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Reuters/Arko Datta
On your face.
YAWNING GAP

The rising number of its billionaires masks India’s widening income inequality

By Manu Balachandran

India is staring at a staggering income-inequality crisis.

A research paper published by French economist Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel—based on the latest income tax data—suggests that inequality in India may be at its highest level since 1922, when India introduced the income tax.

The share of national income held by the top 1% of the country’s population has increased dramatically, particularly since the 1980s, the economists say in their paper published on Sept. 05 (pdf).

“The top 1% of earners captured less than 21% of total income in the late 1930s, before dropping to 6% in the early 1980s and rising to 22% today,” the paper says.

Piketty is widely recognised for his work on income inequality, particularly through his bestselling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Chancel is the co-director of the World Inequality Lab and of the World Wealth & Income Database (WID.world) at the Paris School of Economics.

Their study shows that income inequality was the lowest in the 1970s and 1980s, a period when India was still a government-controlled economy and its GDP growth was quite low.

“Over the 1951-1980 period, the bottom 50% group captured 28% of total growth, and incomes of this group grew faster than the average, while (the) top 0.1% incomes decreased,” their paper says. “Over the 1980-2014 period, the situation was reversed; the top 0.1% of earners captured a higher share of total growth than the bottom 50% (12% vs. 11%), while the top 1% received a higher share of total growth than the middle 40% (29% vs. 23%).”

Last year, a report by Credit Suisse Research Institute said that the top 1% of the country’s population held 58.4% of its wealth, up from 53% in 2015. Within the BRICS group, only Russia’s wealthy controlled more of their country’s wealth. Since 2010, India has added a billionaire every 33 days and Indians’ share in the global billionaires’ club has grown from 1% to 5% over the last 20 years.

Meanwhile, Piketty has also reiterated his demand for more transparency in sharing income tax data. Access to data is crucial in measuring inequality and understanding the distribution of wealth. India used to publish the All India Income Tax Statistics until 2000. In 2016, the income tax department released tax tabulations for the period between 2012 and 2014.