As per India Philanthropy Report 2019, i ndividual philanthropists accounted for about 60% of total private funding in FY2018 in India. Breaking down these contributions reveals that while large donations of Rs 10 crore or more by ultra-high net worth individuals compose 55% of individual philanthropist funding, about 80% of this figure results from Azim Premji’s donations to his philanthropic initiative. Premji has shown the way to Indian billionaires that the country’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 can’t be reached sans collaborative action among development stakeholders.
Premji was the first Indian billionaire to join the Giving Pledge in 2012. The Giving Pledge is a philanthropic initiative started by legendary investor Warren Buffet and former Microsoft chairman Bill Gates in 2010, with the intention of encouraging the wealthiest families to give the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes. As of 2019, the pledge has 187 signatories, either individuals or couples, from 22 countries. Indian American businessman Vinod Khosla was the first India-born billionaire to join the pledge in 2011. He was followed by another Indian American billionaire Romesh Wadhwani in 2012. He established the Wadhwani Foundation for economic development in emerging economies, with an initial focus on India.
In early 2015, Kerala-born NRI Sunny Varkey became the first education entrepreneur to join the international philanthropic foundation. He controls Dubai-based GEMS Education, the world's largest operator of K-12 schools. Sunny Varkey, the 62nd richest Indian in Forbes 2018 list, has consolidated and structured his various donations and charitable initiatives by creating the Varkey Foundation as the philanthropic arm of GEMS. He is also a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. Many of his education philanthropy ventures are in African nations.
The same year, Indian American businessman Manoj Bhargava pledged 99% of his net worth to improving the well-being of the world’s less fortunate. His foundations include the Hans Foundation and Rural India Supporting Trust. According to its website, the Hans Foundation works to identify and implement social development projects in the area of health, education, livelihoods and disability which are scalable and replicable, in partnership with NGOs, government and institutions, aimed at holistic development of all underprivileged and socially backward communities in India. Bhargava, a US citizen, used his wealth to build a philanthropic invention shop called Stage 2 Innovations. Its mission, says Bhargava in a documentary film Billions in Change, is to “invent stuff that makes a difference in other people's lives.”
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the founder of Bangalore-based biotechnology company Biocon Ltd, joined the Giving Pledge in December 2015. Mazumdar-Shaw, who prefers the term “compassionate capitalist” to “philanthropist”, has focused on healthcare access for the poor, education, and infrastructure. She has pledged to give away 75% of her wealth.
Oman-based businessman PNC Menon and his wife Sobha, founder of real estate company Sobha developers, pledged their wealth for charitable causes in 2016. Menon said in a letter addressed to Bill Gates on April 23, that it was “the responsibility of those who have been blessed with wealth to ensure that they maximize ways to help the less fortunate ones”. Menon, who made his millions building palaces for the Gulf’s ruling families, had established a charitable trust in his native state Kerala as early as 1994. The trust adopted two panchayats in Kerala’s Palakkad district and is helping the poor families in the area with their children’s education. Much before he joined the Giving Pledge, Menon had said in interviews that he would eventually donate 50% of his wealth to philanthropic causes in India and Oman.
In November 2017, tech billionaire Nandan Nilekani and his wife Rohini signed the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge. Nandan Nilekani said, "Wealth comes with huge responsibility and is best deployed for the larger public interest." Rohini is the founder of Arghyam, a foundation focusing on water and sanitation. The Nilekanis have also set up the EkStep Foundation, an open-learning platform that has pooled resources to advance literacy and numeracy.
In January 2018, Shamsheer Vayalil, founder of VPS Healthcare, a network of hospitals, clinics and pharmacies headquartered in the UAE, along with his wife Shabeena, is the latest Indian billionaire to join the Giving Pledge. In their pledge letter the Vayalils said, “In a small way, this is our way of giving thanks for the opportunities and successes we have found throughout our lives.”
