‘We Cannot Have Islands Of Wealth’

he direct contribution of Indian business to social causes is so low that a law soon taking effect will require companies of a certain size and profitability to spend a fraction of their wealth on what is ambiguously termed corporate social responsibility, or explain to the Government why they have failed to do so… But the Government does make up for all the shortcomings that Indians exhibit when it comes to giving. Despite the nation’s acute fiscal deficit crisis, Parliament recently passed an extraordinary bill that guarantees free or subsidised grain to two-thirds of India’s 1.2 billion people. With a magnanimous Government like this, every Indian taxpayer is a philanthropist…


we-cannot-have-islands-of-wHow cruel that the men and women who were about to pledge substantial amounts to charity for the very first time in their lives had to pass through the illuminated showrooms of Hermès, Burberry, Gucci and Ermenegildo Zegna before reaching the venue of the First Givers Club. Here the imminent philanthropists, who appeared resolute, mingled with more seasoned givers, the employees of India’s charity industry and the type of men, common at Delhi’s banquets, whose job profiles are incomprehensible. The evening, organised by Give India  a service that unites potential donors and the needy  proceeded with the somewhat frequent use of “inflection point” and “ecosystem” and, one of India’s favorite alliterations, “demographic dividend.”
India’s miseries are so many and so visible that affluent Indians of sound mind live with a relentless hum of conscience nudging them to donate to causes. Television commercials and print advertisements show them bleak images, often in black and white, of unhappy children whose lives could be better. These artistic images are largely unnecessary because almost all of India is a plea to its own to make it a better place. Yet, there is very little in the way of philanthropy. In fact, the direct contribution of Indian business to social causes is so low that a law soon taking effect will require companies of a certain size and profitability to spend a fraction of their wealth on what is ambiguously termed corporate social responsibility, or explain to the Government why they have failed to do so.
Such a responsibility has traditionally been a corporate ruse to save on taxes by showing expenditures on seemingly charitable causes, or, in old-fashioned business houses, a way to keep the women in the family occupied as the men did ostensibly more important things. But now the Government wants Indian companies to get more serious about it. One reason most Indian businesses have been so parsimonious is that, very simply, they probably don’t care so much about orphans. And, they are as new to wealth as India is. Also, the cost of doing business in India is high to begin with, which is a euphemism for having to give bribes and be the primary sponsors of political corruption. But there have been some companies that have very consciously developed a philanthropic profile.
One of the speakers at the First Givers Club was Rakesh Mittal, the high-spirited Vice Chairman and Managing Director of the conglomerate Bharti Enterprises. He said that Indian companies today “are looking at doing more beyond business, not because the Government is forcing them, but because we cannot have islands of wealth. You cannot take this country forward if we are just worried about what I have and what I need for me and my family, and the ecosystem and the society around is crumbling.”
He spoke about opening scores of schools for the poor and how his success inspired State Governments to ask him to run their schools, and how it was often a “nightmarish” experience to work with the Government. The next morning I asked the Indian Minister of State for Hman Rsource Dvelopment, Shashi Tharoor, to comment on Mr. Mittal’s experience with the Government. Mr. Tharoor said, “I am in the Government and I find it nightmarish at times.”
When Mr. Mittal tried to acquire land to start his schools, he faced opposition from villagers who suspected that he was trying to seize their land to set up cellular towers. Among the poor, Indian corporations have a reputation for being thieves, and that is not merely because the nation has been seasoned in socialist paranoia for decades. The perception is well earned. In fact, Mr. Mittal’s brother, Sunil Mittal, Chairman of Bharti Enterprises, has been accused by the Central Bureau of Investigation of colluding with a former Minister and a bureaucrat more than a decade ago and bagging a mobile telephone spectrum license that eventually resulted in a loss of nearly 8.5 billion rupees, or $132 million at current exchange rates, to the Government. He has denied the allegation.
Speaking before the First Givers Club, Anu Aga, one of India’s noted business figures and philanthropists, said that she was inspired by her son, who died in a car accident when he was 25. He was very affected by India’s poverty, she said, and believed that a substantial part of his family’s wealth should go to charity. That is, somehow, an unusual wish for a wealthy Indian. But it is not uncommon for temples to receive huge donations. They are periodically surprised by gold coins, gold bars and jewels in the offering box. Such donations are, of course, meant to win divine favor for the donors and their children.
There is another reason, according to Rohini Nilekani, who recently sold a portion of her shares in Infosys, which her husband, Nandan Nilekani, co-founded, to raise money for her philanthropic work. “Temples are institutions of trust,” she told me. In a nation where people are suspicious of anyone who seeks to separate them from their money, religious organisations offer themselves as trustworthy receptacles of donations. But their balance sheets are mostly opaque. And even though they do build hospitals and schools, they hoard most of their substantial wealth in fixed deposits. God, it appears, not only converts donations into idle money, but also corners vast amounts of finite charity that would have otherwise been put to better use by more material organisations.
But the Government does make up for all the shortcomings that Indians exhibit when it comes to giving. Despite the nation’s acute fiscal deficit crisis, Parliament recently passed an extraordinary bill that guarantees free or subsidised grain to two-thirds of India’s 1.2 billion people. With a magnanimous Government like this, every Indian taxpayer is a philanthropist.
Manu Joseph is editor of the Indian newsweekly Open and author of the novel “The Illicit Happiness of Other People.”
– NYT : Coaxing India’s Rich to Give More

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