Sunil Mittal is putting his pay where his heart is. The head of Bharti, which owns the Airtel brand of mobile phone service, has taken a cut of Rs 5 crore in his annual salary to fund Nyaya Bharti, an initiative to help those who are under trial and in jail because they cannot afford the bail amount or good legal help. Bharti Foundation, which Mittal set up in 2000, also runs a network of schools and builds toilets in villages. Excerpts from an interview:
Do you see Indian businesses acquiring the ‘giving’ mindset of their American counterparts?
Of course, the two are at different stages.
Very different. Here, there are fathers who eat once a day to fund their child’s education. The mindset does not change even when they become rich. Parents are far more attached to their children here. Everything they have, they want to leave to their children. When the American children turn 18, both the children as well as the parents quickly want to go their separate ways. In America, they just look at a certain amount of money that is enough for the children to live comfortably. The second part, much less talked about, is the massive tax saving there. The US has encouraged tremendously the philosophy by way of tax savings.
Should we have such tax policies in India?
We get tax exemptions with difficulty. There is a provision for 100 per cent exemption, but it is very difficult to get. Some institutions take charity money in cheque, issue a certificate for tax exemption, and send back cash. So rightfully the government wants to crack down on this.
You won’t just write out cheques. You will also manage things.
I do occasionally (write out cheques), but the philosophy is to manage. Eventually we should have a very large philanthropy arm which manages all these things. We will be happy to have other people come and put in their money and use this capacity. Some already do. Ultimately, the one who does charity wants it applied in the right way. We have every penny accounted for.
About toilets in the rural areas, there is a view that many of them are not operational or in use.
That is a problem with public toilets, which no on touches after two or three months. We do not build public toilets. Ours are either in schools, which have no toilets, or in homes. It is yours, you maintain it. In surprise checks, we have found 100 per cent utilisation. Once they get into the habit, the job is done.
You want to set up a Bharti university.
It will be a big one. It will also have technology degrees. But the way you learn these degrees will involve a lot of technology: internet, self learning, video.
And this will be not for profit?
Everything under the Bharti foundation is not for profit.
Though part of the Indian business elite, you are a first-generation entrepreneur. All the wealth you have, you have created it yourself. You are not a custodian of family wealth. So how do you look at succession?
My peers keep telling me, ‘what are you doing, get your children on board, start training them’. The traditional model is that the children will come into the business. In our case, that is not the case. We are more Western in our approach. The children are doing their own thing. They can be shareholders, or part of the governance structure. But to run the company, they must be competent to run it. We have a clear distinction between shareholding and management.