New Delhi, India – Up to 670 million Indians, who comprise the poorest half of the population, saw just one percent increase in their wealth while the richest one percent cornered 73 percent of the national income generated in the country last year, according to anti-poverty charity Oxfam.
“The wealth of the elite 1 percent increased by 20913 billion rupees [$327bn], equivalent to the total budget of the Indian government last financial year,” Oxfam said in its report published on Monday.
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Indian billionaires’ wealth increased by $76.5bn (₹4891bn) – from $247bn (₹15,778bn) to over $324bn (₹20,676bn) – making the country one of the most unequal in the world, the report said.
“It is one percent versus the rest. This is nothing short of loot. That’s why you are seeing starvation deaths in India,” Nikhil Dey, rights-activist and founder of a workers group, MKSS, told Al Jazeera.
“At best, those in power are saying one thing and doing another. At worst, their only deliberate concern is about the generation and pocketing of wealth for people in power.
“The rich are being subsidised in India in every which way … . The poor are not being allowed to function. Land is being taken over, employment does not exist, schools are being privatised. You can’t have 73 percent of wealth in the hands of one percent.”
Modi, who is being accompanied by the finance and commerce ministers, was scheduled to host a dinner for global industry bosses from 18 countries on Monday night, according to the Indian Express newspaper.
Overall global inequality figures further worsened according to the Oxfam report, with the richest one percent cornering 82 percent of the wealth created last year.
Activists and development economists are worried at the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the rich in India. Last year, 58 percent of national income went to India’s richest one percent.
“It is a direct result of these neo-liberal policies whose modus operandi is to pamper the rich in the name of achieving higher growth,” Prabhat Patnaik, professor emeritus at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, told Al Jazeera.
“But the growth that occurs is accompanied by the absolute impoverishment of large numbers. Such inequalities undermine the foundations of modern India and its survival as a secular democratic republic.”
Oxfam said the figures suggest that “approximately two-thirds of billionaire wealth is the product of inheritance, monopoly and cronyism”.
The report, Reward Work Not Wealth, blames the race to the bottom between countries on tax and on wages as a top contributor to deepening inequality, along with the crushing of workers’ rights.
“It would take around 17.5 days for the best-paid executive at a top Indian garment company to earn what a minimum wage worker in rural India will earn in their lifetime (presuming 50 years at work),” Oxfam said.
Since taking office in 2014, the Modi government has announced schemes to increase spending on infrastructure, including ports and roads, to boost economic growth.
But it has fared poorly in combating poverty, say critics.
“The Indian government’s efforts at reducing inequality and combating poverty faster are woefully inadequate. It needs to stop the super-rich and the corporates from continuing to rob India of its wealth,” Nisha Agrawal, CEO of Oxfam India, told Al Jazeera.
The government needs to “invest more in agriculture; and implementing fully the social protection schemes (such as rural job scheme and the Food Security Act) that already exist.”
India’s wealth inequality also contributes to lack of access to quality medical care for the poor.
Those living on $2 a day have a mortality rate three times the global average, according to the Oxfam report.
“Healthcare spending during accidents or emergencies for low-income households often means a reduction in the consumption of food or other basic needs that can push people below the extreme poverty line,” the report warns.
India’s health budget is at 1.15 percent of the country’s GDP, one of the lowest proportions in the world.
Oxfam India on Monday urged Modi to tax the super-rich and ensure that the Indian economy “works for everyone and not just the fortunate few”.
In an online survey conducted by Oxfam, 73 percent Indians said they wanted “the gap between the rich and poor to be addressed very urgently”.
Global wealth databook
In the survey with a sample size of 11,000 Indians, a majority of respondents said CEOs should accept pay cuts up to 60 percent.
Oxfam said it used calculations to compare returns to shareholders and CEO compensation with returns to ordinary workers for its analysis.
It used data from Credit Suisse’s annual Global Wealth Databook and the Forbes billionaires list.
India lifted 120 million people from extreme poverty between 1990 and 2013, according to the World Bank. However, one out of two Indians remain vulnerable to falling back into poverty, it says.
India’s march to reducing poverty has been significantly slower compared to neighbouring China. Over the same 1990-2013 period, China reduced the number of people living in extreme poverty from 756 million to 25 million.
“The message in the Oxfam report is not new. The main question is: Is the government willing to acknowledge the message?” Reetika Khera, Development Economist at the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, told Al Jazeera.