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The 36 Forbes Billionnaires do reflect the new India because now we can afford cheese

March 12, 2007
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After the list of Forbes billionaires was out and it showed that India has the most billionaires in Asia, even beating Japan, there were those both inside and outside India who were uncomfortable with the idea. Some outright sneered at it. Why? Because India is a country which is also host to millions of poor people and it has no public health system to speak of and infrastructure is poor. People like to compare India with other countries in Asia. There are Asian countries which have far fewer poor people, better infrastructure, a better public health system, and even if they have fewer billionnaires…well, so what?

But each country is unique. India’s poverty is result of the 200 years of colonial rule and the fifty years of the misguided economic policies of the ‘socialist’ government that came after that. It was a government that did not allow free trade, laid out reams of red tape to prevent Indians from starting and running businesses and at the same time allowed those in power to amass wealth in Swiss bank accounts. The government operated in total secrecy, and there were a lot of restrictions on the press.

The poverty in those days was horrendous. I grew up during Indira Gandhi’s rule and have seen it for myself. If you call the roads full of pot holes now, it was worse then. Concrete roads were a pipe dream. People from the professional middle class could not afford to buy new cars and those from the lower economic classes could not afford televisions and refrigerators. We belonged to the professional middle class but had to think twice before buying cheese! Today engineers and doctors can buy a new car with ease, there are loans available and salaries have gone up. People are buying their own apartments. The lower middle classes do not think of TV’s and fridges as luxuries anymore. And I am talking of just thirty years ago!

But people say why talk of thirty years ago, talk of five years ago. Well, even five years ago it was a different world too. Salaries were low, roads had just started to improve and consumer goods like LCD TV’s and automatic washing machines were out of the reach of many middle class people. And my aunt who arrived from the States could still get us stuff like perfumes, cosmetics and T-shirts that we couldn’t buy in India. Today we can – and frankly far better stuff that she picks up on Sale there. And the most important thing – there was no RTI (Right to Information) Act then. The Act is helping curb corruption. The media too has become more vibrant.

India’s greatest problem today is corruption and this developed a hundred fold during the Socialist Rule. Everyone knows that the ‘ruling’ family too had their Swiss accounts. The secrecy with which the government could operate gave untold power to the politicians and bureaucrats. Today it is because of corruption that public money is not being used properly for infrastructure and for the poor. It is because of the corruption that India is so poor.

And it is because of the Forbes billionnaires and the other successful people who have come up the hard way that India is going to where it is…hurtling towards the number two spot in the economic hierachy.

The corruption will start to crumble. It needs time. The RTI Act has just come into force. Its only in the last five years that media has started to expose scams, use hidden cameras to nail cops and politicians and started to highlight corrupt judgements. And the fact that we now have a strong opposition party is helping.

I am not an economist and perhaps that is why I cannot understand it when they say that there no ‘trickle down effect’. Maybe they are expecting a flood, but I am expecting a trickle and I think we are getting more than that. I see the increasing prosperity around me. The middle class is ballooning..and where are they coming from? From the poorer sections ofcourse! Every now and then in the newspapers you hear of stories of paanwaalas and sweepers who have educated their children and these children have become professionals. These stories warm my heart.

It is the corruption that is making us hang our heads in shame. It is because of corruption that money allocated is not being channeled into Education and Health. The corrupt politicians need to be voted out and this can only happen if more educated people vote. And those who do vote are educated.

Its going to be a slow ride. But the Forbes billionnaires are telling us something. They are telling us that in India today you can make it if you work hard and if you have the enterprise. We are all going to make it and take this country forward. Believe it.

