Delhi is decked up for the grand finale of the G20 Summit, which will be attended by some of the most powerful world leaders, on September 9 and 10. In the run-up, putting itself on a moral high ground, India has put its weight behind the underdeveloped and developing countries of the Global South.
At the Business20 (B20) Summit held recently, Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar talked about the continuing hegemony of the Global North over the Global South and argued that it was time to accord due share to the disadvantaged countries that fall in the latter category and reduce the gross inequality between the two halves of the world. Jaishankar passionately put forward India’s commitment to stand by them. The B20 was part of the various working groups in the run up to the G20 Summit.
“The current focus on the Global South emanates from the conviction that these are countries deserving of special care. But equally, these are today’s societies under exceptional stress, which, if left unaddressed, would become a serious drag on the world economy…do consider what the implications are for all of us—North or South—of slowdowns in nutrition, health, education, employment, or even security,” Jaishankar said.
Criticising the concentrations of various kinds created during the past three to four decades of globalisation, Jaishankar pointed out that for a variety of reasons, ranging from scale to subsidies, technology, human resources, and strategic choices, the Global South was largely reduced to being a consumer rather than a producer.
He argued for a re-globalisation that is more diversified and democratic and where there would be multiple centres of production, not just consumption. He said that though we may talk about seeking a more just, equitable, and participative global order, at the end of the day, that will only happen when we see the commensurate investment, trade, and technology decisions.
Later, in an interview with PTI news agency, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also put forward his egalitarian views. Not only did he speak about the greater and more equitable representation of the Global South, including Africa, but also emphasised India’s democracy and diversity as major takeaways.
Heartening words, indeed. But do the two key words—equality and democracy—also apply to India, which has its own domestic divide of north and south and between the super rich and abjectly poor?
A straightforward comparison that stares India in the eye is the increase in inequality provided by the annual Forbes Rich List. The net worth of the 100 richest Indians has grown by over 350% cumulatively between 2014 and 2022 in real terms. During the same period, the total net national income grew by just over 35%. If one has to choose a stark example of this inequity in terms of individuals, pop comes the name of Gautam Adani, the billionaire said to be close to PM Modi. His wealth grew at an insane rate from $8.2 billion to $90 billion in 2022 before plummeting to $43 billion because of the Hindenburg expose. Yet, the various companies of the Adani Group are raking in money despite the damning expose by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) alleging round tripping. Similarly, Mukesh Ambani’s wealth more than quadrupled from $18 billion in 2014 to $82 billion in 2023.
Anmol Somanchi, an independent economist, has brought out this disparity in his recently published paper, “Income Inequality in India, 2000-2020”.
Comparing the share of national income going to the bottom 50% and middle 40%, Somanchi writes, “The shares for both groups have more or less monotonically decreased year-on-year between 2000 and 2020. The share of the bottom 50% fell from just over 20% in 2000 to 15% by 2011 and has remained stagnant there till 2020. These bottom shares are extremely low, perhaps among the lowest in the world.
“The decline in the income shares of the middle 40% was more rapid—it fell by 15 percentage points from 40% in 2000 to 30% by 2011 and to just over 25% by 2020. This would suggest that even the relatively better-off part of the population (percentile 50-90) has lost out on their share of the pie during the last two decades when the economy experienced relatively rapid economic growth. This decline in the same years is compensated by a rise in the top 10%, which has risen rather sharply over the 20-year period. From 40% in 2000, the top 10% share rose to just under 55% in 2011 and then to nearly 60% by 2020.”
According to the World Inequality Database (WID)’s recent estimates, the top 10% share was 56% in the West Asia region, 58% in Brazil, and 65% in South Africa in recent years, which implies that India is placed behind only South Africa in terms of the levels of income concentration.
Somanchi’s study shows that the share of the top 1% has risen quite considerably in the past two decades, starting at about 15% in 2000, going to about 22% by 2014, and then further to 25% by 2020. The rise is relatively more pronounced in the post-2014 period.
Poor expenditure on nutrition, health, and education and a rise in unemployment have made the inequality worse for the bottom 50% of Indians.
