A billion people and a few billionaires

Even more unnerving is the popular hypothesis and perception that the burgeoning wealth of the billionaires is a direct offshoot of favourable government policies.
(Photo | PTI)
(Photo | PTI)

Is it a matter of jubilation or concern that India has the third-largest number of billionaires? People getting wealthier per se may not be a bad idea. But a nation recovering from the devastating effect of the pandemic and reeling under the onslaught of all-time high fuel and cooking gas prices, high inflation, massive unemployment and agricultural distress naturally gets an eerie feeling from this skewed accumulation of wealth.

Even more unnerving is the popular hypothesis and perception that the burgeoning wealth of the billionaires is a direct offshoot of favourable government policies. Disinvestment of profit-making public sector enterprises, even in strategic sectors like oil, space, life insurance and defence, acquires legitimacy by the logic of liberalisation. Liberal tax concessions to the wealthy corporates are justified in the name of growth which is meant to percolate! This policy slant is evident in the abject indifference of the State to address the immense human tragedy that unfolded in the massive reverse migration triggered by an unplanned national lockdown. There has been unmistakable reluctance on the part of the government to reach out to these poor workers and their distraught families. The farm laws met with formidable resistance primarily because they were perceived as a ploy to help a few corporate houses rather than the farmers. Privatisation of airports and seaports started even before 2014, but seldom was it seen as an orchestrated game to help the privileged billionaires.

The apostles of liberalisation and privatisation firmly believe that the private sector, guided by the invisible hand of the market, will discover the most efficient systems that are low on costs and high on efficiency. They consider welfare schemes not only ineffective but also unethical. Schemes that directly transfer financial help to citizens are frowned upon by hardcore liberalisation enthusiasts and their high-profile economists. And the government sings the same tune.

The arguments are that such schemes distort the economy, divert investible resources to non-productive uses and in the process make the citizens lazy, killing the spirit of self-reliance. Rather expectedly, the prime minister voiced concern over the desirability of ‘freebies’ and wanted the country to rethink. In a close sequence, the matter was brought before the Supreme Court. The ideological faith that looks at welfare economics with suspicion is calling the shots. Essentially, it is the government doubting itself and thinking aloud about how to get out of direct welfare expenditure. This unwavering trust in the efficiency of the private sector explains almost all major policy initiatives of the Central government in recent years. The National Education Policy 2020 is a glaring instance.

The NEP not only trusts and encourages private involvement in education but also seeks to sideline public institutions. It explicitly states that “private institutions with a public-spirited commitment to high-quality, equitable education will be encouraged.” (10.11). Further, the Policy lays down the principles of fee regimen in private educational institutions. “Private HEIs (Higher Education Institutions) having a philanthropic and public-spirited intent will be encouraged through a progressive regime of fee determination. Transparent mechanisms for fixing fees, with an upper limit for different types of institutions depending on their accreditation, will be developed so that individual institutions are not adversely affected. This will empower private HEIs to set fees for their programmes independently…” (18.14). The concern is not about students’ ability to pay but about the ‘adverse effect’ on the private institution!

The stated and unstated bias in favour of the private sector is evident in the health sector as well. The encouragement and patronage received by private sector players in the development of vaccines against Covid-19 and the disparaging indifference of the Central government towards public sector laboratories, the reluctance to control the price of vaccines, and the subsequent intervention of the Supreme Court, are eloquent instances of the privilege that the private sector enjoys over public institutions.

The post-Covid world is witnessing a backlash to the once-unchallenged axioms of liberal economics. The liberalised policies have often achieved the contrary of what they once promised. They have resulted in illiberal practices, denying the citizens competitive prices. Illiberal oligarchies have only stymied competition. The State plays second fiddle to the rich and the privileged, obliterating the plight of the poor and the powerless. In the post-pandemic situation, the effective role played by public health infrastructure cannot be easily forgotten or ignored. The ever-widening economic disparity in our society makes it morally imperative to honestly introspect on the ethics and desirability of excessive dependence on the private sector and the endemic distrust of public services.

While the ethics of ‘freebies’ may continue to grab national attention (more for political reasons rather than economic or ethical), the reluctance and indifference of elected governments to directly provide relief and support to those citizens ravaged by the external shock of the pandemic needs to be widely discussed on moral grounds. How can the whole regime of tax collection be legitimised when a government considers financial help to mitigate suffering and deprivation of citizens as “wasteful expenditure”?

The great poet Kalidas has brilliantly compared an ideal ruler with the Sun. The latter collects water vapour from the surface of water bodies, just like a king would collect taxes. And just as people are then bestowed with abundant rain, so would a king give back to his people in the form of compassionate governance. Taking away the vapour comes with the responsibility of providing rain. Similarly, taxing people comes with the responsibility of giving back to them. No, it is not gratis and not a freebie. It is a right—a moral imperative. Let the billionaires flourish but not while the poor perish.

K Jayakumar

Former Kerala chief secretary and ex-VC, Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University

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The New Indian Express