When we are told that our economy is growing annually at an impressive 8 per cent per annum, we wonder what it is all about and where it disappears without leaving any trace in our daily lives. The latest Forbes list of global billionaires gives us some clue to resolve this riddle. According to this list there are 946 billionaire families in the world today and there are as many as 36 Indian names in this club of the world’s wealthiest. This is 14 more than the number of Indians who had made it to the Forbes list last year, and the combined wealth of these 36 families amounts to $ 191 billion, which is one-fourth of India’s GDP.
And how have the Indian billionaires grown compared to the 2006 list? Here are some samples: Mukesh Ambani has jumped from $ 7 bn to $ 20.1 bn, his brother Anil from $ 5 bn to $ 18.2 bn, Azim Premji (of Wipro) from $ 11 bn to $ 17.1, Kushal Pal Singh (of DLF) from $ 5 bn to $ 10 bn, Sunil Mittal (of Bharati Telecom) $ 4.9 to $ 9.5 bn and Kumar Birla $ 4.4 bn to $ 8 bn! In other words, the combined wealth of these six families alone has registered a record increase of $ 45 bn in just one year! This is of course only part of the story of corporate India’s stunning accumulation of wealth, for the likes of Ratan Tata who controls the huge Tata empire that has acquired several big companies in recent months the most notable being the $ 11 bn acquisition of Corus by Tata Steel, are conspicuously absent in the Forbes billionaires’ list.
With this kind of astounding leap in accumulation of private wealth, India has now overtaken Japan. With 24 billionaires accounting for $ 64 bn, only a third of the combined wealth of India’s 36, Japan has now lost its place as home to the largest number of Asian billionaires. This dubious distinction now belongs to India. In fact, India now accounts for three among the top 20 billionaires in the world, next only to the United States which is home to five. It is another matter that India’s wealthiest billionaire Laxmi Mittal, who figures fifth in the global list, operates not from India but from the United Kingdom.
The Indian list is more than reflective of the global mix of billionaires. The march of India’s billionaires is powered as much by the booming real estate business as by IT and telecommunications. Among India’s 36 billionaires, there are five from the real estate sector with a combined wealth of $24.5 billion (Kushal Pal Singh of DLF, Ramesh Chandra of Unitech, Pallonji Mistry of Shapoorji Pallonji Group, Vikas Oberoi of Oberoi Construction and Pradeep Jain of Parsvnath Developers). The infotech/software sector too accounts for five Indian entries on the Forbes list (Azim Premji of Wipro, Shiv Nadar of HCL and three from Infosys – N.R. Narayana Murthy, Nandan Nilekani and Senapathy Gopalakrishnan) with a combined wealth of $25.4 billion.
Our governments and pro-liberalisation economists never tire of telling us the trickle-down stories and would have us believe that the accumulation of wealth at the top is the surest and quickest way of ‘development’ at the base of the socio-economic pyramid we live in. The truth is actually the reverse. The mirror image of accumulation of wealth at one pole is the concentration of poverty at the other end. While Marxism explains this dichotomy in terms of the paradox between growing socialization of production (backed amply by technology-induced increases in productivity) and private appropriation of profit (and consequent accumulation of wealth) and shows the revolutionary way out by abolishing the rule of private wealth, one does not have to be a Marxist to see through the deception of the trickle-down gospel.
The UNDP’s annual Human Development Report, for instance, is enough to expose the growing hiatus between the rising fortunes of the billionaire brigade of ‘Shining India’ and the pathetic human development indices that characterize the real India. The UNDP has been compiling these indices since 1990 and in terms of the human development index (which combines factors like life expectancy, school enrolment, public hygiene and standard of living), the UNDP’s 2006 report still places India at the 126th position in a list of 177 countries. The country that accounts for three among the world’s top twenty billionaires remains home to half the world’s poor and the starving while nearly half of India’s children below five remain suffer from malnutrition.
This coexistence of the super-rich and the underfed has all along been a characteristic feature of capitalism. The developed countries with their welfare policies have managed to contain the mismatch within certain ‘tolerable limits’, but the disparity remains explosive in countries like India, and also in Russia where predatory capitalism has returned with a vengeance on the debris of the erstwhile socialist state. Today a ‘resurgent’ Russia has 53 billionaires in the global list (only 2 shy of Germany), much ahead of Japan’s 24, but the Human Development Report 2006 places Russia (which still has the historical benefits of seventy years of socialism) at the 65th place and India (which is still weighed down by its history of two hundred years of colonial plunder) down by another sixty-odd notches while Japan is ranked 7th in terms of human development. Incidentally, the country that tops the human development list – Norway – has only four entries in the global billionaire list of 946!