India with its bewildering diversity and multi-religious ethos has been a land known for philanthropic giving. Though not taken the Giving Pledge, many Indian philanthropists are known for their initiatives especially in the educational sector. Tech billionaire Shiv Nadar’s philanthropy budget of $1 billion focuses on providing quality education to the underprivileged. Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy and wife Sudha Murthy’s social work covers the healthcare, education, empowerment of women, public hygiene, art and culture, and poverty alleviation at the grassroots level.
Steadily adding up to the Forbes-list, India since the last two decades has been swelling with billionaires. As per Forbes 2019 list India has 106 billionaires. This is 12% less than in 2018, when a record 121 Indians had made it to the list, making India the country with the third highest number of ultra-rich individuals behind China and the US. However, some of India’s richest have been conspicuous by their absence in another Forbes list, the Forbes Asia Heroes of Philanthropy. But then, each year this list names a few Indian billionaires who quietly go about with their philanthropic initiatives. For every year since 2008, the list not only features philanthropists who have made the news with their donations in the past year but also recognizes those with a long record of supporting worthy causes.
In 2018, five Indian billionaires made to the Philanthropists’ list. Cement czar Puneet Dalmia and his family set up the Avanee Foundation with nearly $3 million, aimed at education for kids from grades 3 to 8--promoting values like kindness, compassion and respect for elders. Anand Deshpande of Pune-based software company Persistent systems assisted nearly 9,000 small businesses through his deAsra Foundation, which has $3 million outlay. Kishore Lulla of the film production company Eros Group has earmarked $20 million for causes centred on females and children. Telecom tycoon Sunil Mittal and his brothers, Rakesh and Rajan, pledged to donate 10% of their wealth, including a 3% stake in listed telecom flagship Bharti Airtel, to their Bharti Foundation. Their foundation has so far provided free education to more than 45,000 children.
Another Indian billionaire who made it to the 2018 Forbes Asia list of Heroes of Philanthropy is Kerala businessman Kochouseph Chittilappilly, who debuted on Forbes' Billionaires list this year with a net worth of $1.2 billion. While he hasn't signed the Giving Pledge, he has promised to give away a third of his fortune in his lifetime. But what made Forbes notice Chittilappilly is his life-saving act of donating one of his kidneys to a stranger in 2011. He set up the K. Chittilappilly Foundation in 2012 to which he donates the major part of his annual earnings, including dividends ($1.2 million in 2017).
Anand Mahindra made it to the 2017 list for donating millions of dollars over the years to causes such as educating girls, providing clean drinking water and supporting tribal farmers. Muthalmapet Mahadevan of Oriental Cuisines, who holds a stake in more than 350 restaurants, cafes and bakeries across 16 countries, has long used his business to transform the lives of people. He donates at least a third of his annual income to philanthropy. Another billionaire Rajiv Mehta of Surat Diamond Jewellery focuses on the disabled by distributing the Jaipur Foot, the famed artificial limb, in Mumbai. The $1.2 million annual budget of his Ratna Nidhi Trust also covers a Food for Education program that distributes free meals to disadvantaged children studying in 37 Mumbai schools that are not covered by the government's midday-meal program. He also offers scholarships to children of terrorist-attack victims. The 2017 list of philanthropists also included Subhash Chandra of Essel Group and Internet pioneer Sanjeev Bikhchandani.
The 2016 list named Amit Chandra and his wife Archana, who give 75% of their earnings each year to causes from education to health care. The list also included Vineet Nayar, a former vice chairman and chief executive of the information-technology giant HCL Technologies, and his wife, Anupama, who with a $100 million seek to transform the government-run primary schools through their Sampark Foundation. Adar Poonawalla of Serum Institute of India made it to the list for his $15 million commitment in 2016 to clean up Pune city, where he lives, by collecting and processing garbage with a fleet of 50 trucks and a crew of 70 people.
(Published on 25th March 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 13)