New Delhi: Billionaire investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, who’s often referred to as India’s Warren Buffett, has pledged to donate 25% of his wealth during his lifetime through his R Jhunjhunwala Foundation. He has set a corpus target of $1 billion (about Rs4,940 crore) for his foundation by 2020. In an interview, Jhunjhunwala talks about Agastya International Foundation, a cause he supports, and the state of philanthropy in India. Edited excerpts:
I’ve learnt in life that curiosity is the source of all knowledge. Agastya had the basic idea to teach science in rural areas and, therefore, arouse curiosity in rural children so they can learn and develop.
Donation drive: Jhunjhunwala says he hopes to give $1 billion to charity by 2020. Photo by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.
It’s a very cost-effective programme and also it is being done by a person who I trust implicitly. Although I am a trustee, I don’t contribute to the day-to-day running of the institution.
I made this commitment about four years ago. If you want to scale an institution, it requires a certain amount of money to do it. I started in 2001. I went to villages where the children didn’t have clothes, their noses were running, but they were already learning. It was at a very initial stage of the development of the organization; we needed to scale it.
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Have you always considered education the most important cause?
It’s not only what you teach a child. It’s about arousing the curiosity to learn—that is a far larger contribution to the child. And that’s why I have kept giving. We are not educating a child from 1st to 12th standard; we are educating them to be curious.
It was a parallel I drew from my own life. I was a very curious child. I was constantly questioning my father, “Why is this, why is that?” and that was how I learnt.
How did you decide to make such a substantial commitment, and what is your plan for implementing it?
Every year I would give about Rs15 crore to charity, but this is the largest donation and my foundation is the vehicle for it. I have said that by 2020, I want to give away 25% of my wealth. I hope it will be $1 billion by then. Now I give 25% of my dividend income, and by then I want to give of my wealth itself. I’ll be 60 by the time that happens.
Do you think India’s new self-made millionaires are more likely to give than their predecessors who inherited wealth?
I don’t want to lecture others, but I think that more and more money should and will be given to charity. I have not inherited any wealth, but I wonder what will my children do with my wealth. I will try to teach them to give, although they are born with a golden spoon, what I want for them is to give. I will always teach them that.
It will depend on a person’s background, whether he wants to give, but I think in general Indians will give more over time.
How do you intend to monitor the money you have pledged?
When my charity becomes Rs150 crore, that is when I will have a professional organization, where we’ll inspect the charities and will spell out more clearly what are my real priorities in doing this.
I don’t mix my charity and my commercial interests. I will give from what I earn, but I am not earning for the purpose of giving. I’m mortally afraid of committing to something I can’t realize.
Did the recent visit by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, to publicize their Giving Pledge have any influence on your decision to make this commitment?
I think Melinda Gates’ example was very influential. I could see in her eyes the will to give. I felt that we must contribute our own money, and the giving must result in results far beyond the money itself. I think there is a peer effect, also—people may feel that if Rakesh is giving, then we should also give.
My father was only interested in one thing in my life, and that was how I used my wealth—he taught me I couldn’t take it with me. I think giving is like a drug—the more you give, the better you feel. When I go and see the conditions in these places, I really see how lucky we are.