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Article

16 Jan 2021

Author:
Bhuma Shrivastava, Bibhudatta Pradhan, & P R Sanjai, Bloomberg

Billionaires-led ‘Gilded Age’ comes under attack in Modi’s India

Two of India’s richest men have landed in an unlikely controversy over farming laws, becoming targets of protesters who allege the tycoons have benefited from their close links to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

For weeks, tens of thousands of farmers have camped outside the nation’s capital, demanding the withdrawal of recently passed legislation they say, without evidence, was designed to allow billionaires such as Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani to enter farming. The tycoons say they have no such interest. More than 1,500 phone towers of Ambani’s wireless carrier were vandalized last month and some farmers called for a boycott of their businesses.

The fight between the government and the farmers has revived the debate on what Modi’s critics call cozy nexus between the magnates and the popular leader -- accusations they all have denied. The protests, one of Modi’s toughest political challenges yet, follow an eventful 2020 when the combined fortunes of Ambani and Adani swelled by almost $41 billion, even as millions of Indians lost their jobs to the pandemic that pummeled the $2.9 trillion economy.

“Everyone loves to hate the rich in times of economic stress,” said Sanjiv Bhasin, a director at investment management firm IIFL Securities Ltd. in Mumbai. “People are venting out their anger at social disparity. It is indeed a new business risk to these large conglomerates. But all the noise will settle when the economy starts growing.”

Highlighting the disparity, an Oxfam report in January 2020 said India’s richest 1% hold over four times the wealth of 953 million people who make up the poorest 70% of the country’s population. The wealth of the nation’s top nine billionaires is equivalent to the wealth of the bottom 50% of the population, according to the non-profit body that works against inequality.

... Farmers, mostly from the northern state of Punjab, fear that the removal of state support will make them vulnerable to market-driven price fluctuations despite government assurances that a safety net of minimum support prices will continue. About 800 million of the country’s over 1.3 billion people depend directly or indirectly on agriculture, giving the group political clout.

... Responding to the accusations, Ambani’s $174 billion conglomerate Reliance Industries Ltd. issued a statement earlier this month saying it has never done any contract farming or acquired farm land for that purpose, and has no plans to do so. It also vowed to ensure its suppliers will pay government-mandated minimum prices to farmers. The Adani Group clarified in a statement last month that it does not buy food grains from farmers or influence prices.

... Spokespersons for the Reliance and Adani groups did not respond to emails seeking comment on protesters’ allegations or on India’s wealth disparity. Representatives for the Modi administration and the Prime Minister’s Office in New Delhi didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.

... “As long as the gap in income and opportunity is not significantly narrowed via state policy, we can expect those at the top of the pyramid inviting the ire of the growing base of unfair and unequal India,” said Nikita Sud, who teaches international development at the University of Oxford.

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