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Alms and our countrymen

Corporate philanthropy can go a long way towards reviving national institutions and building new ones, writes Pratik Kanjilal.

india Updated: May 21, 2011 16:40 IST
Pratik Kanjilal

I was in Santiniketan when a tidal wave of alms from corporate India crashed onto the shores of American academia. Ratan Tata’s $50 million gift to Harvard Business School and Anand Mahindra’s $10 million support to the university’s Humanities Centre followed Narayana Murthy’s $5 million to the Clay Sanskrit library and Nandan and Rohini Nilekani’s $5 million to the Yale India Initiative. Imagine the outrage on the kebab and cocktails circuit: so much money, and all for the firangis?

I am not a knowledge nationalist. I believe that knowledge and the means to develop it should cross borders freely. But knowledge is an instrument for the accumulation of power and, to that extent, I am disturbed by one-way traffic at the highest level of education. But then, how people spend their money is their business and legitimate motives are visible here: international brand extension (Harvard will name a building for the Tatas), paying back the alma mater (Mahindra is a Harvard alumnus) and regard for Sanskrit heritage. The Nilekanis are an exception — they are closely associated with the Yale India Initiative and have simply invested in their own project.

But here in Santiniketan, amidst the slumbering memories of Rabindranath Tagore’s daring experiment in education, even I can see an argument against the motion. There is much to be salvaged here, not only the Tagoreana with which the Visva Bharati campus is identified. Centres of former excellence need corporate generosity in this university town where modernism and atavism once joined hands to produce intellectual progress. For instance, there’s the oldest centre for Sino-Indian studies, established in 1937, whose work has diplomatic importance in our difficult relations with China.

Or, let’s not think of sprawling, expensive, derelict universities but rather of compact national institutions crippled by poor financing, graft, politicking or nepotism. And since the donors we are discussing are businessmen, let us discard elevated theories of knowledge in favour of the basic commercial principle of bang for buck.

Just over half of the R270-odd crore that went to Harvard alone from Indian corporate donors could have covered central funding to all the following institutions, picked out of a hat, for one year: The National Film Development Corporation, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Indian Council for Social Science Research, Indian Council for Historical Research, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Bharat Bhavan, Lalit Kala Akademi, Sahitya Akademi and Sangeet Natak Akademi. Obviously, as corpus funds, the money would go much further. And if financing inefficient government institutions is a bore, it costs about R20 crore to create a brand new humanities research institution in India — the sum that went to the Clay Library and Yale.

Something has gone fundamentally wrong with Indian philanthropy. In the 11th century, the peripatetic polymath Alberuni had commented on the culture of alms-giving in India and the opprobrium attached to accumulating wealth beyond reason. Financial uncertainty after the annexation of Awadh destroyed that culture, briefly revived in the phase of nation-building after Independence, and then lost again in modern, disillusioned times.

Yale has launched its India Initiative in acknowledgement of India’s importance. On our part, can’t we accelerate India’s growth by reclaiming our ancient culture of giving to our own?

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine. The views expressed by the author are personal