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Nilekanis taking the legacy of philanthropy forward

Infosys Co-founder and Chairman Nandan Nilekani and wife Rohini Nilekani, vowed to donate substantial part of their wealth for philanthropy, by joining “The Giving Pledge”, a campaign started in 2011 by Warren Buffet and Microsoft founder Bill/Melinda Gates to get the wealthiest people in the world to donate at least half of their wealth to charity. There are 171 “pledgers” from 21 countries, and the Bangalore-based tech-giant’s net worth is valued around Rs 11, 000 cr.

Though a major initiative, it certainly isn’t the first one for the Indian couple.  For over 20 years, the family is already associated with various charitable efforts.

The desire to be generous

In signing up the “pledge”, the Nilekanis quoted a Bhagvad Gita verse: “We have a right to do our duty but no automatic right to the fruits from the doing.”   Bill Gates was “amazed by how Nandan Nilekani has lent his entrepreneurial passion to philanthropy”, the commitment showing that success when shared has a multiplier effect.

This reminds of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and wife Dr. Priscilla Chan, who publicly celebrated the birth of their daughter Max (2016), by announcing that they intend donating 99 per cent of their Facebook stock to philanthropic efforts, valued then about $45b.  Their goal: “To leave the world a better place” for Max and all children.  He said in his letter that “seeds planted now will grow” and will bear fruit for future generations.

The newsworthy

While pungent headlines greet us every morning, amid scams and crimes, the tech-billionaire’s exceptional gesture gives a new meaning to what Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give”.

It’s not just a matter of giving, but an actual interest in the issues involved.  Nilekanis should be commended of their plan to spend a towering fortune on improving the lives of millions, rather than on the latest fleet of mega-yachts or a private island.

Remember, Nandan Nilekani, while filing his nomination papers during the 2014 general elections, revealed that he and his wife jointly held assets worth Rs.7, 700 cr.  “I am proud of the fact that my wealth is completely transparent”, the Aadhar author had said.  His intent to serve India rather than running away to lucrative assignments abroad inspires great admiration.  During his five-year “Aadhar” stint in Delhi, he didn’t take any salary from the government.

Giving well, doing good

History shows the generosity is indeed contagious; the legendary business barons of the late 19th century – John Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie – anxiously competed against each other in extending their wealth to charitable purposes.  Nilekani’s pledge could spark other wealthy moguls to contribute as well, and a gauntlet has been thrown down to the financial elite – at a time when corporate greed is much a concern.

Over the last two decades, as India embarked on its path of economic liberalisation, a growing abundance of wealth is seen, and new industrial houses and families have benefited.  However, the gains have not been equitable and a large part of India is still lacking basic infrastructure.

The government, given its fiscal and budgetary issues alone cannot fund all the basic necessities and has mandated corporations over a certain net worth to spend two per cent of their last three years average profits as corporate social responsibility (CSR).  India is well on its way to becoming one of the world’s leading producers of wealth, so it should come as no surprise if it also moves ahead in philanthropy.  With law providing little guidance, ethics has a crucial role to play in ensuring that the philanthropic practices of individuals, foundations, NGOs, and governments are morally sound and effective.

Charity culture

Beyond a few anecdotes and examples, little is known about the work of the country’s philanthropists, which must be highlighted alongside India’s renowned donors like Azim Premji, Ratan Tata etc.  Jamsetji Tata, for instance, was on a par with his contemporaries Joseph Rowntree and Andrew Carnegie.  Many could still do more and they face challenges, including issues of transparency and the misuse of philanthropy to pursue political or financial goals, which are increasing public skepticism.

There is a real opportunity to support ideas, individuals and institutions that take root in those unreached areas, and can fund alternative visions for the future.

Hindu religious texts advocate that “one should use 10 per cent of one’s justly earned income on good deeds or works of public benefit”.  The concept of charity has roots in all major religions.

Finally, this is no time for cynicism about motives. Nilekanis and Gates and Zuckerbergs…. does not have to do this, but by doing it, they send a message to other wealthy people that they are in a position to make the world a better place too.   Way to go, Nilekanis.

(The views expressed by the author in the article are his/her own.)

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