For the last couple of years, while the rich and powerful at the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos debate the future of the world, the NGO Oxfam has been delivering a disturbing message on the status of the global poor. It is a perfect setting to shock and awe many of the thick-skinned cynics at the Swiss ski resort. This year too, the Oxfam report points to the gross level of inequality. India’s top 1 per cent hold nearly 52 per cent of the national wealth. On the other hand, the bottom 60 per cent own less than 5 per cent of the nation’s wealth. Internationally too, the concentration of wealth is pretty much the same.
The world’s 26 richest billionaires own as much as the poorest 3.8 billion people who make up half the planet.
The louder message is: Disparity between the rich and poor is rapidly growing. For instance, demonetisation and slowdown in India did not prevent Indian billionaires from growing their fortunes by `2,200 crore a day last year. And while the top 1 per cent of India got richer by 39 per cent, the bottom half bettered their wealth by just 3 per cent. The two important takeaways from the report are: First, concentration of wealth in the hands of a few subverts democracy and chokes the voice of the poor; and second, most governments, including India’s, were complicit in worsening inequality by not spending enough on public services.
The situation cannot be dismissed anymore as an ideological debate between social democracy and capitalism. No one can deny that the stark disparity has to be addressed through distributive justice. A small wealth tax levy on the richest 1 per cent globally can raise $418 billion—enough to educate every kid and to prevent 3 million deaths from inadequate healthcare. Considering the level of productivity and the progress of technology, there is no justification for large swathes of the population remaining in poverty and distress. To let the situation drift will be, as Oxfam’s Executive Director Winnie Byanyima put it, “morally outrageous”.