? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.”

Freedom has proved to be a mixed blessing for large sections of the population. Sixty-nine years after freedom there are more eyes with tears than there were on the eve of independence. Tested against the goals set out in the Tryst with Destiny speech, India has still a long, long way to go.

Freedom and power bring responsibility, Nehru had said. “The service of India means the service of millions who have suffered.”  This promise of service for the people has remained unfulfilled in large measure. It has been converted into the service of the rich and the powerful at the expense of the poor and the deprived. It is a shameful sight that our representatives give themselves salaries and perks which are well above the incomes of the common man.

Lets start with the promise of ending poverty. Judged from any angle this promise has remained unfulfilled. The number of people below the poverty line have increased. One reason is the steep increase in population. But that does not tell the entire story. Economic planning has largely favoured a small, very few, to the disadvantage of a very large section of the population.

This explains why we have created more billionaires and pushed more people below the poverty line. A study by a panel headed by former chairman of the former Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, C Rangarajan, estimated that 363 million, or 29.5% of India’s 1.2-billion people lived in poverty in 2011-12. The Rangarajan panel considers people living on less than Rs 32 a day in rural areas and Rs 47 a day in urban areas as poor. While millions in the country live under grinding poverty and want, the rich and the powerful amass increasing wealth. Government bends over backward to provide additional incentives, including concessions to help the rich grow richer.

Decades of planned economic development have left vast sections of the people, particularly the urban and rural poor, out of the circle of beneficiaries. The rich and wealth continue to grow in wealth while the poor continues to slide. To make matters worse, in an effort to help the rich, the government provides several commissions and benefits all at the expense of the poor.

The Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook has revealed some very startling facts. It has revealed that the  richest 1 per cent in India today own about half, 49 per cent, of the country’s personal wealth. The remaining 99 per cent share the remainder, even that very unequally. Further the top 10 per cent Indians own nearly three-quarters, 74 per cent, of the country’s personal wealth, the remaining 90 per cent share a meager quarter.

Though poverty has declined in recent times inequality has increased substantially. According to the Credit Suisse report “Even after nearly three decades of economic reforms and high growth, inequality continues to rise and wealth has become even more concentrated at the top.”

The Report further reveals that the share of India’s richest 10 per cent families has grown from 66 per cent in the year 2000 to 74 per cent at present. India’s super-rich, the top 1 per cent, who in 2000, owned 37 per cent of India’s personal wealth, have seen a substantial increase their share to 49 per cent.

According to a Survey on Corporate salaries “One of the key trends underlying this huge concentration of wealth and incomes is the increasing return to capital versus labour. In India, the share of national income going to workers has been declining. Workers are securing less and less of the gains from growth. Owners of capital have seen their capital consistently grow (through interest payments, dividends, or retained profits) faster than the rate the economy has been growing.

Wages of workers have stagnated while salaries of chief executives have skyrocketed. The gap between the average worker and those at the top has been rapidly widening. The gap between wages and productivity is growing and income inequality is slowing overall growth, further hurting the poorest people most and preventing millions of people from escaping poverty.

Incomes of chief executives have rocketed.  Their salaries increased substantially while ordinary wages have barely moved. The CEO of Sun TV, Kalanithi Maran enjoys a take home salary of over Rs 40 crore annually. India’s top information technology firm makes 416 times the salary of a typical employee. It is unimaginable that the CEO of any company in India is as productive as a substantial number of his employees combined But the gap between the richest and the rest continues to grow

The tragedy of Indian planning has been that millions of Indians do not find themselves a part of the growth story. There is growing resentment over this gaping inequality.  The differences are glaringly visible for those at the base of the development pyramid. According to Mihir Shah, a grassroot activist, “Inequality in India operates on multiple axes-of gender, class, caste, region, religion and ethnicity.

“ The worst sufferers  are the India’s tribal communities, who suffer a double whammy of both disadvantaged region and ethnicity. Official data on all indicators of development reveal that India’s tribal people are the worst off in terms of income, health, education, nutrition, infrastructure and governance. They have also been unfortunately at the receiving end of the injustices of the development process itself.

“Around 40 per cent of the 60 million people displaced following development projects in India are tribals, which is not a surprise given that 90 per cent of our coal and more than 50 per cent of most minerals and dam sites are mainly in tribal regions. Clearly, the tribal people have not been included in or given the opportunity to benefit from development.”

Tribal communities make up a sizeable percent of India’s total population. Of the total population 86 million are tribals, who make up 8.4 percent of the total population. Land occupied by the Tribal communities are rich in hydrologic, mineral, oil, gas, forest, and other resources This makes them attractive sites to locate development projects of various kinds.

Many development projects are presently located in areas densely inhabited by tribal communities. Multinational companies looking for investment opportunities, consider these favored destinations More than one lakh hectares of forest land, almost 11 percent  of the total forest area have been diverted for non-forest use in the three mineral rich states of Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.

This explains the story of eviction and marginalization of the tribal population who bear the brunt of predatory industrialization and mining. The new economic policies of liberalization, privatization and globalization, have led, in recent years, to a huge drive by the state to transfer resources, particularly land and forests, which are critical for the livelihood and the survival of the tribal people, to corporations for exploitation of mineral resources, SEZs and other industries, most of which have been enormously destructive to the environment Over the years since independence the country has been witnessing gross violation of the rights of the poor, particularly tribal rights.

While Tribal communities have been the worst hit urban and rural poor likewise suffer. The plight of the small and marginal farmers across the country, make frequent headlines largely announcing acts of suicide by farmers. With their stress on the manufacturing and service sectors the government has virtually ignored the needs of the small and marginal farmer. While several thousand crore are being sacrificed at the altar of industrialization, by way of concessions and subsidies, the farmers, the backbone of any nation, are being starved of finance essential to improve the yields from his land.

C.S.C Sekhar, Associate Professor, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University writing in Yojana, the government publication, has pointed out “there has been a distinct slowdown in investment in agriculture in recent years. Some of the deceleration in growth can be attributed to a slowdown in investment. The Budget (this year) is lacking in effective proposals/incentives to states to do more in agriculture.”

Investment in agriculture has slowed down because the government in its wrapped wisdom feels that industrialization at the cost of agriculture development would make the country a number one developed country. What has in actual fact happened is that the government has diverted massive investments for industrialiastion. Funds which have been carved away from investments meant for agriculture and social services

In its 59th Report Current Economic Situation and Policy Options, the parliamentary standing committee on finance strongly criticized the growth strategy. It said that far more people were being excluded and that the gains were accruing to only a few, exactly what Credit Suisse has said.

“In the context of the economic growth and per capita income, the committee is concerned to note the emerging ever-widening gap between the rich and poor and the increasingly disproportionate distribution of assets in our country. It is being observed that the purchasing power is getting concentrated in the hands of a few, whereas the majority is stuck below the expenditure curve,” the parliamentary committee said.

According to the American President has said rising inequality is “the defining challenge of our time.” This holds true of India as well. Inequality is creating social tensions across the country. There is urgent need to relook at themeaning of reforms to make them pro-poor, rather than pro-corporate. Without this, inequality in India will continue to escalate and create dangerous tensions, threatening the very survival of the delicate fabric of Indian democracy.

(Suresh Kr Pramar is a renowned journalist and consultant writing on CSR issues. He can be reached at suresh.pramar@gmail.com)

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Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author in this feature are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of India CSR.

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