India Insight

India’s rich too green for grand giving?

INDIA-GATES/With the Gates-Buffett give-it-away tour just in India, many have been questioning if the country’s rich are up to such philanthropy. Gross exaggerations of wealth and poverty are on display every day in India – the BMW next to the bullock cart or the coiffured Jimmy Choo-wearing woman waiting for her driver as the shoeless human mule shuffles past with two oil drums on his back. With millions malnourished and uneducated, with ancient monuments crumbling, with indigenous art, theatre and music unsupported and fading, why can’t the uber rich give to the country that helped them so?

India is a country with a long tradition of charity, whether Samadhi (the last stage of life when, after having sought prosperity, one gives away all possessions as a step to enlightenment) or giving alms and tithe (giving ten percent of your income away to the poor). There is also a strong culture of giving to one’s immediate family and supporting the families of domestic help. It would be unfair to say that many of the rich in India don’t donate to countless charities and religious institutions. They do and without the generous tax incentives offered in many other countries.

But in a place with six industrialists on’s list of the world’s top 50 billionaires, where are the grand Gates-and-Buffet-esque acts of beneficence, aside from Azim Premji’s $2 bln donation, which was so exceptional it proved the rule? Where are even the generous offerings that India’s own 19th century tycoons made? Cowasjee Jehangir Readymoney built hospitals, colleges, Mumbai University’s Convocation Hall and artful public drinking fountains. Banker and cotton trader Premchand “Cotton King” Roychand built Mumbai University’s iconic library and clock tower. David Sassoon built one of the city’s largest libraries. And the ubiquitous Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy built hospitals, schools, art institutes, and even a causeway when the government wouldn’t. And before that there were many benevolent Rajas and Nawabs that have left the land peppered with architectural gems.

So why not now?

Did the violence from partition, the population boom and a famine take its toll not just on the economy but the psyche too? When there is so much poverty around, does that make people hold on to their wealth — large or small — more assiduously? Building new monuments and caring for old ones also understandably gets pushed aside when there are millions to feed and educate. Moreover the embrace of socialism, for all its noble intentions, too often results in the ethos: the state must provide, so why should I? And finally, it can be argued, industrialists do a better service to society concentrating on nurturing successful companies that provide jobs and build up the economy.

But maybe even having said all that, there is another notion that could be in play.

Time to donate India’s “corrupt” funds to charity?

If charity is a good thing, what do you do if the funds come from murky, or corrupt, dealings?

Billionaire Warren Buffett speaks during a news conference in New Delhi March 24, 2011. REUTERS/B MathurThe visit of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett has sparked debate in India over whether the country’s new billionaires are giving enough to charity.

If that wasn’t a delicate enough issue, Buffett was asked at a press conference whether foundations should accept money from dubious sources.

Ambani’s vertical palace vs Premji’s horizontal giving

In a contest between who is the most celebrated Indian billionaire, a man who donates $2 bln to education versus a man who builds himself a $1bln home, the winner is obvious. Right?

The founder and chairman of infotech giant Wipro Ltd., Azim Premji, is India’s third richest man, said to be worth $17 bln. In one gesture, he has given away more than ten percent of his wealth to a fund for rural education. Surely such a generous donation is most noble and worthy?

And yet the act which has had the deeper impact on the public’s imagination is the recent show of wealth by India’s richest man, industrialist Mukesh Ambani.