According to the Global Hunger Index (GHI) report that is brought out annually by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), India ranked 55 out of 120 countries in 2014. The GHI 2022 report places India at the 107th position out of 121 countries. The level of hunger has deteriorated from a rather moderate 17.1 in 2014 to a serious 29.1 in 2022.
India’s health expenditure is 3.64% of its total spending, making it the lowest out of all BRICS and neighbouring countries. While China and Russia spend about 10%, Brazil is at 7.7% and South Africa is the highest at 12.9%. Among India’s neighbours, Pakistan spends 4.3%, Bangladesh 5.19%, Sri Lanka 5.88% and Nepal 7.8% of their total expenditure.
According to Amitabh Behar, interim executive director of Oxfam International, India has slipped two places in the rankings on health spending to the 157th position, the fifth lowest in the world. It was depressing to see India make small cuts in health spending between 2019 and 2021—at a time of unprecedented health needs and crisis.
Though the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 set out an ambitious education budget of 6% of the GDP, India’s total education outlay, including both national and state-level expenditure, adds up to only 2.9% of the GDP.
In the past decade, India’s unemployment rate has increased sharply from 5.44% in 2014 to 8.4% in August 2023. The unemployment rate among the youth is shocking. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), more than half of those looking for a job in the age group of 15 to 19 years were unemployed at the end of 2022. The rate was slightly lower for 20- to 24-year-olds, while almost 13% of 25- to 29-year-olds were jobless at the end of 2022.
Democracy and Pluralism
This leaves us with the buzzword democracy. PM Modi often takes pride in calling India the “Mother of Democracy”. A lot can be said about India’s shrinking democracy which according to the V-Dem Democracy Report 2023 ranks 108th on the Electoral Democracy Index, 97th on the Liberal Democracy Index, and features among the top 10 autocracies. But let’s evaluate it only within the realm of the G20 Summit.
On August 19, the Government, through the Delhi Police, abruptly stopped We20, a people’s summit of over 70 civil rights organisations. The We20 was organised from August 18 to 20 inside the gated premises of a private building in Delhi to discuss key issues pertinent to the G20 Summit agenda such as agriculture and food security, climate crisis and just energy transition, rising inequalities, labour and employment, and alternative ideas of development, democracy, and dissent. The We20 organisers were eventually forced to hold their seminars virtually.
The declaration adopted at the We20 Summit called for “solidarity and unity among all democratic forces, peoples’ movements, civil society organisations, human rights defenders and progressive individuals to demand robust South-South cooperation, and a just, inclusive, transparent and equitable future for people all over the world”.
It said that there are thousands of ground-level and community-led initiatives towards genuine, just, equitable, and ecologically wise ways of meeting human needs available across the G20 countries, which governments and others can learn from and help expand to communities.
An important issue that was brought up by several delegates at the We20 was the forcible eviction of thousands of hawkers and local farmers in Delhi in the run-up to the G20 Summit. A major concern was the shrinking of democratic spaces to hold protests by deliberately planning and creating infrastructure as an impediment.
The holding of the G20 Summit is proving a bizarre and not-so-democratic experience for Delhiites too. Not only schools and colleges but also government facilities like DDA sports centres have been shut down across Delhi for three days from September 8 to 10. The authorities have erected huge temporary facades around lower-income group localities to hide people who live on the fringes of society but serve as human capital for the richer classes.
Leaving hundreds of animal lovers aghast and angry, thousands of street dogs, including neutered ones, and cattle have been impounded by the civic authorities from various localities around the airport to Lutyens’ Delhi and even beyond.
The pluralism that India used to boast about has also taken a bad hit. The recent instance of right-wing Hindu mobs creating a law and order situation in a Muslim-dominated area by carrying swords and openly giving hate speeches, and boiling Manipur have put a question mark on India’s pluralistic culture.
In short, Modi’s India wants to preach to the world at the G20 Summit, but not set its own backyard in order. It has decided to showcase a gleaming Delhi to more than 800 foreign delegates and some of the world’s most powerful leaders by reducing the capital of the most populous nation to a ghost town, with empty streets and shuttered markets for three days.