Why Rising Wealth Gap in India Doesn’t Mean Growth is Inequitable

Inequality is often seen as inimical to development and something to be minimised. But that’s not the full picture.

4 min read
Why Rising Wealth Gap in India Doesn’t Mean Growth is Inequitable

The data released by the Bloomberg Billionaire Index reveals some shocking statistics about the rise of inequality in India. It showed that the top 20 industrialists in India added a staggering $50 billion to their combined wealth in the first seven months this year, taking their total valuation to $200 billion – roughly 10 percent of India's $2 trillion economy.

Similarly, an Oxfam report released in 2017 revealed that 57 billionaires in India own as much as the bottom 70 percent of the population and, more broadly, the richest one percent holds 58 percent of the country's total wealth – higher than the global average of 50 percent.

Therefore, inequality is no longer a first-world phenomenon. It is very much at our shores, but the moot question remains if the trend is undesirable at all.


Perception of Inequality Obstructing Growth

The general contention is that inequality is inimical to societal development and should be minimised to the fullest extent possible, preferably through redistributive means.

However, there is a strong case to make that with rapid growth, rising relative inequalities, more often than not, lead to advancing distributional equity in society. This argument can be rationalised on the basis of insights put forward by US economists Simon Kuznets, Tibor Scitovsky and Albert O Hirschman.

Kuznets argued that when economic growth takes place at the disaggregated micro-level, individual economic agents move along the real income scale – a process which he termed as “income mobility”.

Now, income mobility can either be upward or downward but it is observed that during phases of rapid economic growth, opportunities for upward mobility far outweigh those for unchanged or downward mobility. Also, in the presence of income mobility, the identity of individuals at different levels of the income scale changes rapidly over time.


The Scitovsky Criteria

Another problem with only looking at inequality statistics is the perception of a simplistic one-to-one correspondence between movements in income inequality and equity. Scitovsky's views offer an interesting take on the matter.

Scitovsky suggested three criteria for social acceptability of rising inequality: Those inequalities arising out of people’s merit and contribution to society, those arising in an environment of equality of opportunities, and those that lead to improvement in well-being of individuals at the bottom of the ladder.

In all of these three cases, rising inequality cannot be equated to a one-on-one fall in equity.

Therefore, more focus should be kept on the wealth accruing to the people at the bottom of the ladder to understand the real implications of rising inequality. Scitovsky proposed that an egalitarian society should be defined as one where there is equal or near-equal distribution of the basic necessities of life.


In such a scenario, average inequality indicators cannot reflect the true picture on the ground and can, therefore, prove to be misleading predictors of the adverse social outcomes of growing inequality. The tolerance level of inequality for the society in times of rapid economic growth may be much higher than what is reflected in inequality statistics as it fails to take income mobility into account.

Finally, as Hirschman points out, inequality data fails to take into account the public perception of rising inequality. He pointed out that a stagnant economy leads to a zero-sum game where economic advancement of others provokes a negative signalling effect of a possible deterioration of one's own economic position.

However, in times of rapid economic growth, there arises a positive-sum game where economic improvement of others signals an environment where there is hope for a rise in one’s own prosperity in the future. Such an exceptional calculus begets gratification which overcomes envy and discontent.

What the Figures Don’t Tell Us

This scenario would make society's tolerance for rising disparities quite substantial. Such an eventuality can be sustained in a society as long as the economic and social barriers to income mobility are broken down through government policy or rapid growth, and prosperity is attributed to hard work and chance.

Discord arises in societies where such prosperity arises out of corruption and deception like the one seen in the Occupy Wall Street protests.


Thus, it needs to be understood that contrary to the common perception among individuals and policymakers, rising inequality is not necessarily inequitable, if and when it arises out of rapid economic growth.

The startling figures of inequality in India that have been brought about of late, therefore, offer an incomplete picture. Moreover, use of these figures to argue that Indian economic development has had adverse distributional consequences offers the incorrect diagnosis and skews policymaking.

The focus on wealth accruing at the top needs to be supplemented with the income mobility achieved by those at the bottom of the pyramid and with a focus on elimination of the social and economic barriers that they face in achieving upward mobility.

A skewed focus on the top hardly serves any purpose other than providing shock value.


(This article has been published in arrangement with IANS. The author Amit Kapoor is chair, Institute for Competitiveness, India. He can be contacted at and tweets @kautiliya. Chirag Yadav, researcher, Institute for Competitiveness has contributed to the article. The views expressed are personal. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(We all love to express ourselves, but how often do we do it in our mother tongue? Here's your chance! This Independence Day, khul ke bol with BOL – Love your Bhasha. Sing, write, perform, spew poetry – whatever you like – in your mother tongue. Send us your BOL at or WhatsApp it to 9910181818.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read and Breaking News at the Quint, browse for more from voices and opinion

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Quint Insider

or more


3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Insider Benefits
Read More
Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!
More News