In the season of scams and sleazy tapes, human compassion has blazed like a meteorite. Wipro chairman Azim Premji’s $2 billion donation to Indian primary education could become a turning point in the relationship between rich and poor in post-Independence India. Ratan Tata, Anand Mahindra and NR Narayana Murthy may have given millions of dollars to Harvard University, but Premji has donated over R8,000 crore to primary schools in rural India.
The biggest donation ever in the history of philanthropy has not gone to business schools or to religious establishments or to higher education. Instead it has gone to the youngest Indian citizens and called on them to dream the impossible dream. It is a donation that has invited tiny feet to abandon the slushy dirt tracks and run to school and then climb the staircase of destiny. Premji’s donation will fund 100 schools over the next five years, train teachers and invest in technology to create quality modern education at the lowest levels of development. Premji has promised more money in the future. Let the jingoists shriek all they want, but here is a Muslim corporate leader who has made India the holy land of his mission and his endeavour.
Premji’s act has brought philanthropy to the centre stage. In the heady era of the ‘I-don’t-care-I-want-to-party’ mindset, India’s philanthropic and charitable traditions have fallen by the wayside. While western pop icons like Bob Geldof, Sean Penn, Madonna and Angelina Jolie are distinguished by their commitment to sharing wealth and becoming voices of the disaster-struck, India’s popular icons are marked by their endorsement of brands and jockeying for IPL teams. There are notable exceptions like Shabana Azmi’s recent support to the Ek Jodi Kapda campaign or Rahul Bose’s work among tsunami victims. But its difficult to find a Bollywood star who would lend his services as passionately and as self-effacingly to a disaster- struck area as perhaps actor Sean Penn’s humanitarian work for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Historian Kancha Ilaiah believes that spiritual traditions determine motivations towards philanthropy. The bania notion of ‘gupt dhana’ or hidden wealth has meant that wealth has been hoarded, not openly shared with the needy as a way of enriching society, as an act of individual conscience or even as an act of worship. The Christian belief that god exists among the poor and the suffering is not as central to the Hindu way of thought where poverty is often seen as bad karma of a previous birth. Great charitable works have been done by religious foundations like the Sathya Sai and others, but often ritual donations to temples and priests have taken the place of focused development-oriented wealth-sharing.
In the 1950s and 60s, the Birlas and Tatas led the way in the setting up of many educational and cultural institutions. But today’s prevailing culture of unabashed display has meant that the elegance of the old wealthy families, where money implied low key taste and discreet good living, is hardly practised. The Ambani billion-dollar home, valued at R4,000 crore or Lakshmi Mittal’s famous $60 million wedding for his daughter are, at one level, signals of the arrival of Indian business on the world stage, but from the point of view of the aam aadmi, they stand out as symbols of flamboyantly displayed wealth, wealth as shock treatment rather than wealth as healer.
The profits of India’s new billionaires have not kept pace with their philanthropic works. While there are local development initiatives in RIL’s Jamnagar, announcement of facilities for poor patients in the Ambani hospital, these are only a fraction of the mega profits of India’s top businessmen. Firms that are committed to the building of human capital, or building brain power have fared better. There is, for example, the Akshay Patra scheme of Infosys, the rural school network of the Mittal group and HCL Infosystems’ Vidyasagar scheme. No doubt, suspicion and hostility of the bureaucracy towards corporates, lack of public-private partnerships in key sectors like education have curtailed society building initiatives. Yet a grand gesture of generosity of the heart has been missing. Warren Buffet and Bill Gates asked US billionaires to give away 50% of their wealth to charity. But in India, we want to pamper our own children and our next generation too much.
Three years ago, in a message to India’s rich, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had advised that they should shun wasteful lifestyles and conspicuous consumption like ostentatious weddings. The prime minister said that every rich person should do more to help ordinary people, instead of creating lifestyles that plant resentment in the minds of the have-nots. “India has made us,” the prime minister said, “let us build bharat.” A return to a Nehruvian-style austerity may be impossible in a market economy. But can there be any doubt that in a country of the poor, the rich do have a duty to be a little low-key about their wealth?
As the economy grows at above 8% and more money than ever before becomes available, let each one adopt a sector where we can be a drop in the ocean, be it health, education or environment. In 1991, we underwent a collective mental transformation. It was a psychological overhaul. As the economy changed, making money was no longer seen as a sin and we ceased to be hypocritical about the human urge for material improvement. As a nation, we became healthily unapologetic about generating wealth, generating jobs and generating much-needed revenue from business.
But now we can’t let corruption and selfishness take away from achieving the ‘good life’ in every sense of the term. Let each of us take a pledge of philanthropy, that even if we can’t do as much as Premji, we will become a country where India’s privileged are known worldwide as India’s hands-on care-givers.
(Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN)
*The views expressed by the author are personal