Update: March 2008: India now has 4 Indians in the world’s richest list. Link here. With a combined net worth of $160 billion, Mr Lakshmi Mittal, Mr Mukesh Ambani, Mr Anil Ambani and Mr K.P. Singh are the only Asians in this list. The original article from Forbes is here. The top ten in the list are:

THE BILLIONAIRES
  1. Warren Buffett
  2. Carlos Slim Helu
  3. William Gates III
  4. Lakshmi Mittal
  5. Mukesh Ambani
  6. Anil Ambani
  7. Ingvar Kamprad
  8. KP Singh
  9. Oleg Deripaska
  10. Karl Albrecht

Related Reading on India’s economy:
Indians on the whole are better off today but not as much as the government says
India to be number two economically by 2050
Globalisation ahoy!
People’s world-view has changed
Indians want more money to be spend on health and education
Economic disparity not that wide in India.
Highest pay hikes to be in India in 2007

India’s problems coming in the way of development:
Fighting corruption in India
Does the US produce more engineers or does India?
Ministers misuse slum funds
Slum Rehab project in trouble.
Mumbai plans to rid itself of slums by 2015
Street children are being denied education
Where are street children to go?
Corrupt officials allow slums on brand new roads underneath flyovers
Tier two cities like kolkata are becoming outsourcing hubs

A ray of hope:
A rags to riches story

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2007 10:04 am

    The is a funny theorem of life – The bad gets more worse and the good becomes the best.

    Instead of constantly wailing over problems like poverty, unequality, rift, etc etc, its time that we also come to know the other side of powerful Indians.

    We need to produce more billionaires so that we can play a huge role in shaping a global economy. Money is the only GOD, Money is POWER in its sublime form.

    May the great Indian dream come true.

  2. March 12, 2007 12:04 pm

    yeah, its a slow ride, but where are we headed? isnt it possible that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, all this while the quality of life of lower middle class is improving too. Strange and highly debatable!

  3. March 12, 2007 12:38 pm

    I guess its the way you look at it. There are always people in any country who are unproductive and finally the state has to take care of them. We just have a large number of these people presently but not all of these people are lazy. They simply are not equipped. And slowly they will get equipped…afer all where did the lower middle class come from? They came from the poor. Very few people can move from absolute poverty to the rich list. Most of us are average, and we strive to do better than perhaps our parents did…
    It can take several generations actually for an average uneducated family to boast of professionals or even successful business people.
    Sure some people will get poorer, not just the poor. I think some of the rich will fall too! Many businesses start to deteriorate if the third generation is not hardworking…and then its a downward spiral.
    I think the opportunities are there today.

  4. March 12, 2007 4:36 pm

    I was wondering if someone (likes of Tehelka) would take the pain and do a ‘real’ list of Indian billionaires.

    The thing is, talking about corruption in hush hush ways is one thing (we know they have swiss bank accounts), and exposing it is another. I wish I-T assessment department ran like Election Commission – no govt control, just do your job. One way to tackle the problem (a roundabout one, but can catch ‘them’ the looters by surprise) would be to start doing real assessments.

    But as you said, RTI should definitely help in the long run. All this corruption around us will crumble – just a function of “us” being more aware and “wanting” it to go.

  5. March 12, 2007 8:28 pm

    Thats a great idea, getting the ‘real’ list of Indian billionaires! They are all probably public servants and I am really curious about who actually takes the cake!

  6. August 5, 2007 5:24 am

    This was quite interesting to read. Provoked a lot of contradictory thoughts. And the comments were interesting too!

  7. vish permalink
    March 13, 2008 5:53 pm

    timesofindia Its official Indias dazzling growth fails

    So, now we know how they managed to get into the Forbes?

    Vish, if it wasn’t for businessmen, India would have been far far poorer. Let’s admire them for their talent and grit and leadership, even if they are doing it for themselves. No one does it for charity, there are very few saints around. That same article shows that poverty is being allieviated, and standard of living is rising overall. Some groups are being left out, yes, but overall the situation is improving. – Nita.

  8. March 13, 2008 5:59 pm

    yes vish,that has been an open secret for a long time.

  9. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    March 13, 2008 7:43 pm

    @Amritha: Bull’s eye!

