Sunday, September 09, 2007



Hamara Richistan & its secure inhabitants
Sudheendra Kulkarni
Posted online: Sunday, September 09, 2007 at 0000 hrs Print Email

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‘Of all the classes, the wealthy are the most noticed and the least studied.’

— John Kenneth Galbraith

At a time when the political climate in the country is hotting up, making early parliamentary elections a certainty, one of last week’s important news items was, indeed, non-political. However, despite being non-political, it told you who would rule India no matter which party or coalition wins in the next election.

Newspapers, ranking CEOs in terms of their annual salaries, informed us that Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries topped the list with a take-home pay of Rs 25 crore last year. He is closely followed by Sun TV’s Kalanidhi Maran and his wife Kavery Kalanidhi, with each taking Rs 23.26 crore. Airtel’s Sunil Mittal ranks fourth with a salary of Rs 15 crore, followed by Anji Reddy of Dr Reddy’s Labs with Rs 14.4 crore. Many others earned between Rs 10-20 crore a year.

The term ‘salaried class’ normally represents the constantly whining and grumbling middle-class, whose members’ livelihood depends principally on their take-home pay and who complain that no government really cares for them. But do our CEOs really belong to the ‘salaried class’?

No, they are a class apart. Indeed, for many of them who are promoters of their own companies, their salaries are chickenfeed compared to their real wealth, which runs into thousands and, in some cases, even tens of thousands of crores.

The remuneration figures do not reveal the generous and, in many cases, egregiously excessive, paid-by-company perks that these CEOs enjoy. Private jets, exclusive resort homes, unlimited and unquestionable expense accounts — there is no luxury that is beyond the reach of India’s big businessmen. And there is no provision in the RTI to pry open this information. Do you know that, as against 255 commercial planes, India now has 271 private jets? And our businessmen really know how to buy influence with their money power — in politics, bureaucracy, media and academia. For example, the ONGC chief would be hauled over the coals in Parliament, and rightly so, if he lent a company helicopter to friends or relatives. But no questions were asked when a businessman lent his corporate plane to Sonia Gandhi for foreign travel, in which a minister also accompanied her.

Some will ask: What’s wrong if CEOs are paid American-style salaries and perks, as long as they lead their companies on a high-growth and high-profit path? The question deserves two responses. Firstly, is the companies’ growth only due to the business acumen of their promoters and CEOs? What about the enabling role played by the policies introduced by the democratically elected government? Therefore, in order to promote social and economic democracy, doesn’t government have the right — nay, a duty — to regulate how private entrepreneurs skim public resources for personal aggrandisement?

The second question is more fundamental: In a country where crores of people earn less than twenty or thirty thousand rupees a year — and don’t think such people live only in Bastar and Kalahandi, you’ll also find them in the slums of Delhi and Mumbai — how can we have such shocking disparities in incomes, wealth and living standards? Yet, no major political party has bothered to attack this imbalance in a serious and credible manner. The BJP, in its earlier Jana Sangh avatar, had once passed a resolution: “To narrow down disparities, the ratio between the lowest and highest income should be brought down to no more than 1:20.”

Many in the BJP would now turn their faces in embarrassment (as if their leaders then had committed a huge blunder) if they were reminded of this 1952 resolution. True, such quantitative limits are not a practical way of creating an egalitarian society. But why have our political parties, and also our intellectual elite, even stopped thinking of the ideal of distributive justice? Why are we behaving as if all of us have consumed a sedative that prevents us from feeling, recognising and acting upon the sufferings of our poor brethren?

The bitter truth is that most of the rich have physically and psychologically seceded from the ‘real’ India, the India that toils and suffers and dies in hundred different miserable ways. If you find the word ‘seceded’ too strong, I suggest that you read a recently released book, Richistan by Robert Frank, a columnist with The Wall Street Journal. It is about the rich getting absurdly richer in America. Frank writes: “The wealthy aren’t just getting wealthier — they are forming their own virtual country. They are wealthier than most nations, with the top 1 per cent controlling $17 trillion (Rs 76,500,000 crore) in wealth. And they are increasingly building a self-contained world, with its own health-care system (concierge doctors), travel system (private jets, yachts), exclusive properties (private islands) and language (‘Who’s your household manager?’). They have created their own breakaway republic — one I have called Richistan.”

Look around and you’ll see ‘colonies’ of Richistan coming up in your own cities. Its privileged residents live secure in the knowledge that the poor may be the voters, but the rich are the permanent rulers of India. Galbraith, the great American economist, was right. We need to study how the wealthy live, if we genuinely want to ensure that the poor live better.

COMMENTS: The suggestion to have a ratio of 1:20 etc. or bring about equality, seems to be an effort to bring about communism type of government. In West Bengal and Kerala, I suppose, there are communist governments who are supposed to do the same. Why have they not succeeded. Why even there the rich are getting richer and poor poorer. China is a big example! Has it succeeded in making everyone close to a rich person in a free society or having wealth to the tune of even one per cent of what a rich person has. You can perhaps destroy all the adventurous and creators of wealth but still you will not be able to bring about the equality or any ratio you are looking for.


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