Language is a unique gift, and it needs to be used with care and integrity. We use words as clichés by habit, without paying any heed to the reality we seek to denote. We refer, say, to some people as very “rich” — our list of billionaires is growing by the day. In the near future, India is slated to sport more billionaires than any other country, including the US.
But a billionaire need not be rich. As things stand, most of our billionaires are, factually speaking, the poorest in India. We do not know the extent of debt that our corporate giants owe individually to banks. Now, banks don’t produce money. The people of India do. It is our money parked with banks that the corporates siphon away. As per the latest count, the gross volume of non-performing assets stands at Rs 120,00,00,00,00,000!
You and I, and a billion others like us, cannot come anywhere near this Himalayan amount. Just imagine, only a handful of our billionaires are carrying all this burden. You and I would have been crushed under it. But they go on merrily, living like old time potentates at dizzying summits of insanely wasteful opulence — with our money. Each day, their indebtedness to us is increasing. No one gives a thought to their mounting misery. You and I would have gone mad. Farmers would have committed suicide in tens and thousands, like so many of them have done for indebtedness that is laughably meagre.
But our long-suffering corporates live cheerfully under astronomical debt without a thought on their minds. That’s fortitude of mind, folks.
This mythological resilience, this supernatural capacity for cheerful endurance in the face of gigantic adversity, is assuredly to their credit. For that, let us call them brave. Let’s call them men of stoic fortitude. But let’s not call them “rich”. No, they are poor. They are the poorest in India! You’d agree that if I owe you a thousand rupees and someone else owes you only a hundred, I am poorer than him. Then how come we are unfair to these hapless fellow Indians, crushed under mind-boggling amounts of debt? It is only because these amounts are too big to be stated precisely, that the Reserve Bank of India is finding it difficult to comply with the Supreme Court directive to reveal details pertaining to NPAs. How do you count these amounts? Have you ever thought of that?
To get an idea of the brain-scattering magnitude of these numbers, consider the plight of Arun Jaitley, the finance minister. He was denouncing the promises in the Congress manifesto to set apart six per cent and three per cent of our GDP for education and health, respectively. Together, they comprise nine per cent of the GDP. Jaitley went on to say that our GDP stands at Rs 27 lakh crore. Nine per cent of the GDP is already 18 lakh crore, said Jaitley. Then what is left for anything else? It is tempting to ridicule Jaitley; but I won’t. The sums are so astronomical. But, let that be. Let’s return to our billionaire mendicants.
Forget about the debt burden they struggle under. Ask, “what does it mean to be rich?” What is the yardstick we should use for measuring richness? The king of Bhutan would say, “use the happiness yardstick”. Is there a positive correlation between wealth and happiness? Will you be happier if tomorrow, instead of being a millionaire now, you find yourself, thanks to the politically-induced profligate generosity of our banks, a billionaire? How much more will you eat? (Already you resemble the inflated bull-frog that figures in Aesop’s Fables) How much will you spend on your wardrobe and costumes? Do you think gilding your coat with your name a thousand times will make you feel richer? Or being carted around, like a piece of dressed turkey, in an obscenely expensive car? Or, a battery of a thousand servants showering attention on you? Or a bevy of flatterers fawning on you? Or, “your” money, stolen from the poor of this country, affording you endless forays into the dark corners of sensual and criminal delights? Have you seen anyone lost in mazes of sensual indulgences looking other than blasé and weary; at best, lugubriously effete and hollow?
It is a downright folly to equate the richness of life with material possessions and conspicuous consumerist excesses. If you stand gaping when told that the annual electricity bill of a particular fellow Indian is Rs 70 lakh, kick in the pants to bring you to terra firma. What you are gaping at is not a display of wealth, but the naked dance of poverty. Not just poverty, but poverty compounded with criminal dishonesty, crass selfishness and a sub-human incapacity to feel any sense of shame. Can you imagine a model of poverty worse than this?
Given the way things are, it is futile to expect that governments will bell these corporate cats. They have outgrown governments. Politicians have become their vassals and courtiers. If anything is to happen to remedy the situation, and to save the country from economic ruin, the people of India have to wake up to an ethically enlightened idea of human richness and poverty. When a society makes it clear that stolen wealth — irrespective of how indirect the theft is — makes a man repugnant and that he is not entitled to respect and depravity at the same time, there will be a change. The ongoing worship of wealth — which has peaked under Narendra Modi’s watch — is a disaster waiting to erupt. India is on the brink of an economic crisis. Corporate covetousness has taken an insufferably huge toll on our economy. Our national debt stands at over Rs 80 lakh crore. No number-crunching, data-dressing and propagandist flourish can window-dress the stark reality. The truth remains that we, who readily equated human richness with material wealth alone — not any less than our unconscionable corporate giants and their political collaborators — are to blame for nudging this country closer and closer to the brink, in the name of development.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 15, 2019, under the title ‘India’s poor billionaires’. The writer is a Vedic scholar and social activist