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Give till it soothes

india Updated: Jul 17, 2007 00:21 IST
Ravi Kalia
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In his May speech to the Confederation of Indian Industry, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh exhorted rich Indians and captains of Indian industry to give back more to the society that had helped create their wealth. He noted, “If those who are better off do not act in a more socially responsible manner, our growth process may be at risk, our polity may become anarchic and our society may get further divided.” It was a noble, if not novel, speech.

<b1>For the Indian industrialist, however, balancing personal gain with social good continues to be difficult. Like Renaissance patrons in Italy, industrialist-philanthropists in India have been more interested in the next life, channelling charity to build temples, libraries, primary schools and orphanages, and naming them after departed family members. But they transcended this peculiarly Indian barrier whenever self-interest was at stake. Soon after Independence, for example, the Gujarati business leader, Kasturbhai Lalbhai, realised that the paternalistic Indian management system was too outdated to fit into a free-market world. He decided it was in his own interest to build institutions to train Indians in the “hundreds of thousands” as Prime Minister Nehru called for. Although Kasturbhai never completed his formal education, he educated his two sons in the US and became involved with building educational institutions in Ahmedabad.

Ambalal Sarabhai was a leading progressive industrialist in Ahmedabad, and became very close to Gandhi. One day, in his 20s, he turned up at Gandhi’s ashram with a fistful of rupees to support the Mahatma’s controversial campaign for the uplift of Harijans. For a young man of means, this was socially alien. As a shrewd businessman, Ambalal also saw in his iconoclastic sister, Anasuya’s campaign to improve the lot of workers — by educating their children and women — an opportunity to improve relations between workers and mill owners. Ahmedabad textile mill owners had a formidable war chest in the form of charitable trusts to fund educational and cultural initiatives in Gujarat. As early as 1922, Kasturbhai successfully sought from the government of India tax exemption for up to 50 per cent of the amount donated to recognised charities. In 1976, the various Kasturbhai family trusts alone stood at a staggering sum of Rs 231 lakh; and between 1948 and 1976, the Kasturbhai family and Lalbhai industries together contributed about Rs 478 lakh to various causes. In concert with the Indian government, these charitable trusts were responsible for the creation of the Ahmedabad Textile Industry Research Association (Atira), the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) and the IIM.

Even in princely India, the more enlightened rulers displayed greater pizazz in matters of social justice and economic development. Among others, the examples of Maharajas Sayajirao Gaekwad III (r.1875 - 1939) and Fatesinghrao Gaekwad in Baroda (r.1951 - 1988), and Maharajas Chamarajendra Wodeyar IX (r.1968 - 1894) and Jayachamaraja Wodeyar in Mysore (r.1940 - 1950), stand out. Long before Gandhi took up the cause of Indian untouchables, Sayajirao had sponsored B. R. Ambedkar’s education in the UK and the US, and amended the state constitution to allow the Dalit Ambedkar to sit in the Baroda Assembly.

But today’s wealthy differ from their predecessors in that they made their wealth so often, and so quickly, through financial markets, especially after the economic liberalisation. And in keeping with tradition, rich Indians offensively display their wealth at weddings and social occasions in the midst of griping Indian poverty. Stanley Katz of Princeton University noted in a recent article: “Modern philanthropy, which was substantially the creation of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and their contemporaries, was a response to the unprecedented amount of liquid and disposable wealth available to the first generation of the super-rich industrialists.” They wanted to give away this wealth not for alleviation of individual cases of distress, but “to devise a strategy for doing works in gross”. They agreed that the key to philanthropy was the search “for the root causes of distress (whether physical, economic, or social) and for the techniques to eradicate them.” The same skills that helped bring them unprecedented wealth could be applied to improve society by uplifting the poor.

Manmohan Singh should use the bully pulpit to persuade Indian industrialist-philanthropists to donate large sums of private wealth. Social entrepreneurship through philanthropy can be a creative force in economic development, just as business entrepreneurship has produced Indian dollar millionaires. Sadly, what we are witnessing is a vulgar display of wealth ubiquitously seen on TV and computer screens, and not just on the celluloid screen where the poor once went to escape reality for three hours for Rs 1.25. Rather than recalibrating the new Indian Dream to mean a greater spectacle of wealth, and letting the Indian free-market extremism confuse affluence with cosmopolitanism and urbanity, rich Indians should use their wealth to demonstrate that philanthropy matters, both politically and socially, in 21st century India.

Ravi Kalia is professor of urban-architectural history at the City College of New York, & author of Gandhinagar: Building National Identity in Postcolonial India.