Like in most parts of the world, life was on a stand-still in India for the past almost one year, courtesy of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, the poor and the middle class are in a miserable state. Crores have lost their jobs and lakhs have faced savage reductions in their income. Amid this crisis, the Government of India presented its annual budget in Parliament on 1 February 2021.
Based on the statistics on global hunger, published by the UN during the lockdown, Oxfam had estimated that by the end of 2020, hunger linked to the lockdown may start claiming the life of six to 12 thousand persons every day. The naked dance of death has commenced and without much fuss, it is spreading over a larger and a still larger area. Deaths due to poverty far exceed deaths attributable to Covid-19.
Dark clouds of famine, described as ‘Covid-19 famine’, are hanging over the world. The United Nation World Food Program (WFP) has been consistently warning about it. It is believed that the impending famine would be one of the worst over the last 100 years and would spell calamity for the poor and the developing countries as also the war zones in the world. It is apprehended that this famine may lead to India emerging as a new epicentre of hunger. According to a survey conducted in December 2020, more than half of India’s people are eating less in comparison with the pre-Covid days. And most of them are Dalits and Adivasis.
What is even worse is that India’s intellectual class is totally oblivious to the spectre of death haunting the poor. The sickening odour of the rotting dead is not reaching the noses of the Indian media, social media and those in public life. It seems that our centuries-old heritage of social disparity and the economic inequality triggered by the globalization of the economy has deepened the social fissures to such an extent that ‘we’ are totally disinterested in what is happening to ‘them’.
And this disinterest is very palpable in India’s budget 2021-22 and the discussions and comments on it in the media.
The budget is focused on recompensing the losses suffered by the economy due to the pandemic. For this, it is proposed to sell off national assets to the capitalists. The media is obsessed with discussing only this aspect of the budget. Some say the decision is proper and necessary and the next logical step in the process of economic reforms’. Others say that the government was out to sell the country.
In her budget speech, the finance minister dwelt in detail on the budgetary provisions to ensure the availability of the Covid-19 vaccine in the country and the steps to be taken for making India a digital economy. The pros and cons of these moves are also being debated and discussed.
But nobody is asking why the budget does not make even a cursory reference to the lockdown-induced starvation and the famine that is knocking on the door. No one is querying why there is not a single word in the budget speech about the economic inequalities that have triggered this crisis.
A couple of days before the presentation of the budget, Oxfam released a report titled The Inequality Virus. The report says that the coronavirus pandemic has increased inequality in almost every country. The wealth of the 1,000 super-rich of the world has grown by leaps and bounds during the pandemic. The share market did tumble in the initial days of the lockdown, leading to notional losses for the moneybags. But not only did the fortunes of the top-1,000 billionaires of the world reached their pre-pandemic highs soon3 but they earned more than what they had earned in the past several years. It was the exercise to build a digital world that led to this growing concentration of wealth in a few hands. The businesses in the health and the vaccine production sectors made tons of money. According to the Oxfam report, the lockdown period saw a jump of 19 per cent in the wealth of the super-rich. Jeff Bezos, the richest person on the earth, became worth 185.5 billion US dollars. On 18 January 2021, Elon Musk’s total wealth was estimated at 179.2 billion dollars. The net wealth of Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of Google, and Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, grew by 15 billion US dollars since March 2020. Eric Yuan, the CEO and founder of Zoom was richer by 2.58 billion dollars during this period.
There were eye-popping changes in the economic scene in India, too. Indian billionaires raked in big moolah during the lockdown. They reaped the benefits of the subsidy schemes announced by the government to give a boost to the economy. Locked up in their homes, the people handed over whatever little they had, to the big industrialists. Currently, India has 119 billionaires, including Mukesh Ambani, Gautam Adani, Shiv Nadar, Cyrus Poonawala, Uday Kotak, Azim Premji, Sunil Mittal, Radhakishen Damani, Kumarmanglam Birla and Laxmi Mittal.
During this period, Mukesh Ambani emerged as the richest man in India and Asia. During the pandemic period, he earned an average of Rs 90 crore per hour when 24 per cent of Indians were earning barely Rs 3,000 per month.
The cumulative wealth of this 119 super-rich went up by 35 per cent in this period. Together, they earned Rs 13 lakh crore. What this amount means is evident by the fact that if it were to be equally distributed among the 14 crore poorest Indians, each one of them would get Rs one lakh. The lockdown earnings of Mukesh Ambani could have sufficed to keep the 40 crore persons in the informal sector who lost their jobs during this period, above the poverty line for at least five months.
On the other hand, the lockdown pushed more than 12 crore Indians on the verge of starvation. The middle classes were unable to pay back their bank loans and lakhs of families, sick of harassment at the hands of their creditors, contemplated mass suicide. The government ignored the demand for the extension of the moratorium on payment of EMIs. Before the budget, the government had made it clear to the Supreme Court that it was with the creditors. Shrugging off its responsibility, the government told the court that the extension of the moratorium would erode the faith of the capitalists who have invested their money in the banks. There were reports of dozens of indebted families committing suicide and lakhs of creditors facing aggressive and abusive behaviour and even manhandling at the hands of the recovery agents of the banks and other financial institutions.
The budget is totally silent on this issue.
Not only the government but the newspapers are also mum. And this is nothing new. The newspapers have been giving a short-shrift to issues related to economic inequality since the 1990s when India switched to a market-centric economy. Till the year 2000, India had just nine billionaires. By 2017, their numbers had swollen to 101, and as mentioned earlier, now there are 119 such worthies. According to a study, in 2017, the one per cent top-rich held 73 per cent of the country’s national wealth. In 2018-19, the total wealth of these moneybags was more than the country’s annual budget. During the Covid calamity, they not only continued to fill their coffers without a shred of guilt or shame but institutions under their control used the pandemic to blackmail the people.
