India’s billionaires became 35% richer during COVID-19 lockdown, cites Oxfam’s report

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The wealth of the country’s billionaires increased by an estimated 35 per cent during the lockdown, while 84 per cent of households suffered varying degrees of income loss, and 1.7 lakh people lost their jobs every hour, in April 2020 alone, said non-profit group Oxfam on Monday in a report to be tabled at the World Economic Forum at Switzerland’s Davos.

It also said income increases for India’s top 100 billionaires since March 2020, when the lockdown was enforced, was enough to give each of the 138 million poorest people a cheque for ₹ 94,045 and the Coronavirus pandemic has worsened existing income inequalities between India’s super-rich and its crores of unskilled workers, many of whom are often unemployed for long periods and struggle to access basic healthcare and sanitation.

The report titled The Inequality Virus said, “The rising inequality in the country is poignant. It would take an unskilled worker 10,000 years to make what Reliance Industries’ Chairman Mukesh Ambani made in an hour during the pandemic and three years to make what Ambani made in a second.” In August, Mr Ambani was declared the fourth richest man in the world.

Early last year, the government announced an economic relief package worth around ₹ 20 lakh crore as the lockdown impacted heavily. However, in its report, Oxfam said the “direct fiscal impact” of the package amounted to “a little more than INR 2 lakh crore, or a mere one per cent of GDP”. If India’s top 11 billionaires were “taxed at just one per cent on the increase in wealth during the pandemic” it could increase allocation to the Jan Aushadhi scheme – which makes quality medicines available at affordable prices – by 140 times.

The report also highlighted inequalities in access to healthcare. It argued that COVID-19 protocols like social distancing and washing of hands were “a luxury when 32 per cent and 30 per cent of households live in one room and two-room houses, respectively, in urban India”.

According to Oxfam, the increase in the wealth, just since the crisis began, of the world’s 10 richest billionaires is “more than enough to prevent anyone on Earth from falling into poverty because of the virus, and to pay for a COVID-19 vaccine for everyone”.

Oxfam has suggested to the Indian government to immediately revise minimum wages and enhancing these at regular intervals. It also called on the government to impose a two per cent surcharge on those earning over ₹ 50 lakh and introduce a temporary tax on companies making windfall profits during the pandemic.