It has been the night of the long knives for our burgeoning billionaire population. Its band has just been devastated, falling by more than half from 53 to 24. The latest Croesus Count, also known as the Forbes Billionaires list, makes that much clear. We also fell by two notches to the sixth rank in the list of nations with the most billionaires. Our earlier No. 4 slot being slyly usurped by the Chinese who clock in with 29. More mortifying, we are a rung below the Brits who've grabbed Perch number 5, with 25.

The net asset worth of India's brightest and best has also shrunk by over a third from the time of the last Forbes scroll. By 2007, that worth had reached $335 billion. That is, 53 individuals in a population of one billion held wealth equal to almost a third of their nation's GDP at the time. This year, that worth plunged to $107 billion. (A moment's respectful silence in memory of the dear, departed billions seems in order.) But there is some comfort in that our team is still worth more than twice what its Chinese rivals are. And we even now have eight billionaires more than all the Nordic nations put together - though they boast the highest living standards in the world.

"Four Indians were among the world's top ten richest in 2008, worth a combined $160 billion," points out Forbes. Today, alas, "that same foursome is worth just $54 billion." But the 29 Indian tycoons reduced to the penury of mere millionairehood should not lose heart. Forbes offers us these words of reassurance. "The winds of wealth can change quickly ? They may yet again blow favourably in the direction of these tycoons." So what if the big balances fly at half mast briefly? There could be gales ahead.

Alongside this grim tragedy runs a slightly longer-term saga. India has fallen to 132 in the new rankings of the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) for 179 nations. Each year since 1990, the U.N. Development Programme has brought us this index, as a part of its Human Development Report. The HDI "looks beyond GDP to a broader definition of well-being." It seeks to capture "three dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life (measured by life expectancy at birth). Being educated (measured by adult literacy and enrolment in primary, secondary and tertiary education). And third: GDP per capita measured in U.S. dollars at Purchasing Power Parity (PPP)."

Worst in a decade

In the Index of 2007-08, India ranked a dismal 128. Now we're at 132. That is our worst ever grade on the Index this decade. It means, among other things, that little Bhutan, never once in the Forbes hall of fame, has trumped us in the new HDI rankings. The tiny Himalayan nation clocks in at 131. That is, a notch above its "second-fastest-growing-economy-in the-world" neighbour. Bhutan once languished amongst the bottom 15 nations in the U.N.'s HDI. It has never been among the world's fastest growing economies.

At rank 132, India also lags behind war-ravaged Congo, Botswana, and Bolivia. (The last is often called Latin America's poorest nation). The Occupied Territories of Palestine (torn by conflict for 60 years) are also ahead of us. Another neighbour - Sri Lanka - has been devastated by war for over two decades and has slipped a few notches. It still logs in at 104 - 28 rungs above India. Vietnam suffered casualties in millions in the war waged against it by the United States. Decades after, its agriculture is yet to recover from the planned destruction, lethal bombing, and the conscious use of deadly poisons. But Vietnam clocks in at 114. And China at 94 despite falling several places.

The bad news about the bad news is that these figures reflect the good news days. They relate to the year 2006. (The Sensex was booming. It breached the 10,000 and even 14,000-mark for the first time ever. The Indian economy also grew at 9.6 per cent in 2006-07 and 9.4 per cent in 2005-06.) Those were the glory days our 132nd rank is rooted in. The same period when we churned out 53 dollar billionaires. So the updated HDI numbers do not begin to capture the economic downturn. The picture will be even less pretty when those factors kick in.

They do capture, though, the revised purchasing power parity (PPP) estimates that clocked in by late 2007. These columns foretold this problem at the time. It was clear that if the Index was using the older PPP data, then "even our awful HDI performance could get worse" once those were revised. (India's GDP per capita (PPP) fell from $3452 to $2489 with the new data.)

And yet, we'd be even lower down than rank 132 but for our showing on the GDP-per capita front. Even now, our rank on that front is six notches higher than our HDI rank. It makes us look better than we are. For instance, in making out the current rankings, U.N. researchers point out that the GDP per capita data for 2006 "caused India to rise one place." But "new data (for 2006) on life expectancy caused India to fall one place." India then also fell two more places as two more nations - Montenegro and Serbia - joined the list. Both fared better than we did. We fell a further two places "as a result of revised PPP estimates." That's how we ended up four slots below our last rank.

What does it mean to rank much better on GDP per capita than in the HDI, as we do? It means you have been less successful in converting income into human development. Our GDP per capita rank is six rungs above our HDI rank. Vietnam's HDI rank of 114 is 15 rungs above its GDP per capita rank. Unlike us, Vietnam has - despite awful historic handicaps - converted its wealth into human development far better.

Cuba logs in at 48, thus breaking into the top 50 nations in the HDI. (While India firms up its place in the bottom 50.) That's seven places above wealthy Saudi Arabia, whose per capita GDP is three times higher than Cuba's. In that ranking, Saudi Arabia is No. 35, towering above Cuba's 88. But when it comes to human development, Saudi Arabia lags seven rungs below Cuba. Apart from suffering lower income, Cuba has lived under crippling sanctions for decades. Sanctions that have imposed huge constraints and high prices on all essentials. Yet, life expectancy at birth in Cuba is now 77.9 years. That's almost the same as the U.S. (78). And about 14 years better than India's 64.1.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has logged its worst rank ever, falling to 15 from 12. Between 1995 and 2000, the U.S. was always in the top 5, even staying at rank 2 for a couple of years. Like with India, its decline in HDI has come in the very years seen as its best, the Golden Age of the Free Market. The Nirvana point of neo-liberalism. A year into the economic reforms, India in 1992 ranked 121 among 160 nations then covered by the Index. Today, India is at 132 among 179 nations. Straight comparisons across that time are hard as the Index has changed in numbers and methodology. But the trend is clearly not joyous.

Steady decline

The HDI figures since 2002 signal a steady decline in the nation's conversion of wealth into human development - even as the numbers of its billionaires and millionaires doubled and trebled. Now the billionaires have shrunk in number, but not the slumdogs. There are at least 836 million Indians living on less than Rs.20 a day, as the government's own report told us in 2007. Over 200 million of those get by on less than Rs.12 daily. And those are pre-downturn numbers, too. Maybe, we need a new Forbes 500 list - naming the world's 500 poorest citizens. Who could beat us on that one?