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The struggling billion

A hundred crore plus population minus the 36 Indian billionaires shares the rest of the 75 per cent of our GDP, writes Sitaram Yechury.

india Updated: Mar 15, 2007 00:21 IST

There is considerable cheer in India Inc. The Forbes magazine’s 2007 rankings of the world’s richest people include 36 Indian billionaires out of the global figure of 946. Globally, the number of billionaires has grown by 19 per cent and their total net worth grew by 35 per cent to $ 3.5 trillion (nearly five times India’s GDP). India added 14 new billionaires in the last year. The combined worth of the 36 Indian billionaires is placed at $ 191 billion — equal to one-fourth of India’s GDP. India has replaced Japan as the home for the largest number of billionaires in Asia.

“This is the richest year ever in human history,” said Forbes. It went on to state, “India’s rich are marching towards the top of our rankings and now has three in the upper echelons, second only to the US.” However, as a commentator noted, in the US this list is described as “serving primarily to remind readers of just how poor they are”.

There is no need to grudge the success of India’s billionaires. May their tribe increase. But what does this mean for the rest of India? A hundred crore plus population minus these 36 individuals shares the rest of the 75 per cent of our GDP. Within this, given the growing hiatus between ‘shining’ and ‘suffering’ India, the share of the vast majority of our population continues to dwindle. There is a need to look at the other end of the spectrum.

According to the 2005-06 National Family Health Survey (NFHS), the third in a series of national surveys, malnutrition continues to be a significant problem for children and adults in India. The most striking has been the increase in wasting (too thin for a given height) among children. In the seven years since the last survey, the number of children wasted has gone up from 16 to 19 per cent. Thirty-eight per cent of our children are stunted (too short for their age) and 46 per cent are underweight (too thin for their age).

NFHS-3 has found a remarkably high prevalence of anaemia — 79 per cent — among children between six and 35 months. Seven years ago, this figure was 74 per cent. Anaemia is also disturbingly common among adults. Among women, its prevalence has actually increased over the past seven years — from 52 to 56 per cent among married women and from 52 to 58 per cent among pregnant women. Among men, the anaemia levels are 24 per cent, unacceptably high given global standards.

This is the status of the health of mothers who are producing and rearing India’s future. While the nutritional health of our people is directly related to their economic status, the State’s support towards improving this has also been woeful. Public health continues to remain neglected despite considerable public outcry to increase expenditures. Only 44 per cent of our children, who are less than two years old, receive all recommended vaccinations.

How do those who miraculously survive these conditions live? Fifty-eight per cent of India, 72 per cent of rural India, does not have access to piped drinking water. Fifty-six per cent of India, 74 per cent of rural India, does not have access to toilet facilities. Fifty-nine per cent of India, 75 per cent of rural India, does not live in a pucca house. Fifty-five per cent of Indians do not own any agricultural land.

Over one-third of India in the six plus age group is illiterate. The dropout rates continue to remain very high. So does the prevalence of child labour. Once again, all this cannot be changed for the better unless the economic conditions of the vast majority of our people are radically improved. Are we moving in that direction?

Improving economic status of the people implies providing them with decent levels of livelihood. Instead, we are witnessing the opposite. The annual growth of employment in the organised sector between 1994 and 2004, according to this year’s Economic Survey, has actually declined by 0.38 per cent. The country, therefore, is losing existing jobs rather than creating new ones. The figures of the latest round of the National Sample Survey show that both in rural and urban India, for men and women, the unemployment rates by most categories have increased. The increase for women is much sharper.

The agrarian distress continues unabated with over 20,000 of our farmers committing suicide every year. The decline in foodgrain production is ominous for the already fragile food security situation in the country.

On top of such a misery comes the current murderous price rise. Inflation is the classic instrument of income redistribution in favour of the profit-earners away from the wage-earners. Therefore, instead of moving towards the economic empowerment of the vast majority of our people, the current situation is doing the exact opposite.

Under these circumstances, the objective should be to maintain a high growth trajectory that is inclusive and non-inflationary. This is the declared intention of the UPA government. However, the policies pursued and the allocations made in the recent Budget lack the commitment to achieve this objective.

Inclusive growth means continuous economic empowerment of our people. This, in turn, means much larger expenditures and public investment in the social sector. This is what was promised to the people in the UPA’s Common Minimum Programme (CMP). However, the total expenditure on the social sector as a percentage of GDP declined from 28.26 in 2001-02 to 27.19 per cent in 2006-07.

This year’s Budget could have substantially addressed the promises made in the CMP, given the healthy economic parameters. A high growth rate, a larger foreign exchange reserve, high savings and investment rates etc. gave the government an unprecedented excellent opportunity to sharply increase the levels of public investments. Unfortunately, this opportunity has not been utilised. The growth in expenditures is in the same range as the growth of the economy. In other words, the Budget simply does not make any effort, despite the opportunity before it, to make a radical shift in the policies that would have ensured a better livelihood for the vast majority of our people.

There is a need for the UPA to make a mid-term course correction to redeem its pledges made in the CMP. The economic empowerment of the vast majority of the Indians is not only a question of human compassion.

Of course, it is absolutely imperative that all of us need to work to remove the misery that stalks the vast majority of our people.

Economic empowerment increases the purchasing power of our people thus bolstering the aggregate demand in the economy. This, in turn, serves as the impetus for greater levels of manufacturing to meet this demand. This, in turn, would generate employment and further improve the livelihood of the people. Even from the viewpoint of economic development, not merely humane considerations, the economic empowerment of our people is imperative.

Thus, far from resting on the laurels of our billionaires, the UPA must now sincerely get down to implement the promises that it had made to the Indian people and affect a shift in the content of economic reforms — from being predominantly preoccupied with increases in corporate profits towards improving people’s welfare.

Sitaram Yechury is a Rajya Sabha MP and member, CPI(M) politburo