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Is it a rich man’s world?

Highlights

Is it a rich man’s world?, S Madhusudhana Rao, Rich man, China and India.Who are these top 85 who are sitting on mountains of wealth? Forbes’ annual list of the 100 wealthiest gives the clue.

It is music to the ears of fans of Swedish pop band ABBA which made the number “It’s a rich man’s world,” a chart buster in the 1970s and 80s, to know that 85 richest people own half of global wealth. The song that rocked the world for almost a decade had made money the centre of the universe. And, in the process, the pop group too had made tonnes of money out of that song by selling its records in millions.

More than three decades later, Oxfam, the global development body, has confirmed in a report that just 85 individuals, who can be easily accommodated in an Indian Railway compartment, have wealth that equals bottom half of world population. The report, “Working for the Few,” published just before the opening of Davos Economic Forum in Switzerland last week, has detailed the ever increasing inequalities in developing and developed countries.

The report has claimed that in the last 25 years, more wealth has been flowing into the hands of fewer individuals and they are controlling almost half the world, both on the economic and political front. “Wealthy elites have co-opted political power to rig the rules of the economic game, undermining democracy and creating a world where the 85 richest people own the wealth of half of the world’s population,” the report said.

Who are these top 85 who are sitting on mountains of wealth? Forbes’ annual list of the 100 wealthiest gives the clue. However, it is an incredulous claim. No doubt, the richest of the rich do own wealth, known and unknown to outsiders, which is beyond the ken of ordinary people. But to credit them whose number is below 100 with the super rich of the globe is far-fetched. Nevertheless, the Oxfam report insists that one per cent of world’s families own 46 per cent of global wealth and the richest have stashed away $21 trillion in tax havens, which means so much black money has escaped the tax man’s net.

By the same account, none is sure in this country how much illegally gotten wealth has been hidden by Indians in Swiss banks and in countries where there are no tax laws. Wild speculations vary from a few millions to billions and if the money is brought back (how, nobody mentions) and used for uplifting the poor, there is no need for the Planning Commission to fumble over below the poverty line figures. Everybody will cross the line in no time. But a rudimentary question that should be raised is how did the lucky few manage to stash millions and millions abroad dodging tax authorities, manipulating personal and business accounts and still project themselves as Messrs Clean?

The rich know how to do it. After all, it’s money, money, always sunny in the rich man’s world, as the ABBA song goes. But for the poor, it is always dark as long as they don’t have money. The sun doesn’t shine on them as brightly as it does on the rich; they always face the dark side of the moon while the wealthy see the smiling face of the moon even on dark nights. The way the world looks at rich and poor people depends upon one’s wealth, however hard one tries to change the outlook. None seems capable of bridging the gap at individual or governmental level since the gulf is too wide. The least that could be done is to narrow the rich-poor differences so that the world is not completely dominated by the wealthy.

In this respect, one of the richest people in the world, Bill Gates, is optimistic. He has predicted that by 2035 there will be almost no poor countries left in the world. In another decade, Gates thinks, no country will be as poor as any of the 35 countries that the World Bank classifies as low-income today even after adjusting for inflation. His optimism is based on the fact that so-called poor countries are fast emerging as developing nations and these have already developed. In another decade, more than 80 per cent of countries will have a higher per person income than China and India do today, says Gates.

His hope of poverty eradication springs from the advances being made in the fields of bio sciences, agriculture and digital technology. No doubt, they are spectacular and path-breaking having the potential of revolutionising the lives of millions of poor people around the world. But do the breakthroughs reach the man on the street? Or, do they go to the rich man who is capable of buying and using them for feathering his own nest? Either way, as it is seen often, new developments will help enrich the haves more than what they do to the have-nots. At least that is the case in India where the rich-poor gap has been widening, particularly after it opened up in the 1990s.

According to Oxfam report, the number of billionaires has gone up 10-fold in the last decade. While the creation of wealth is laudable, that should not be allowed to be made at the expense of a majority of population and used as a power lever to clinch deals and manipulate government functioning. In fact, this tendency is not peculiar to India; in almost all developing countries it is prevalent and it will continue as long as economic inequality is considered as a natural trait of human civilisation.

To quote the Oxfam report again, seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last three decades. In which case, there is nothing to indicate that it will decrease in the coming years. On the other hand, there is every likelihood the disparity will continue to grow despite introducing several schemes to uplift the poor people. The programmes fail to serve their real purpose because they are exploited to corner monetary benefits. In other words, poor will remain poor and the rich will turn richer, relatively speaking, in whichever way we look at the scenario. Is it not the rich man’s world?

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