Covid 19 pandemic has played a role in highlighting growing inequality in India and across the world. The global billionaires wealth surged by 19 percent during pandemic. The world’s 500 richest people have gained 809 billion US dollars this year, a 14 percent increase since January 2020 while 100 million people were pushed into poverty. “Worldwide, billionaires’ wealth increased by a staggering $3.9 trillion between March 18 and December 31, 2020… at the same time it is estimated that the total number of people living in poverty could have increased by between 200 million and 500 million,” the Oxfam global report said. According to Oxfam, the increase in the wealth – just since the crisis began – of the world’s 10 richest billionaires is “more than enough to prevent anyone on Earth from falling into poverty because of the virus, and to pay for a COVID-19 vaccine for everyone”.
Indian billionaires increased their wealth by 35% during the lockdown to ? 3 trillion, ranking India after U.S., China, Germany, Russia and France. Out of these, the rise in fortunes for the top 100 billionaires since the lockdown in March is enough to give every one of the 138 million poorest Indian people a cheque for ?94,045 each, according to Oxfam’s ‘Inequality Virus Report’ released on the opening day of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The wealth of just the top 11 billionaires during the pandemic could easily sustain the MGNREGS or the Health Ministry for the next 10 years, stated the report, which underscored the deepening inequalities due to Covid-19 where the wealthiest escaped the worst impact of the pandemic while the poor faced joblessness, starvation and death.
Mukesh Ambani, who emerged as the richest man in India and Asia, earned Rs 90 crore an hour during the pandemic when around 24% of the people in the country were earning under Rs 3,000 a month during the lockdown. The increase in his wealth alone could keep 40 crore informal workers out of poverty for at least five months, said the report. “The rising inequality in the country is poignant… it would take an unskilled worker 10,000 years to make what (Reliance Industries’ Chairman Mukesh) Ambani made in an hour during the pandemic… and three years to make what Ambani made in a second,” the report added.
The report also delved deeper into different forms of inequities, including educational, gender and health, which meant that facilities to wash hands and maintain distance, essential to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, was impossible for a majority of the population.
According to the report, only 6% of the poorest 20% have access to non-shared sources of improved sanitation, compared to 93.4 % of the top 20 %. 59.6 % of India’s population lived in a room or less, which meant that protocols necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19 cannot be followed.
Till October, 32 crores students were hit by closure of schools, of whom 84 % resided in rural areas and 70 %attended government schools. Oxfam India’s survey across five States said that close to 40 % of teachers in government schools feared that the prolonged school closure might lead to a third of the students not returning once schools reopened. It was estimated that out of school rates would double in a year. Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims were likely to see a higher rate of dropout. Girls were also most vulnerable as they were at risk of early and forced marriage, violence and early pregnancies, it noted.
Unemployment of women rose by 15% from a pre-lockdown level of 18 %, which could result in a loss of India’s GDP of about 8 % or Rs 15 lakh crores. Women who were employed before the lockdown were also 23.5 percentage points less likely to be re-employed compared to men in the post lockdown phase.
An estimated 73 percent of country’s revenue comes through taxes while the share of indirect taxes (Customs Duty and GST) which hits the common man most has seen an increase. It was 44 percent in 2014-15, and as of now, is projected to be 46 percent. Any attempt to increase the tax-GDP ratio to augment the depleting revenue would lead to higher inequality because GST is an indirect tax levied at the same rate on the poor and the rich. (Oxfam Report, NDTV 25-01-21 and The Hindu 26-01-21)

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