Philanthropy is an opportunity for change | Amit Chandra
There are two truths about India that we Indians just can’t escape. First, for a vast majority of our fellow Indians, living a decent life is a dream punctured by a cruel daily grind. The second is that philanthropy, which literally means having a genuine concern for human welfare and advancement, is central to changing this. Let me add to that an assertion that, notwithstanding our economic or social status, each of us has the incredible opportunity and potential to meaningfully change things. Whether or not you think this is a tall claim is something you should decide after reading this story.
On a warm afternoon last week, a few of us from Mumbai sat with a group of 307 schoolboys, enjoying an enactment of Julius Caeser—in fluent Shakespearean English! Post the act, we were led into a technology-enabled classroom, where another group of 8th and 9th standard boys showed us a multimedia presentation of their summer project, in which they went deep into their community to spread the message on issues such as education, sanitation and dowry. They followed up with a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis of their efforts and learnings, with a promise to do better next year. Before you conclude that these were children from one of our elite schools in a metro, doing a SUP (socially useful productive) work project, I would like you to know that these were children from the Musahar (literally meaning rat-eaters, on account of circumstances—not choice) community, enrolled at Shoshit Seva Sangh’s school in Patna. Musahars are Maha-dalits, probably one of the most backward communities in the country. If the roll of the all powerful birth dice serves you to be born in one such family, the overwhelming odds are that you will suffer a difficult life—plagued with lack of education, healthcare, opportunity and, worst of all, hope.
But wait a minute. What connects this reality from what I described earlier? It is simply a small group of exceptional individuals, from different walks of life, who share the belief that however daunting a social problem seems, it can still be solved, but that we all have a part to play in that transformation via whatever philanthropy we are capable of. In a country where bureaucrats are criticized for not being imaginative and solution oriented, J.K. Sinha, a senior retired Indian Police Service (IPS) officer, has taken on the challenge of transforming the Musahar community. Realizing that reservations alone will not materially impact a community with less than 3% literacy, Sinha has made providing a high quality education to hundreds of “change agents” from the Musahars his life’s mission. Not only is his school educating these children to dream of becoming Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) engineers, and talented artists, but it is also instilling in them the desire to remain connected with their community and help transform it from within. Joining Sinha in this journey are a group of wonderful teachers and staff, many of whom could easily find jobs in private schools. In addition to a principal who has just moved from Ujjain to Patna, over the last two years, his mission has infected a few passionate and talented youngsters who just don’t believe in status quo. We met Simranpreet Singh Oberoi, a sprightly Sardar who is a Young India Fellow from Delhi, and two wonderful Teach for India Fellows, Ritika and Sen, who have also moved from Delhi and Pune, respectively, to Patna, to join Sinha and his staff in this mission. Vaishali, another youngster who is an Economics graduate from St. Xavier’s, Mumbai, and is currently pursuing her M.A in Education from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), has been working at the school for the past four months.
That evening, we moved from the dilapidated residential-cum-makeshift school building to a state-of-the-art 55,000 sq. ft building in Patna that will be ready to be occupied in about a month. The building will help eventually increase the capacity of “Musahar change agents” from the current 350 to 1,000 children, and also provide the infrastructure for a more wholesome education. What has made this Rs.10 crore + capex and Rs.2 crore annual budget project possible is the coming together of a number of philanthropists and companies like the Thermax Foundation, Edelgive, HSBC, Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, Indian Oil Corp. Ltd, and a few donors advised by GiveIndia’s high networth individuals division. Joining the board of this organization with their contribution of time and expertise are two top-notch senior professionals with a deep social orientation, Paresh Parasnis and Ujwal Thakkar. Lest I should forget, there is also a contribution from Manoj, a young Musahar boy from the school. On winning Rs.25 lakh on Kaun Banega Crorepati, he told Amitabh Bachchan that even though his family needed the money desperately, he felt responsible for uplifting the community and wanted to donate the money instead.
The condition of millions of Musahars, over six decades post our independence is a national shame. There are many such national shames, and closing our eyes to pretend they don’t exist isn’t a solution, neither is being an arm-chair critic of the government. My wife and my personal journey with this project has showed us that each of us has an incredible opportunity to play whatever role we can to convert such shames into national prides. Often, “smaller” contributions like Manoj’s are more valuable than much larger donations from philanthropists or a corporate social responsibility (CSR) contribution, so we shouldn’t shy away from making them. We were introduced to this project by a private equity veteran, and have used our network to introduce many new donors to the project. We were also fortunate to play a small role in connecting the dots via our network of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that resulted in the school attracting some of the passionate youngsters we mentioned. These youngsters, who have chosen this dream over the standard path of material progress, have in turned showed others what we all are capable of once we choose to be philanthropic. Finally, all of us in the business world have very valuable experiences that often help us be good problem solvers and partners to those driving social change. When we put our experience and networks to use, we are helping build a virtuous cycle. My friends who have now joined the board of this foundation will bring their own perspectives and networks, and help Sinha realize his dream of uplifting the Musahar community in the years ahead.
I firmly believe that from time to time we must take a step back from the bustle of our day-to-day lives and introspect how our country is being shaped, and ask ourselves what our own role is in that journey. I feel if we push our thinking, most of us are likely to conclude that balancing our own material consumption needs, or our desire to provide inheritances to our children, and/or using our time to do good work in the service of society, is either the best opportunity that we could be blessed with. If not an opportunity, it is certainly an imperative that, if not pursued, will result in the next generations questioning our wisdom and efforts in delivering them a society that is worse in shape than what we inherited from the previous generation.
The author is managing director of Bain Capital Advisors and board member of various leading companies and NGOs, but writes this in his personal capacity. His wife and he endeavour to donate 75% of their annual income, and substantial amount of their time to building and running organizations that serve Indian society.