I want to be a catalyst in the development story: Anu Aga
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India, which has the biggest middle class for any country in the world and a small, but growing number of super-rich, is also a place where one-third of our people are poor. We have had over six decades of planned development with systematic fund allocations for improving the lives of our people. Yet, today we have a society plagued by mind-boggling inequality. We have fared very poorly in the areas of education, health and sanitation, skill development and protection of the girl child. Out of 186 countries, we have slipped from the 134th to 138th position on the UN Human Development Index ranking for 2012–13.
I see philanthropy as an act of giving, guided and motivated by a humane idea of what development means. Though growth is very important, we should not allow the discourse to be dominated by gross domestic product considerations alone. Instead, development as a concept has to be more down-to-earth by bringing under its ambit issues like homelessness and poverty, malnutrition and migration, education and inequality. I feel any discussion on development also has to deal with matters such as human rights violations.
As long as poverty and deprivation persist, our society will be troubled by social unrest and violent movements. In a country divided by privilege but united by television and mobile phones, people denied the fruits of growth are acutely aware of what they lack. With civic unrest reported from various parts of India, it is now increasingly clear that business cannot succeed in a society that fails. In this context, in my own enlightened self interest, for me, philanthropy is all about making use of opportunities to help bring about positive change in my own country. It means, at an individual level, utilizing my resources and skills to play the role of a catalyst in the development story that has been unfolding in fits and starts.
I don’t believe in giving as an attempt to promote one’s self esteem or the brand of the company that I am associated with. It also does not mean for me merely writing cheques for some worthy cause, so that I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have done my bit.
India has created more and more billionaires. Yet, we have not learnt the art of sharing this wealth with the poor and the needy. Even as we can see there is a crying need for positive interventions, are we seeing sufficient number of companies venturing beyond the stock arguments that “we pay taxes and we generate employment”? Here, I am not for a moment ignoring the good work done by companies like the Tatas, and in recent years, by new-generation organizations coming forward with their contributions to social causes. But what about the large majority of successful companies that are anchoring India’s success story?
I am convinced that while governments (central and state) need to take a fresh look at their welfare schemes where thousands of crores are allocated, only to be wasted through mismanagement and corruption, corporate leaders can supplement the process of development by contributing with resources and skills.
In our country, there are enough concerns that can be addressed by philanthropists—health, sanitation, malnutrition, education, welfare of children, homelessness, the fate of migrant workers, safety of women, and so on. My own company, Thermax Ltd has chosen the education of the underprivileged as the area of its choice. As the Annual Status of Education Report and Programme for International Student Assessment have conclusively shown, educational standards in our government schools, instead of improving, have deteriorated. As one of the much-needed interventions for change, Thermax Foundation has formed partnerships with Akanksha, a non-governmental organization, and the municipalities of Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad to provide quality education at government schools.
Years ago, I came across this passage that has been for me, almost an article of faith: “The business of business is to generate growth and profits or else it will die; however, if that is the sole purpose of a business, then also it should die, for it no longer has a reason for its existence.” In a society like ours, where we have persistent poverty and a widening gap between the rich and the poor, the relevance of the passage cannot be overemphasized. As beneficiaries of capitalism, philanthropists can help make the system sustainable by providing illustrious examples of humane practices that can be replicated by others.
As business leaders, they can make use of their networks to try and build alliances with the government and civil society, with the objective of overall social development. They can join relevant discussions on appropriate development models to help avoid the negative fallouts of the development experience of several developed nations—especially social inequality and environmental damage.
In our country, development projects often have also resulted in community dislocations and denial of their rights to resettlement and livelihoods.
The next phase of philanthropy, I hope, would move beyond mere disbursement of large sums of money and concentrate on the key issues of governance. By virtue of their commanding presence in the business establishment, philanthropists can and should try and bring in the collective strength of apex industry bodies and chambers of commerce. It is very much needed to mitigate the destructive aspects of growth and make the process of development sustainable and equitable.
Though we boast about our demographic dividend, if we don’t tackle our high levels of malnourishment and lack of quality education, it could soon turn into a demographic disaster. It would be really wise on the part of the wealthy to contribute their time, talent and resources so that a sizeable section of our population is not just fed and educated, but is also equipped with skills and provided jobs. Such thoughtful initiatives can provide them a real chance to come out of the vicious cycle of poverty.
Anu Aga is director and former chairperson, Thermax.