Several reports in the past few months have sounded the alarm about growing income and wealth inequality in India. The statistics cited are not wrong, but they are incomplete — and they have produced sensational, but misleading, news stories.
For example, an article based on Oxfam’s recent “Inequality Kills” report notes: “India has the third-highest number of billionaires in the world.” The story points out that India has 142 billionaires, but ignores that India has 1.4 billion people. Only one in 10 million Indians is a billionaire, whereas such “billionaire density” is eight in Russia, three in Brazil, more than four in China, and 22 in the US. Likewise, while “India has more billionaires than France, Sweden and Switzerland combined,” in terms of billionaire density, these three countries together have 18 times more billionaires than India.
It should come as no surprise that rich countries have more billionaires relative to their populations than poor countries do. For a more accurate comparison, consider billionaire density in middle-income countries. Relative to the world’s top 20 middle-income economies, India ranks quite low. Countries like Brazil, Malaysia and Thailand have a far greater number of billionaires relative to their size.
Oxfam is not the only organization to point out India’s wealth gap. In December last year, the World Inequality Report 2022, the flagship publication of the World Inequality Lab at the Paris School of Economics, included India among the world’s most unequal countries. This research, coordinated by leading economists, fueled sensational headlines — “Poor Country with Affluent Elite, India Is Going Nowhere,” or, even worse, “How Hindu Nationalism Enables India’s Slide into Inequality” — that turned the topic into a domestic political issue.
To be sure, income and wealth inequality have increased in India in recent years. According to the World Inequality Report, the richest 10 percent of Indians account for 57.1 percent of all income, compared with only 13.2 percent for the poorest half. Wealth inequality is more pronounced. The poorest half of the Indian population possesses just 5.9 percent of the country’s total wealth, whereas the richest 10 percent controls 64.7 percent.
However, do these figures really support the claim that India is one of the world’s most unequal countries?
Although India’s poorest half holds a small percentage of the country’s total wealth, its members are still better off than their peers in most countries. Whereas India ranks 67th among the world’s 100 largest economies in terms of income earned by the poorest 50 percent, it ranks 17th in terms of the percentage of wealth held by the poorest half.
In any case, statistics that compare the top 10 percent and bottom 50 percent, while easy to comprehend, are not the only measures of inequality. Calculated from the World Inequality Report data, India’s Gini coefficient — a widely used indicator that ranges from 0, indicating perfect equality, to 1, for perfect inequality — is 0.6 for income inequality and 0.7 for wealth inequality. Compared with the largest 100 economies of the world, India lies in the middle for wealth inequality and among the top 20 for income inequality.
On balance, India is no paragon of egalitarianism, but nor is it one of the world’s most unequal countries.
A more fundamental question is whether India should continue to focus on economic growth to reduce poverty, even if it increases inequality. The answer, according to the Indian government’s 2020-2021 economic survey is, unsurprisingly, an unqualified yes. The government is betting that a rising tide lifts all boats, and the facts seem to support this maxim.
In the decade from 2006 to 2016, the Indian economy averaged 7.6 percent annual growth — one of the fastest 10-year expansions in the country’s history. Concurrent with that growth was an increase in inequality: The share of income going to the richest 10 percent increased from 47.8 percent to 57.1 percent, while the share of the poorest half declined from 16.1 percent to 13.1 percent. However, over the same period, the number of people living in multidimensional poverty — a broad measure covering health, education and standard of living — decreased from 642 million to 370 million.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic reversed some of these gains, a recent working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that income inequality in India declined. Richer Indians experienced a steeper drop in income than poorer ones, as their businesses were most affected by the economic downturn. Demand for the kind of service-sector jobs held by wealthier Indians fell sharply. The IMF forecasts 24 percent growth for the Indian economy in 2021-2023, which one hopes will reduce poverty and inequality.
The relationship between economic growth, poverty and inequality is complex, and the forces that influence it in richer countries might not be at play in India. Economic growth has lifted more than 250 million Indians out of poverty in a relatively short time. As a result, inequality has increased — but not to levels that should trigger alarm bells.
Amit Tyagi is chief risk officer of Zand. The views expressed in this commentary are solely of the author.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
The global chip shortage last year caused an unprecedented supply-chain crisis, affecting many key industries, including the auto industry. Europe, Japan and the US began to realize the indispensability and ubiquitous dominance of Taiwan’s semiconductor manufacturing industry. At the same time, amid the US-China trade war, Beijing’s military aggressions against Taiwan became increasingly blatant and provocative. In light of these developments, Europe, Japan and the US are formulating new policies to rebuild their domestic semiconductor manufacturing base, so as to mitigate the enormous geopolitical and economic risks involved. Last year, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) commanded 56 percent of the global
Anniversaries can serve multiple functions. For example when Taiwan commemorates the 228 Incident, there is a combined feeling of sadness over the sufferings following the events in 1947, joined with the resolve that such a tragedy should never be allowed to happen again. This year, when Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) attended the 25th anniversary of the UK’s 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a different and strange mood prevailed. Even stranger yet was Xi’s explanatory narrative. Those who had attended the historic event in 1997 could recall how festive it had been. Media were
When I was teaching in Lesotho in southern Africa during the 1980s, I taught a class on comparative foreign policy. The course included trips to the US embassy, the Soviet embassy, the British embassy and the newly established Chinese embassy. The students could ask the ambassadors and staff questions about foreign policy, and would then write a report as their final term paper. The Chinese ambassador felt that the US-style education I delivered was unique and invited me to go to China to teach. At the time, China was planning to open up to the world, and it needed professors versed
As the geopolitical effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine become more obvious, the collective defense provided by NATO is the key security umbrella that unites European countries and protects them from further intrusion by their malicious eastern neighbor. With Finland and Sweden having been invited to join NATO — which, if they join, would increase the number of member states from 30 to 32 — two more nations in the region are in line to be included in the regional security pact. Meanwhile, the support that Russia has been receiving behind the scenes from China and other countries is one of the