It is one of the puzzling paradoxes of India that despite philanthropy being a core value of our civilization from ancient times, extolled by our most revered scriptures, teachers and saints—from the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Koran, to the Buddha, the Sikh Gurus and the Sufi Pirs—we do not have a real culture of philanthropy in our country.
A Sanskrit proverb from the Nitidvishastika says: “That man’s life alone is meaningful who sustains and nourishes vast multitudes of men from his provisions. And he who does not sustain others is indeed dead, even if alive.” The Prophet Mohammad said “A man’s true wealth is the good he does in this world.” And the Buddha taught us that “The greatest gain is to give to others”.
In our own times, Mahatma Gandhi believed that industrialists should regard themselves as trustees of the wealth they owned, and should use it not for their own benefit but for the social good.
A number of individuals in our country now control personal wealth beyond imagination. I am told that we now have the largest number of dollar billionaires in the developing world—some 52 —and over 100,000 dollar millionaires.
In contrast, as a recent column in this newspaper pointed out, some 40% of Indians still live below the poverty line; 93 million live in slums; 128 million do not have access to clean water; and over seven million children are still excluded from education. The statistics for malnutrition among children, and for maternal deaths, remain equally distressing.
We have always had extremes of poverty and riches, but today the contrasts are becoming all the more glaring. As awareness and aspiration have arisen, as empowerment and inclusiveness have grown, these contrasts have the potential to give rise to disquiet and even turmoil. It is surely time to take note and exhibit not vulgar displays of wealth but a thoughtful sense of sharing. It happens in other societies around the world, why not here?
Philanthropy in our country rarely goes beyond helping family members, donations to temples, ashrams and religious institutions, or sponsorship of sports and cultural events that receive prominent publicity in the media.
Of course, there have been shining exceptions. As early as 1896, Jamsetji Tata’s vision and generosity made possible the foundation of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. Other Parsi philanthropists built schools, hospitals, roads, orphanages, shelters and parks in Bombay. The Tatas and the Godrejs have long maintained this tradition of generous, unheralded philanthropy. It was the support of industrialists such as Jamnalal Bajaj, Ambalal Sarabhai and Ghanshyamdas Birla that helped Mahatma Gandhi launch and sustain his satyagrahas for freedom, non-violence, social justice and communal harmony.
In the 21st century, it is our IT leaders, such as N. R. Narayanamurthy and his wife Sudha, and Shiv Nadar, who are showing the way, using their wealth to fund education, health, research and scholarship. They are, to paraphrase the Mahatma’s words of being the change they want to see, acting constructively to help build a just and equitable society. But they remain exceptions. In America, 75% of philanthropic gifts come from corporate and individual donations, as opposed to a mere 10% in India.
The virtues of “Daan” and “Sewa” have always been most highly valued in our society, so why are we in general such reluctant philanthropists? One reason that prevents many people from giving could be an anxiety that their donation will be misused. Another possible reason is a feeling that the tasks are so mammoth that no individual donation can really make a difference.
To be sure, several charitable organizations and NGOs are working with exemplary selflessness to eradicate hunger and poverty, and promote health, education and social equity. There are uncounted examples of individuals who have devoted themselves to the welfare of others. They all deserve our gratitude.
At the same time, to create a wider culture of philanthropy, we should work towards creating an environment that enables and encourages it. Charitable organizations probably need to be more transparent in their functioning, more focused and goal-oriented; more professionally run, monitored and evaluated. We also need legal structures that encourage philanthropy, making it easier to give and to distribute donations. Networks should be created to connect philanthropists with the most effective NGOs and activists working for the cause they wish to support. Philanthropists should be encouraged to participate in building institutions that work with sustained dedication, passion and professionalism to build the India of our dreams. Moreover, for philanthropy to be truly effective, it has to be more than just an act of charity, of writing a cheque to support the cause one believes in. Our wealth creators, with their proven entrepreneurial and management skills, their innovative minds, their judgement and experience, must give as generously of these as of their money, to ensure that their philanthropic enterprises run as efficiently and as effectively as their business enterprises. To quote Rohini Nilekani, we need “the smartest minds, the warmest hearts and the deepest pockets to come together to bring about lasting change”.
With greater wealth comes greater responsibility. I hope our industrialists, entrepreneurs and businessmen will recognize that the responsibility for the uplift of the poor, the disadvantaged and the marginalized is not that of the government alone, but one that they must share. In recent weeks, we have seen a heartening example of private philanthropy’s determination to shoulder this responsibility in Azim Premji’s generous gift of Rs 8,846 crore for the health, education and nutritional needs of disadvantaged children. I hope this inspiring initiative, and the example of other illustrious philanthropists, ushers in an era in which the bottom line is not just the creation of more wealth, but a desire to use wealth for compassionate, purposeful and meaningful philanthropy; where the possession of wealth is used not for conspicuous consumption, but to help transform the destinies of millions of our fellow citizens.