A curious consequence of the pandemic and its many lockdowns is that during these eleven months much of India’s rich became hugely richer and almost all of India’s poor became much, much poorer. Initially we did not notice this (we thought everyone was suffering, some perhaps more than the others) but, as time went on, this became more and more obvious. Today, the stock market is no more an indicator of the country’s actual economic status. Instead, with the Sensex kissing 50,000, it’s a sure sign of how much richer the rich have become.
No, I am not talking about the vaccine makers, the serious ones and the ones entwined in controversy. Or those lucky guys who have made vast sums of money from selling sanitisers, masks, gloves, surface cleansers, face visors and other such accessories that enhance our sense of safety. I am also not talking about those selling millions of vitamin capsules or herbal tonics claiming to boost your immunity. Many more are entering the market, including a mouthwash that claims it can kill 99.9 per cent of the virus. I presume 0.1 per cent has been kept aside to explain away those who get Covid-19 despite using it.
I am also not talking about Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali which put out products called Coronil and Swasari, claiming they could help cure the virus and then, when they were pulled up by the Ayush Ministry, took a quick step back and argued these products were immunity enhancers, not cures. Or those scamps who invariably crop up in times of such crises to make a quick buck from fake products, cheap duplicates and (what is most dangerous during a pandemic) repackaging and selling used products to poor people at cheap prices.
Every crisis is an opportunity. For some, to make quick money. The smart ones make it by filling a gap in the market. Others exploit the fear. The victims are invariably the poor who have no choice but to buy what they can afford. I have seen kids on the street picking up used masks from filthy roadside garbage dumps and wearing them because the law in the city demands everyone wear a mask. There are still others who have used the opportunity (particularly during the early days of the pandemic) to hoard stuff people need and create artificial scarcity so that they can profit from the misery of others.
A recent video came to me, of a meeting filmed in Coimbatore where associations of small and micro manufacturers were complaining to Rahul Gandhi about their condition. One of the association heads told him that 85 per cent of these industries in the region have shut down, millions of jobs have been lost. But no one has shown the slightest interest in their plight. They claim they have approached every ministry in the state and the centre but no one is ready to listen to them.
I hear this wherever I go. The big guys are all busy saying how well the government has tackled the pandemic and how quickly the economy is back on track within three quarters. They boast that in the next year India will have 10 per cent GDP growth. Even the IMF agrees. They have predicted 11.5 per cent growth! The small guys, on the other hand, are desperate. They have lost everything and they do not see any hope of survival. Sadly, no one is talking about them. Or to them. The media has gone quiet. The Opposition has been in coma for over six years now.
No one wants to know the answer to a simple question: How did the rich become so much richer while the rest of us, 99 per cent and more, are still suffering? Most businesses remain shuttered. Yes, some factories are working but at half their capacity. Street vendors have all but disappeared. Millions have lost their jobs and are languishing in the villages, waiting for a call to come back. Thousands of middle-class people have not paid their EMIs and lost both face and future credit. Banks are complaining about NPAs. More and more people are worried about the safety of their bank deposits. Credit cards are being cancelled in thousands every day. Those who have borrowed money are worried sick that their homes and offices will now be seized. Others are trying to stave off angry and violent creditors. Rents are not being paid. Newspaper reports claim some Chinese lenders, seeing an opportunity in the crisis, are lending money to the vulnerable at punishing rates. And talking about punishing rates, just check the fine print to find out how much your credit card charges when you default.
Oxfam has just released its annual report to the World Economic Forum. It talks about The Inequality Virus, how it’s worse today than Covid-19. It reveals that the wealth of our billionaires (102 at last count, just behind the US, China and Germany) increased by 35 per cent during the lockdown while 84 per cent of Indian households suffered income loss, and 1.7 lakh people lost their jobs every hour in April 2020 alone. It also says that income gains by our billionaires since the first lockdown is enough to give each of our 138 million poorest people a cheque for Rs 94,045. As per the Nasscom-Zinnov report, in this the worst of all possible years, India saw the birth of 12 unicorns. Each unicorn is worth $1 billion or more. 50 could happen in 2021.
Incandescent wealth and back-breaking poverty have always co-existed. But the pandemic has clearly stretched the extremes. Four days from now Ms Sitharaman has a chance to make life easier for those teetering on the edge. Will she? Or will she, as usual, talk only about green shoots emerging?
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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