Forbes has come out with its annual list of India's 100 richest tycoons, with Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) chairman Mukesh Ambani, worth $38 billion, on top. The 100 richest in the country own a massive $479 billion, 26 per cent more from last year's $374 billion.
At a time when the economy is slipping, the middle class has been reeling under high fuel prices, while small businesses and employers of the poorer strata are yet to recover from the shock of the demonetisation, and job growth is declining, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's promised acche din seem to have come very selectively and for very few.
The increasing wealth of India's richest throws into sharp relief the widening inequality in Indian society. According to the Forbes' report: "The 100 wealthiest on this year's list are all billionaires. The minimum amount required to make the list was $1.25 billion last year, 17 percent lower than this year."
Naazneen Karmali, India Editor of Forbes Asia, said: "Despite India's economic slowdown, the country's 100 richest have collectively enjoyed a bumper year thanks to a buoyant stock market. While the Indian billionaire factory continued to churn out new names from diverse sectors, the price of entry rose to a record high. The top 100 club is getting more exclusive with each passing year."
The Forbes list puts in black-and-white signs of what have been visible for some time now. The RBI has recently revised the valued added growth (GVA) prediction for the coming quarters to 6.7 per cent. Farmers across the country have been in crisis, with several state governments forced to announce loan waivers. However, the stock market has been doing well, which means that things are not going too badly with the big business in the country.
According to a report from Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel, the top one per cent in India earn 22 per cent of national income. "The top one per cent of earners captured less than 21 per cent of total income in the late 1930s, before dropping to 6 per cent in early 1980s and rising to 22 per cent today," said the paper, the revised version of which was released on September 5. Aptly, the paper is titled titled "Indian income inequality, 1922-2014: From British Raj to Billionaire Raj".
Rising inequality cannot be good news, politically or socially. Such gross disparity in wealth puts a large section of the population virtually under the control of a few. It hinders social mobility, with the worst victims being the most disadvantaged, pushed further into a position from where their voices cannot be heard.
Again, the effects of this have been visible in the form of rising farmer suicides, urban migration, and the many quota protests - Marathas in Maharashtra, Patidars in Gujarat, Jats in Haryana - that have rocked the country in the past few years.
The Forbes report also makes clear what's been fairly obvious to many by now - the government has not been doing its job well. One of the most obvious parameters of a society's general well-being is the average household income. The big business can look after itself, but the poor need a leg-up from the government. Jobs can be created either by bringing in investment or the government spending itself. For all the claims made by the Prime Minster, neither has taken place.
In a country where almost half the population is dependent on "agriculture and allied activities' for income - 56.6 per cent, as per the Census 2001 - the farming sector has seen crisis after crisis. The sector needs systematic investment to overhaul irrigation and farming techniques, what it has been receiving is grudgingly given, poorly implemented loan waivers.
As more quarters point out the flagging economy in the country, the Forbes list should give the government much to think about. It needs the votes of more than the top 1 per ecnt.