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Wealth of Indian billionaires swelled by Rs 2,200 crore a day last year, with the top 1 per cent of the country’s richest getting richer by 39 per cent while the bottom half of the population gained just 3 per cent increase in wealth, said an Oxfam study today (Monday, Jan 21).

Rising wealth inequality threatens the social fabric of the nation,” says the Oxfam Inequality Report 2019.

The report details shocking levels of wealth inequality in the country, adding that wealth is being further concentrated in the hands of the richest while the poor are pushed deeper into deprivation. “High levels of wealth disparity subverts democracy,” the report says.

Globally, billionaires’ fortunes rose by 12 per cent or US $2.5 billion a day in 2018, whereas the poorest half of the world’s population saw their wealth decline by 11 per cent.

Warning against the growing rich-poor divide, the international rights group said this increasing inequality is undermining the fight against poverty, damaging economies and fuelling public anger across the globe.

In its annual study released before the start of the five-day World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting in the Swiss ski resort town of Davos, Oxfam asked the political and business leaders who have gathered in Davos for the annual jamboree of the rich and powerful of the world to take urgent steps to tackle the issue.

About India, Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima, one of the key participants at the WEF summit, said it is “morally outrageous” that a few wealthy individuals are amassing a growing share of India’s wealth, while the poor are struggling to eat their next meal or pay for their child’s medicines.

Oxfam further said that 13.6 crore Indians, who make up the poorest 10 per cent of the country, continued to remain in debt since 2004.

“If this obscene inequality between the top 1 per cent and the rest of India continues then it will lead to a complete collapse of the social and democratic structure of this country,” Byanyima added.

Noting that wealth is becoming even more concentrated, Oxfam said 26 people now own the same as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity, down from 44 people last year.

The world’s richest man Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, saw his fortune increase to US $112 billion and just 1 per cent of his fortune is equivalent to the whole health budget for Ethiopia, a country of 115 million people.

“India’s top 10 per cent of the population holds 77.4 per cent of the total national wealth. The contrast is even sharper for the top 1 per cent that holds 51.53 per cent of the national wealth.

“The bottom 60 per cent, the majority of the population, own merely 4.8 per cent of the national wealth. Wealth of top 9 billionaires is equivalent to the wealth of the bottom 50 per cent of the population,” Oxfam said while noting that high level of wealth disparity subverts democracy.

Between 2018 and 2022, India is estimated to produce 70 new dollar millionaires every day, Oxfam said.

“It (the survey) reveals how governments are exacerbating inequality by underfunding public services, such as healthcare and education, on the one hand, while under taxing corporations and the wealthy, and failing to clamp down on tax dodging on the other,” Oxfam India CEO Amitabh Behar said.

The survey also shows that women and girls are hardest hit by rising economic inequality, he added.

“The size of one’s bank account should not dictate how many years your children spend in school, or how long you live -? yet this is the reality in too many countries across the globe. While corporations and the super-rich enjoy low tax bills, millions of girls are denied a decent education and women are dying for lack of maternity care,”Byanyima said.

According to the Oxfam report, India added 18 new billionaires last year, raising the total number of billionaires to 119, while their wealth crossed the USD 400 billion (Rs 28 lakh crore) mark for the first time.

It rose from US $325.5 billion in 2017 to US $440.1 billion in 2018, making it the single largest annual increase since the 2008 global financial crisis.

Oxfam further said getting India’s richest 1 per cent pay just 0.5 per cent extra tax on their wealth could raise enough money enough to increase the government spending on health by 50 per cent.

It said the combined revenue and capital expenditure of the Centre and states for medical, public health, sanitation and water supply is Rs 2,08,166 crore, which is less than the country’ richest man Mukesh Ambani’s wealth of Rs 2.8 lakh crore.

Globally, Oxfam said the tax rates for wealthy individuals and corporations have been cut dramatically.

While billionaire wealth soars, public services are suffering from chronic underfunding or being outsourced to private companies that exclude the poorest people, Oxfam said.

The rights group said in many countries including India, a decent education or quality healthcare has become a luxury only the rich can afford.

Highlighting the shortage of health specialists in rural areas, the report compares India’s 0.7 doctors per 1,000 people to the UK’s 2.8. It further states that “most insurance schemes (including the new Ayushman Bharat) fail to cover outpatient costs that account for 68% of expenses.” While India boasts of “world class health services at low cost” and ranks 5th on the Medical Tourism Index, in terms of quality and accessibility of healthcare to its own citizen, it ranks 145th among 195 countries.

“Children from poor families in India are three times more likely to die before their first birthday than children from rich families,” it added.

The dropping enrolment ratio in government schools, particularly for girls, while private schools see an uptick in admission, points to the state’s neglect, the report suggests. It further says that private players in health and education are often unregulated or under-regulated, leading to exorbitant profit margins and hence, exclusion.

Oxfam said its calculations are based on the latest comprehensive data sources available publicly, including from the Credit Suisse Wealth Databook and the annual Forbes Billionaires List.

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