Wealth of Indian billionaires increased by 35% during lockdown: Oxfam

Illustration by Ajay Mohanty
India’s 100 top billionaires saw their fortunes increase by Rs 12,97,822 crore since March last year when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country and this amount is enough to give 138 million poorest Indians a cheque for Rs 94,045 each. 

The latest India supplement of the Oxfam report ‘The Inequality Virus’ said it would take an unskilled worker 10,000 years to make what Mukesh Ambani made in an hour during the pandemic and three years to make what he made in a second. The report was released on the opening day of the World Economic Forum's ‘Davos Dialogues’.

Calling the coronavirus pandemic the world's worst public health crisis in a 100 years, the report said it triggered an economic crisis comparable in scale only with the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The survey of 295 economists from 79 countries revealed that 87 per cent of respondents, including Jeffrey Sachs, Jayati Ghosh, and Gabriel Zucman, expect an “increase’ or a “major increase” in income inequality in their nation due to the pandemic.

“India has the world’s fourth lowest health budget in terms of its share of government expenditure,” it said. “If India's top 11 billionaires are taxed at just 1 per cent on the increase in their wealth during the pandemic, it will be enough to increase the allocation of Jan Aushadi Scheme by 140 times, which provides affordable medicines to the poor and marginalized.” India introduced one of the earliest and most stringent lockdowns and its enforcement brought the economy to a standstill, triggering unemployment, hunger, migration and untold hardship in its wake, the report said.

“The rich were able to escape the 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 like Gautam Adani, Shiv Nadar, Cyrus Poonawalla, Uday Kotak, Azim Premji, Sunil Mittal, Radhakrishan Damani, Kumar Manglam Birla, and Laxmi Mittal increased their wealth exponentially since March 2020. On the other hand, 170,000 people lost their jobs every hour in April 2020, the report said. “Data shows what Ambani earned during the pandemic would keep the 400 million informal workers that are at risk of falling into poverty due to Covid-19 above the poverty line for at least five months,” the report said.

The wealth of Indian billionaires increased by 35 per cent during the lockdown and by 90 per cent since 2009 to $422.9 billion, ranking India sixth in the world after the US, China, Germany, Russia, and France, the report said.

In fact, the report said the increase in wealth of the top 11 billionaires of India during the pandemic could sustain the rural job scheme MGNREGA for 10 years or the Health Ministry for 10 years.

Noting that the informal sector had been the worst hit, the report said out of a total 122 million people who lost their jobs, 75 per cent, which accounts for 920 million jobs, were lost in the informal sector. 

It said 170 million women lost their jobs in April and unemployment for women rose by 15 per cent 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,” Behar said. “It is time for India to take concrete actions that will build a better future, more equal and just a future for everyone.”

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