    @Nita: //There are always people in any country who are unproductive and finally the state has to take care of them.//

    People are not unproductive. They are rendered unproductive by alienating, exogenous ways and means of achieving “development”, for participating in which they are not equipped. And the State (capital S please!) does NOT take care of them. It only attempts to browbeat them into falling in line — an attempt that usually fails because it is ill-informed and callous. In the long run it breeds protest, rebellion and social crisis, especally when the development process is not regulated by the state but is appropriated by the forces of predatory capitalism.

    Way back in the 1950s and 60s, the works of Samir Amin, Andre Gunder Frank and Walter Rodney, led to the idea of “developed” and “underdeveloped” as verbs in the active voice rather than the adjectives that they were traditionally (and continue to be) used as. This firmly established the exploitative nature of development of the few leading to the underdevelopment of the many by the rapacious forces of imperialism and capitalism.

    The “India Shining” scenario, the emergence of Indian Forbes billionaires, the runaway growth the consumer society at the cost of increasingly restrictive resource accessibility for the majority, the marginalisation of the small businessman and the small entrepreneur, all need to be viewed with caution in light of the thinking from half a century ago which I have summarised above. The only difference between then and now is that both the exploiters and the exploited are our own people.

  10. March 13, 2008 8:45 pm

    Ahh Vivek, guess you know I don’t agree. :) I don’t see the “small businessman and the small entrepreneur,’ being marginalised. I see opportunities for all.
    Also I think you misunderstood what I meant when I said a certain section of society is always unproductive. By that I don’t mean communiities or groups. I mean personalities of people. In a family of say 12, 1 person will be lazy and and want to live off the others. In a company about 5 percent of the employees won’t work. In a village, about 5 percent or so of the people will be lazy and so on. this isn’t my own theory in any case…but yes cities have tramps and beggars and it’s difficult to rehabilitate some people if not impossible. The genuine downtrodden can be rehabilitated. That’s what I meant. And for them there are opportunities…but I guess we can discuss this forever! :)

  11. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    March 13, 2008 9:07 pm

    Nita,

    Yes, I know. And it It would be futile to discuss it at all, seeing as we don’t have a meeting point.

    BTW beggars, too, are often created by forces beyond their control. You have probably come across the term “pauperisation”.

    I am not at all sure what you mean by “the genuine downtrodden”. Intuitively I feel we must be on divergent wavelengths on that too.

  12. March 13, 2008 9:46 pm

    Vivek, these kind of discussions are futile only on the internet. One needs to discuss this in person. :) One day we shall surely have this debate.
    By genuine downtrodden I mean caste and tribes.

  13. sangeeta permalink
    March 13, 2008 10:52 pm

    Nita,

    I highly debatable article.Although I like the optimistic tone of the article very much!!,I somehow don’t feel comfortable with “boom scenario”.The gap between haves and have-nots is getting larger day by day.I see that mainly those from the IT sector,real estate and to some extent manufacturing having reaped the benefits of the boom what about the other common folk?

    Eg. My maid who works very hard has now got a TV,Radio at home but is still struggling to make ends meet.Her standard of living may have increased slightly over the last few years but the cost of living has really gone out of reach,she still struggles to make her rent payment ,cost of food has sky rocketed .
    I think that the number of billionaires a country has does not really reflect the economic success of a country.

    Read this if you have the time, it’s about the difference between rich and poor Indians. – Nita.

  14. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    March 14, 2008 5:21 am

    Nita,

    While I do not question the credibility of UNU-WIDER, to the findings of whose study you have referred Sangeeta, there are other studies from other institutions, equally credible, which come up with contrary findings. A few of them are referred to in the following. And a Google search for “India>rich-poor gap” will yield many more findings.

    expressindiafullstory

    hindu.com/stories

    riazhaq.com

    Sangeeta’s concerns may no longer be fashionable to express, but that does not diminish their validity.

