Home >Opinion >Columns >Why Indians love paying lip service to philanthropy

If you are an Indian who still follows mainstream news, you could not have missed a celebratory item a few days ago about Jamsetji Tata, founder of the Tata Group. According to a study, among the people who were alive in the 20th century, he gave away more wealth in charity than anyone else. His ‘total philanthropic value’, the report said, was over $102 billion in today’s money, and that put him ahead of the Carnegies, Rockefellers, Fords, the Gates and Warren Buffett. If you scratch a thin layer off, you will realize that Tata has been declared the world’s greatest giver chiefly because he started endowments now known collectively as Tata Trusts, which own almost two-thirds of Tata Sons, and it is this ownership that forms most of his philanthropic value. This is an odd measure of a person’s altruism, but Indians celebrated anyway because the truth always interferes with national pride.

Indians celebrate their philanthropists even though India is not a generous society. Be it tips to waiters or grants that build the future, it is hard to get money out of Indians. We are more likely to see a millionaire bargain with a malnourished tribal to get ten rupees off. Indians do give away some crumbs in alms if someone is watching, especially a divine being. Some Indians have taken a non-binding giving pledge, but the option of giving away almost their entire wealth to the public or an abstract idea, is laughable to most wealthy Indians.

The unspoken tenet of the typical Indian family is to provide an unfair advantage to its own because the state is useless or undependable. What our rich appear to consider their primary duty is to pass on accumulated wealth to their children. Even their religious donations are often aimed at inspiring supernatural powers to enrich them and their children further. Also, some wealthy Indians harbour the feeling that they have made it big not because of India, but despite India. The nation is an impediment and not an ally. It is no wonder that so many Indians feel emotionally closer to their caste and community than to the wider nation. So community-level organized philanthropy is not uncommon. For instance, the Parsis of Mumbai, wealthy Syrian Christians of Kerala and Marwadis have traditionally given away money, though usually only a fraction of their wealth.

The West’s wealthy, especially in the US, appear to think very differently.

Capitalism might be a natural instinct of humans, but philanthropy is an invention. How greed and altruism should coexist in the same person is explained in one of the most famous magazine articles ever, Wealth by Andrew Carnegie, which was published in the North American Review in 1889. The article was later known as ‘The gospel of wealth’.

This essay is widely considered to contain the first principles of modern philanthropy. Carnegie argues that it is natural for a wealthy person to leave a tidy sum for one’s dependents, and that the tidiness of the sum is subjective within reasonable limits. But, he says, it is unwise for a wealthy man to bequeath all his wealth to his children and make them wander about in an aimless life of decadence. Carnegie not only argues the rich should give away their wealth to various causes that interest them, he demands something else, and it is this, rather than the idea of charity, that forms the basis of modern philanthropy: that the rich should begin giving away wealth during their lifetime. Men who leave vast sums only upon their death “may fairly be thought men who would not have left it at all, had they been able to take it with them."

Carnegie points out that a master and his apprentices once worked side by side and were social equals. With the invention of mass production, the master’s power grew many sizes larger. An entrepreneur must either expand business or perish. “There is no middle ground." A consequence is inequality, but in return capitalism made everyone prosper. Now even the poor have a lifestyle that in some ways is better than those of past monarchs. “Much better this great irregularity than universal squalor."

Then Carnegie comes to what actually bothers him. Every age comes up with an idea to reform capitalism, and he fears that if the rich don’t create a fair world for future capitalists at the expense of their own progeny, it will be full of communists. Even then, industrialization was in competition with the business of reformation that fed politicians, failed capitalists, scions in search of meaning, writers and other artists. Thus, philanthropy.

The power of philanthropy is that it has some genes of capitalism, like greed and megalomania, but appears to do on a large scale what self-diagnosed humanitarians seek to achieve.

This is what India’s wealthy seem not to appreciate. Philanthropy is capitalism’s war against revolution. It not only confuses society by looking like social work, but also creates future capitalists by transferring capital from mediocre inheritors to the talented who, given a chance, would thrive.

Carnegie’s true faith was capitalism, and he donated his wealth to make his faith endure well beyond his life. India’s wealthy, except for a few like Azim Premji, seem mostly happy paying their taxes and fulfilling their ‘corporate social responsibility’ by sponsoring some vague charity headed by a fringe family member. Without an Indian guide on wealth in a capitalist framework that answers the question, ‘what’s the objective of money?’, it is not surprising that many benefactors of Indian capitalism are ‘socialists’. That is as funny as the fact that many fans of capitalism in India are actually broke.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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