The 10 per cent Indians at the top of the socio-economic pyramid control 77 per cent of the national wealth, while the remaining 90 per cent have to contend with just 23 per cent.
One very potent way of reducing this inequality could have been imposing wealth tax and making sure that all the concerned pay up. This would have made good the losses due to the lockdown. The super-rich should have been taxed on the basis of their annual income and an additional cess should have been imposed on them based on their total wealth. Instead, in the name of disinvestment, the government decided to hand over the country’s national wealth to these moneybags. This is akin to worsening the problem instead of resolving it.
New York, California, Massachusetts, Maryland, Washington and many other states in the USA are planning to impose additional taxes on the rich.5
A Bill has been recently introduced in the legislature of the Washington State to impose Wealth Tax on the rich to repair the economy ravaged by the lockdown.6 If this bill is cleared, those owning property worth more than one billion dollars would be required to pay a one per cent wealth tax. That would yield an income of 2.5 billion dollars, which would be used for providing financial assistance to low- and middle-income households and extending credit facilities to businesses with poor profit margins. It would also be used for education, children’s welfare and for bettering public health, public housing and public security. Like India, Washington, too, has around 100 billionaires of which 13 are super-rich. They include the likes of Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and MacKenzie Scott. The Bill has been moved primarily to tax them. Of the revenue expected from the new tax, 97 per cent would come from them. This super-rich earned upwards of 151 billion dollars during the lockdown period (March 2020 – January 21) and their total wealth went up by around 41 per cent. The people of Washington, supporting the decision to impose wealth tax on them, say that the earnings can cover the shortfall of three billion dollars in the state’s budget 50 times over. And despite the tax, the super-rich would continue to be as rich as they were before the pandemic struck.7 The demand for taxing them has assumed the form of a movement and it is hoped that the bill would be cleared by the legislature soon.
You might remember that some dynamic and sensitive officers of the Indian Revenue Service (IRS) had suggested a similar course of action during the initial days of the pandemic. That was the time when lakhs of migrant farmers were trudging to their villages from industrial towns like Delhi, Mumbai and Surat and there were reports that fatigue had claimed the lives of hundreds of them on the way. Amid this came a piece of news that seemed like a whiff of fresh air. Around 50 officers informed on the Twitter Account of the IRS Association that they have prepared a report titled FORCE (Fiscal Options and Response to the Covid-19 epidemic),
The report was a personal effort on the part of the officers, who suggested a course of action for the government. The report said, “In times like these, the so-called “super-rich” have a higher obligation towards ensuring the larger public good.” The officers proposed that income tax rates be raised for the rich and an additional Covid Relief Cess be levied on those earning more than a specified amount. The report said that cases of non-filing of returns, not deducing tax at source, not depositing TDS in government accounts and reducing tax liability by making fake claims of losses keep on cropping up. Thus, it would be appropriate to increase tax rates from 30 to 40 per cent for those with an annual income of more than Rs one crore and wealth tax or property tax on those whose annual income is more than Rs 5 crore.
These officers were neither Communists nor revolutionaries seeking a fundamental change in the system. They only proposed that some new taxes be imposed temporarily to bring the country’s economy back on the rails and to ensure that the poor and the middle classes have cash in their hands so as to give a boost to trade and commerce.
The super-rich realized that this could be the thin end of the wedge. They were rattled and soon, stories began appearing in the media insinuating that these officers were guilty of gross indiscipline. Articles were carried arguing that such measures would infuriate the rich and promote tax evasion. The government got cracking and three senior IRS officers were penalized by shifting them from their posts. The government said that more than the young officers, it was their seniors who were responsible for this breach of discipline as they had provoked the former to prepare the report8. The officers held guilty were Prashant Bhushan, principal commissioner of income tax, Delhi; Prakash Dubey, director DOPT, Delhi and Sanjay Bahadur, principal director, investigation, northeast region.
No one praised the sensitivity of these officers and their dedication to duty. No editorial was written in their support and no TV debates were held. No one raised the question that when these officers had neither criticized the government nor imposed any new tax on their own but had only made some suggestions for consideration by the government, how were they guilty of indiscipline? If any officer had suggested the imposition of higher taxes on the poor or the middle classes, would that have been considered an act of indiscipline?
They did not get any support from the media. No civil society organization came out in their support and neither did any caste or religious organization back them. Neither the Communist parties spoke in their favour nor socialists or the pro-social justice Ambedkarites. No one said that these diligent and visionary officers had realized much before the Communist parties, who talk of the proletariat at the drop of hat, and the economists, experts in making all sorts of predictions by juggling figures, that the coming months would witness an increasing concentration of wealth into a few hands.
Be that as it may, the world of which the super-rich dream is a world in which there would be no place for questions. They want a world in which everyone has food to eat, clothes to wear and a roof over his head. But they do not want anyone to question the inequality that informs our world, due to which people are stressed all their lives and no one seems happy. They don’t want to know why some people are dying bit by bit. And why some human communities are disappearing from the face of the earth. If we want to ensure that the world of their dreams doesn’t become a reality, we should continue to ask questions, we should welcome all legitimate questions against them, no matter who raises them. As a beginning, we should try taking the questions raised by the IRS officers to the people.
(Pramod Ranjan is interested in studying the working of media organizations, philosophy of knowledge and analysis of the ignored aspects of literature, culture and society. He is an assistant professor in the Rabindranath Tagore School of Language and Culture Studies of the Assam Central University.