Not just Small Change: Indian Philanthropy Falls short, When Will India get its Melinda Gates?

By Sagarika Ghose

Two Americans are transforming millions of lives in UP and Bihar. Melinda Gates on her last trip to Maoist-affected villages in Jharkhand said she didn’t go there to ask ideological questions.

All she wanted to know was whether the women had bits of soap to wash their one or two saris, that they had the means of getting to a nearby clinic to deliver their babies, that midwives learned to close faucets with their elbows and clinics had small warming plates to place newborns.

Rather like an efficient office manager, hers is a detailed hands-on engagement with the nitty-gritties of the task at hand. Bill and Melinda Gates have vowed that the vast majority of Microsoft’s resources would go back to society. Not just their ‘own’ people or their ‘own’ society or their ‘own’ religion, but to people in distant India. The question arises, when will India get its Melinda Gates?

For decades the Tatas have stood for the concept of ‘trusteeship of wealth’, building modern India through varied institutions. Wipro chairman Azim Premji has made a two billion dollar donation to primary education, the trailblazer Nilekanis have pledged crores to philanthropy, the Piramals are doing pioneering work in healthcare, the Murthys have supported the midday meal Akshay Patra programme.

But are they only exceptions? Are the Indian rich by and large still not passionate about bringing real change through giving, still unwilling to place the majority of their resources at the service of society?

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Today ‘corporate’ in certain circles is becoming a less than sympathetic word. Personal homes valued at Rs 4,000 crore or family weddings valued at 60 million dollars once led former PM Manmohan Singh to ask business leaders to shun conspicuous consumption and a business leader to once admit that too many of his peers flaunted their wealth.

Licence raj austerity is hardly a relevant ideal in a market economy, but how many top corporate honchos would follow in the footsteps of Sam Singh who gave up his high flying career in DuPont Corporation to set up a school in his ancestral village in Bulandshahr?

Whether it’s schools started by Bharti Airtel or the CSR work being done by the Mahindras or Reliance Foundation, these are still baby steps: Philanthropy in India doesn’t seem to keep pace with either the profits or the scale of the problem. Sometimes charitable works seem designed only for photo-ops.

India’s politics is crucially responsible for creating a timid and complicit business. Our peculiar poor-by-day-and-rich-by-night politics distorts corporate practices and prevents transparent corporate stake-holding in development or a risk-taking mentality in philanthropy.

When short-sighted politics forces business into crony capitalism, bending rather than following rules and secretive collusion, as seen in spectrum and mining sectors, then private enterprise gets a bad name among the public and gets vilified as the ‘Ambani-Adani’ syndrome.

Bollywood compares rather badly with Hollywood. Is there an Indian film star whose work perhaps compares to the self-effacing and impactful labours of actor Sean Penn during Hurricane Katrina or of stars like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt who have adopted and are raising as their own children from Cambodia, Ethiopia and Vietnam?

Family plays a crucial role in blunting desi philanthropy. If politics is dominated by dynasty then business is dominated by families and a strong sense of family ownership over wealth. The Indian relationship with wealth is not only a secretive one, but one that is entirely focused on the family because in a poor country and in a climate of economic fear leaving an inheritance is seen as the main purpose of getting rich.

To quote Warren Buffet: “I love it when I’m around the country club, and I hear people talking about the debilitating effects of a welfare society, at the same time they leave their kids a lifetime and beyond of food stamps”

Leaving wealth to one’s children is almost a sacred ideal; leaving behind values, education and skills for children to become millionaires in their own right is less important. Unless politics and business are liberated from the constricting bonds of family, the powerful and wealthy will have no real inclination to fundamentally transform society.

Religious bodies like Sathya Sai Trust and others are role models yet sometimes prove unequal to the sheer scale of deprivation.Our relationship with wealth is in need of a psychological overhaul, away from double standards.

Every Indian wants to get rich, educated and healthy and needs to find honest and transparent ways to do so. We inwardly plot to get rich yet outwardly declare that moneymaking is a sin.

The question is, how to create a society where opportunities are equal, where wealth creation can operate on a level playing field. Millionaires wouldn’t have to leave everything to their kids if they were confident that society would provide excellent opportunities for them.

Gates-FoundationMelinda Gates says the liberal nuns in her Catholic school taught her the value of equality and justice. In the Hindu tradition, daan in itself is a virtue.Raja Harishchandra, the great donor king, donated his kingdom as a personal act of sacrifice.

Yet renouncing materialism takes a higher place than using the bulk of one’s riches for public good at large. Once we accept the true meaning of vasudhaiva kutumbakam – the whole world is our own family – maybe India too will get its very own Melinda Gates.

( Sagarika Ghose has been a journalist for over two decades, starting her career with The Times of India. She is former prime time anchor and deputy editor of CNN-IBN and at present she is consulting editor, The Times of India. She is the author of two novels, ‘The Gin Drinkers’ and ‘Blind Faith’ both published worldwide by HarperCollins)

*This article first appeared with The Times of India