Say the word “millionaire” and the stereotypical image that pops up is probably of a suit-wearing, briefcase-wielding businessperson with an affinity for fine wine, flashy jewellery, plush homes, and private jets.
But turns out, India has hundreds of ordinary citizens who are secretly millionaires, hiding in plain sight as they challenge class stereotypes and… the Income Tax (IT) department.
The IT department has now identified over 250 street food vendors and scrap dealers who are actually millionaires in the northern Indian city of Kanpur. These included fruit and vegetable sellers, owners of small pharmacy shops, grocers, ragpickers, and sanitation workers who have managed to evade taxes for years.
According to the IT department, these secret millionaires altogether saved up and spent more than 37.5 million Indian rupees ($503,947) to buy properties. The department also found that several scrap dealers owned at least three cars. Many also bought large swathes of agricultural land in rural areas surrounding Kanpur.
However, their secret dealings came to the fore when the IT department conducted an investigation using big data software.
They found that hundreds of these millionaires had not paid any taxes beyond their Goods and Services Tax registration (an indirect tax used in India for the supply of goods and services), while at least 65 grocery store owners and pharmacists had not even registered their businesses on the GST records. While some covered up their millions by investing in property under the names of various family members, others relied on cooperative banks and small finance schemes that they believed could hide their money trail.
However, they were caught after someone used details from their PAN card, an identification number assigned to all taxpayers in India, a misstep that spiralled into hundreds of tax evaders getting caught.
This isn’t the first time this secret kind of Indian millionaire has come to light. In 2016, a dozen street food sellers in Kanpur were caught with an undeclared income of 600 million Indian rupees ($8 million), while several street food vendors were similarly caught in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. In India’s big cities, urban legends of modest-looking but popular street vendors being secret millionaires flourish. Raids like these prove that there is probably more than meets the eye.
But that’s not to assume that street hawking is easy and lucrative. Often, street vendors toil for more than 12 hours a day and regularly face class bias, bureaucratic harassment, and eviction threats. They are often expected to dole out bribes to local authorities to keep their businesses going.
“[Municipal corporation] officials conduct surprise raids,” Hari Pujan, a fruit seller, told The Guardian, explaining how bribes have threatened his business. “Sometimes if I am lucky I move my fruit cart and hide in the narrow lane before the officials arrive.”
In fact, street vendors have been some of the most impacted by the pandemic, as lockdowns threatened their livelihood.
Although the Indian government passed the Street Vendors Act in 2014 to protect hawkers who didn’t have a permanent shop, they continue to deal with issues like harassment and license caps. In Mumbai, for example, authorities have given out only 15,000 licenses despite having around 250,000 street vendors, who were then forced to sell their wares illegally.
With more than 600,000 people in the business, street vendors form an essential and legitimate part of India’s urban retail trade and distribution system. They represent 4 percent of the urban workforce across India and provide daily necessities to the general public. They have an approximate parallel turnover of 800 million Indian rupees (about $10 million) a day, with most supporting an average of three other people as employees or partners.