    And while studies by organisations such as WIDER, ADB, WB etc. are no doubt carried out systematically, let us not dismiss out of hand the intuitive interpretations of our own researchers, who often have their ears to the ground and insights which are based on time-series data rather than “snapshot” impressions.

  15. March 14, 2008 8:01 am

    Vivek, I think you have again misunderstood what I was trying to say, I did not say the rich poor gap was not widening, I said that it’s less as compared to other countries. I think that is very significant. Now whether this will change in the future or not I cannot say.
    None of the links you pointed me too contradicted anything that I already believe.
    There is absolutely no doubt that poverty in India is decreasing, and all data in govt. as well as world surveys points to that.
    And in a capitalist economy the gap between the rich and the poor will always be wide and that’s a more tolerable situation than when the majority is poor like in India today. The gap between the rich and the poor will keep widening but at the end of it those at the bottom will not starve and will be able to feed their kids and educated their kids. That is a dream that we all should have for India. That is more important than any idealogy.
    Frankly I don’t care if Mr. Billionnaires has 25 yachts as long as those at the bottom get their basic needs met. India is moving towards that, poverty in India is declining. This isn’t just seen in surveys, you can see it on the ground too. Again, I am not denying that some groups are being left out, but we are talking numbers here. People on the whole are less poor and sure some groups are being left out and more efforts should be made to help them.
    There is another article I have written on poverty, which if you and/or Sangeeta is interested can read here.

  16. Komal permalink
    March 19, 2008 5:52 am

    Dear concerned & all Indians…

    Its time to Awake…As a child i have always read, “YOU CAN FLY IF YOU THINK YOU CAN….” & contrary to it “YOU WOULD NOT BE ABLE TO GROW IF YOU THINK YOU WOULD BOT BE ABLE TO”. The point is we need to look at our strengths & note weaknesses. Today we the INDIANS are making our remarkable presence in all the fields, including industrial power, exploring refineries, creating infrastructure, making movies, education etc…. I mean name a thing & we are there. If people are suffering its because of their attitude & not out of circumstances. I was watching a documentary, where a Harijan (garbage & toilet cleaner) had plans for his next generation to adopt his profession. His great grand father was a cleaner & he has continued the legacy & to my surprise, he would also want his children to adopt the same profession. Infact, there would be a competition to place his child to clean the same toilet. So its the thinking that this gentleman carries & with the same mindset he raises his children to occupy the profession. The conclusion would be they will always remain POOR. The opportunity was there for them to think “out of box” to make their children study. There are so many reservation quotas available, his children could have become better professionals. Its like when a person cant grow he starts blaming everything accept HIMSELF. So if we all think we are POOR, we are not GROWING, we are at MERCY, we will remain the same.
    Our country is so much Rich, rich in traditions, rich in cultures, rich in relationships, rich in potential, richness to fight back, the only thing thats stopping is the THINKING OF BEING RICH, no matter what. It heard this beautiful advertisement, “upkte pao rakho hawa pakad ke chalo”
    Guys comon lets pick the wind & fight for ourselves, for our future & than for our India. JAI HIND.

  17. vivek mittal permalink
    May 5, 2008 2:36 pm

    I’m not sure how come, but Mr LN Mittal is termed as citizen of india (Though his company is headquartered in europe)…..in forbes article itself, his citizenship is given as “indian”…….of course he owns a house in Delhi’s jorbagh area but still i’m not sure how he’s managing an indian citizenship.

    I don’t see the inherent contradiction here. Any Indian can live abroad…they are called NRI’s. They don’t lose their citizenship unless they give it up which Mr. Mittal has not done. – Nita

  18. vivek mittal permalink
    May 8, 2008 3:02 pm

    i meant to say it’s not easy…..that’s why he had to take lots of racist blows when he took over Arcelor
    I think Govt of india should do something concrete about dual citizenship

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