Mukesh Ambani, who emerged as the richest man in India and Asia, earned ₹90 crore per hour during the pandemic when around 24% of the people in the country were earning under ₹3,000 per month.
Indian billionaires increased their wealth by 35% during the lockdown to $422.9 billion, ranking India sixth in the world after U.S., China, Germany, Russia and France. Out of these, the rise in fortunes for the top 100 billionaires since the lockdown in March is enough to give every one of the 138 million poorest Indian people a cheque for ₹94,045 each, according to Oxfam’s Inequality Virus Report released on the opening day of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The wealth of just the top 11 billionaires during the pandemic can easily sustain the MGNREGS or the Health Ministry for the next 10 years, says the report which underscores the deepening inequalities due to COVID-19 where the wealthiest escaped the worst impact of the pandemic while the poor faced joblessness, starvation and death.
Mukesh Ambani, who emerged as the richest man in India and Asia, earned ₹90 crore per hour during the pandemic when around 24% of the people in the country were earning under ₹ 3,000 per month during the lockdown. The increase in the wealth of Mr. Ambani alone could keep 40 crore informal workers out of poverty for at least five months, says the report.
It recommends re-introducing wealth tax and effecting a one-time COVID-19 cess of 4% on taxable income of over ₹10 lakh to help the economy recover from the lockdown. According to its estimate, wealth tax on the nation’s 954 richest families could raise the equivalent of 1% of India’s GDP.
Calling the coronavirus pandemic the world’s worst public health crisis in a hundred years, the report said it triggered an economic crisis comparable in scale only with the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The new global survey of 295 economists from 79 countries, commissioned by Oxfam, reveals that 87% of respondents, including Jeffrey Sachs, Jayati Ghosh and Gabriel Zucman, expect an “increase” or a “major increase” in income inequality in their country as a result of the pandemic.
India introduced one of the earliest and most stringent lockdowns in the face of the pandemic and its enforcement brought the economy to a standstill, triggering unemployment, hunger, distress migration and untold hardship in its wake, the report said.
“The rich were able to escape the pandemic’s worst impact; and while the white-collar workers isolated themselves and worked from home, a majority of the not-so-fortunate Indians lost their livelihood,” it said.
The report noted that billionaires such as Gautam Adani, Shiv Nadar, Cyrus Poonawalla, Uday Kotak, Azim Premji, Sunil Mittal, Radhakrishan Damani, Kumar Manglam Birla and Laxmi Mittal working in sectors such as coal, oil, telecom, medicines, pharmaceutical, education and retail increased their wealth exponentially since March 2020 when India announced world’s biggest COVID-19 lockdown and economy came to standstill.
On the other hand, data has shown that 170,000 people lost their jobs every hour in the month of April 2020, the report said.
Noting that the informal sector had been the worst hit, the report said out of a total 12.2 crore people who lost their jobs, 75 per cent, which accounts for 9.2 crore jobs, were lost in the informal sector.
“The mass exodus on foot triggered by the sudden lockdown and the inhuman beating, disinfection and quarantine conditions the informal workers were subjected to turned a health emergency into a humanitarian crisis,” it said.
“Over 300 informal workers died due to the lockdown, with reasons ranging from starvation, suicides, exhaustion, road and rail accidents, police brutality and denial of timely medical care. The National Human Rights Commission recorded over 2,582 cases of human rights violation as early as in the month of April 2020,” the report added.
It noted that the long disruption of schooling risked doubling the rate of out of school, especially among the poor.
“Only 4% of rural households had a computer and less than 15% rural households had an internet connection,” it said.
On health inequalities, the report said only 6% of the poorest 20% has access to non-shared sources of improved sanitation, compared to 93.4% of the top 20%. It added that 59.6% of India’s population lives in a room or less.
The report said 1.7 crore women lost their job in April 2020 and unemployment for women rose by 15% from a pre-lockdown level.
Oxfam India CEO Amitabh Behar said if not addressed immediately, the crisis could worsen.
“Extreme inequality is not inevitable, but a policy choice. The fight against inequality must be at the heart of economic rescue and recovery efforts now,” Mr. Behar said.
“Newer and creative ways of catering to the needs of the masses is possible if governments are committed to the needs of its people. It is time for the government of India to take specific and concrete actions that will build a better future, more equal and just a future for everyone,” he said.