It was gratifying to read about India heading the league tables of billionaires in Asia. With 36 listed ‘dollar billionaires’, India has almost double the number that China has (20) and a third more than its nearest rival, Japan (24). Even more remarkably, India has three billionaires out of the global top 20, just slightly behind the US’s five and ahead of Sweden, France and Germany, each of which has two in the global list.
A billion is a staggering 1,000 million and each one of these dollars is liable to be multiplied 50 times to arrive at its rupee equivalent. Phew! I agree that this method of computing wealth is not wholly realistic as it values market cap — i.e. the dollar value of the shares held by the concerned billionaire in a company on a particular date. It is both notional and variable. It is notional because the concerned billionaire does not actually have that much of money in cash, in hand or in a bank account. It is variable because it is subject to the daily vicissitudes of the stock market, so that today’s highest billionaire can easily shift to second, third or tenth position the next day upon a movement of his share prices by a few dollars or even a few cents.
But this is a uniform method, applicable to all your competitors on a global paradigm. So it is non-discriminatory, albeit imperfect, as any other yardstick is bound to be. The fact that this is not necessarily liquid wealth is irrelevant. Any other yardstick would have the same problem. An asset value system could measure the immovable assets owned, but would give a more incomplete picture and would still not involve cash in hand or in the bank.
The purpose of this open letter — a copy of which is being sent to the PM — is to make a humble suggestion to all of you, members of the world’s most elite club. My faltering arithmetic tells me that a 1 billion dollar Indian billionaire means a person with a market cap of roughly Rs. 5,000 crore. Thirty-six Indian billionaires (assuming that each of you just cross the threshold and have just $ 1 billion) translate into a market cap of Rs. 180,000 crore (i.e. Rs. 5,000 x 36). Needless to add, several of you are being insulted by me in assuming that your market cap is only $ 1 billion.
I do not have access to the individual holdings of each of you, but parts of the Forbes list shows that each of you have varying amounts of billions, starting with Lakshmi Mittal ($ 32 billion) and Mukesh Ambani (20), Anil Ambani (18) to Azim Premji (17), K.P. Singh (10), Sunil Mittal (9.5) and so on. While seeking your forgiveness for being somewhat ad hoc, I am taking an average figure of $ 7 billion to reflect the average billions held by each of you. This means that my earlier figure of Rs. 180,000 crore would have to be multiplied seven times to yield a final figure of Rs. 1,260,000 crore as the average total value of all Indian billionaires. This figure is likely to be an underestimate as many of you are worth far more than a mere $ 7 billion.
In all earnestness and sincerity, I would beg of you to consider if you could each donate 1 per cent of this market cap wealth to a special corpus of nation-building. One per cent of the above total figure works out to Rs. 126,000 crore. Even if each of you were to sell 1 per cent of your shareholdings at current value and contribute to this fund, the last figure would be achieved within minutes. You would hardly notice the difference — offloading 1 per cent of so many billions would make no difference to your status as billionaires or affect your control of the company that you own.
If you could be persuaded to do this even once every five years, this corpus would more than double every five years. But even assuming that you exhibited this generosity only once, India would have a ready-made corpus of Rs. 126,000 crore. I would propose to the powers that be that for creation of this corpus, there must be a complete waiver of all taxes and levies on your offloading of shares (e.g. no capital gains tax, etc). Moreover, the corpus must be a designated, earmarked fund (not the Consolidated Fund of India), usable only for three or five earmarked activities. My initial wish-list of three would be sanitation, drinking water availability and health access in designated rural districts.
Third, and most importantly, the fund would be managed primarily by a group of three billionaires selected by you among yourselves from out of the contributors. You would have substantial, if not total, autonomy to manage the disbursal and working of this fund.
If all or even a part of this fund was locked into interest bearing instruments and not touched, the usufruct thereof would be enough to solve the drinking water, health and sanitation problems of several districts in remote parts of rural India. Imagine the contribution all of you would have made to nation- building, even by a one-time contribution of 1 per cent of your enormous and immeasurable wealth.
Remember, you are all declared and legitimate billionaires. In this vast country, there are bound to be at least double the figure of 36 who may be described as undeclared and unmeasured Indian dollar billionaires. This is because India has only an income tax filing population of 3 per cent. As you set an example, I am hopeful that some of these closet billionaires will also come out and contribute to nation-building.
Abhishek Singhvi is MP, National Spokesperson, Congress, and Senior Advocate