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The worse off the poor become, the richer India’s Ministers get

How the Cricket Caucus Made a Killing

by P. SAINATH

Mumbai

Air India might not be doing as well we’d like it to. But the braveheart who flew it fearlessly into dense clouds of debt is doing okay. Praful Patel (who no longer holds the aviation portfolio) added, on average, over half a million rupees (just under 50 rupees = US $1 ) every day to his assets in 28 months between May 2009 and August 2011. This might be an understated figure since it is based on his own word. Ministers tend to be modest in these matters. But given the official data, the math is inescapable.

In his 2009 poll affidavit, Mr. Patel said his assets were worth over $16 million. Let’s assume he listed all he had up to April 2009, the polls being in May that year. Compare that figure with the more than $24.5 million that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) put up against his name online this month. Since this increase occurred in 28 months, my math says that averages over 500,000 rupees a day. (I can add, though not at the speed of Mr. Patel.)

Air India, meanwhile, struggles to pay salaries to its employees. Mr. Patel adds more to his wealth every day than each of 40 per cent of the airline’s employees earns in a year. So while the airline might get grounded, he flies high. As an ex-Board for Industrial & Financial Reconstruction (BIFR) chief said decades ago (of ailing private units): the sicker the units grew, the healthier the owners got. That crudely fits the state of the Indian poor in relation to their government. The worse off they become, the healthier the Union Cabinet gets. (Drag corporate bosses into the equation and it’s more dramatic. But that’s another story.) Patel was rewarded for services rendered. He was elevated to Cabinet rank as Minister for Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises.

The analysis of the Union Cabinet’s assets, done as thoroughly as always by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and the National Election Watch (NEW), makes crisp reading. It’s official. Trickle Down is passé. Lift Irrigation, sending flows gushing to the top, is in. The average asset worth of a union minister rose from 73 million rupees to 106 million rupees in those 28 months. Adding a modest million a month on average through 28 months.

Mr. Patel is the richest Union Cabinet member by far. But the DMK’s Dr. S. Jagathrakshakan made a bold dash to fame. The Minister of State (MoS) for Information and Broadcasting’s assets grew by 1,092 per cent to Patel’s 53 per cent. According to the ADR’s analysis, his assets went up from Rs 590 million in 2009 to Rs.700 million this year. But Patel, batting on 122, still tops the Cabinet Premier League. The DMK man might have worked up a scorching pace, but Patel’s dug in for a good, long innings.

Meanwhile, the dashing youth brigade isn’t doing too badly either. Young Milind Deora, MoS for Communications and Information Technology, almost doubled his assets between 2009 and 2011. He went from over Rs.170 million to more than Rs.330 crore. Consider that his 2004 poll affidavit pegged his worth at Rs.8.8 million. Adding almost 100,000 rupees every day on average for seven years and nearly quadrupling your assets in that time isn’t so bad.

On the face of it, Deora has outclassed Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. Going by their declarations, Deora is two-and-a-half times richer than the mighty Maratha. He was richer than him even in 2009, but increased his assets by almost 90 per cent since then. Pawar failed to add even a paltry Rs  40 million in the same time. Which means he clocks in at under Rs.125 million , all told. A kindly account making the rounds in his home state is that Pawarsaheb was slightly confused over whether the declaration called for revealing his total asset worth or a statement of monthly income.

Another modest performer is Minister of Science & Technology Vilasrao Deshmukh. He’s added a piffling Rs.173 million since 2009. Mr. Deshmukh is also Minister of Earth Sciences. (A title seen in Maharashtra as jargon for Real Estate expertise.)

Otherwise, the cricket caucus in Dr. Manmohan Singh’s team is doing well. Minister for Parliamentary Affairs and new IPL boss Rajeev Shukla added over Rs 22 million in those 28 months to his total asset worth. That takes it from over Rs 7 million in 2009 to more than Rs 30 million this year.

It’s not just serving ministers who are thriving, though. Nor are the upwardly mobile confined to the Centre. As always, the bulk of the Guinness Book stuff comes out of two of my ‘home states.’ Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. (I have a third, actually: Tamil Nadu — which is where Jagathrakshakan comes from, so the scope for native pride is pretty large.) But let’s turn to Andhra Pradesh. Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy is not in power. This has not hampered his entrepreneurial march. In 24 months till April this year, he added well over Rs 3.57 billion, to his just-under Rs.720 million figure of April 2009. This means he added on average over Rs 5 million ($100,000) every single day during this period. Considering he’s been embattled on all fronts, this is no minor achievement. Now you know what the pundits mean when they speak of the dynamism of Generation Next in politics.

Only Chandrababu Naidu, alas, has grown poorer. The former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister made public his asset worth in view of ‘the climate’ ushered in by the Anna Hazare era. Mr. Naidu isn’t even worth Rs.4 million. There is no immediate cause for concern over his livelihood though. His wife is worth almost Rs.400 million.. Yet, the relative picture is a microcosm of Andhra politics: Jagan on the rise, Naidu in decline. But while The Fates have not been kind to Mr. Naidu, his accountants have been more generous. His Jubilee Hill property (1,125 square yards, or over 10,000 square feet) shows up as worth no more than Rs.2.3 million ($46,400). Now this is the costliest locality in Andhra Pradesh. So building a 10,000 square-foot home there, on that amount, argues great frugality. But wasn’t it worth nearly Rs.90 million in his 2009 poll affidavit? This time around Mr. Naidu gives us only the ‘cost of acquisition’ and not the market value, since the latter ‘varies from time to time.’

There are, though, serious lessons to be learnt from all of this beyond the need for smart accountants. This insane rise in affluence and wealth is not just about ministers but about MPs and MLAs too. And leaders at all levels of the main political forces, particularly the Congress, the BJP and most ruling or big parties in the states. The number of crorepatis  (1 crore =10 million) is up in Parliament and every State assembly. In Maharashtra, they went up from 108 in 2004 to 186 in 2009. Over three-fourths of the Union Cabinet are crorepatis. Much of their new wealth was acquired while in office.

Thanks to public anger and the persistence of the ADRs and NEWs, data on this comes more into the open. That is excellent. But all declarations must include what they paid as taxes. That would allow the public to make slightly better sense of the numbers. If you want transparency in public service, surely that should include having all their returns online, too. This would be a major reform, one amongst the many we badly need. Another is penalties for cheating. ADR shows us ministers whose declarations do not include 12 residential buildings they own.

We need to have a serious audit, starting with the wealth of the Union Cabinet. How do people make half a million rupees a day while in office? Remember most of them made the greatest additions to their wealth while ‘serving’ the public. Surely we are owed answers on this. Mere disclosure of wealth is not enough. If it is so grotesquely large, we need to know how it was made.

In late April, the Planning Commission filed an affidavit before the Supreme Court defending a per capita expenditure of Rs.20 (40 US cents) a day as a viable cut-off line for determining poverty in urban India. For rural India that was just Rs.15. They say they might give the Rs.20 figure a generous upgrade — all the way to Rs.25. Remember the report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector headed the late Dr. Arjun Sengupta? It recorded that 836 million Indians live on Rs.20 a day or less. How do our clubs of crorepatis  represent these masses? Or do some start by doing so and lose anchor very quickly? How do we curb this? It’s something to think about. So are the profound changes of the last 20 years that have made it so difficult for any but millionaires to contest elections, let alone win them.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories From India’s Poorest Districts. He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.