Indian Decade

Why Don’t Rich Indians Give?

As Bill Gates and Warren Buffett announce The Giving Pledge, Indian charity still lags.

In his blog last week on India's callousness towards the floods in Pakistan, Sanjay made a very interesting point at the start of his post when he talked about the country's fast-expanding nouveau rich not taking up philanthropic causes. 

It's a thought that's found its way into many editorials in India the past couple of weeks, especially in the wake of the incredibly admirable Giving Pledge initiative launched by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in the United States. Championed by two of the wealthiest men in the world, The Giving Pledge is an effort to invite the wealthiest individuals and families in the United States to commit to giving a majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes. Nearly 40 American billionaires, including Michael Bloomberg, Ted Turner and George Lucas have joined Gates and Buffett in pledging, in some cases, up to 99 percent of their formidable wealth to charitable causes.

It's a rare spirit, and one I believe only Americans are capable of. In contrast, most Indian business houses and many of our famous billionaires lag significantly behind in their giving efforts. India is home to two of the richest five people in the world according to Forbes Magazine, and the list of Indian billionaires grows robustly each year.

But, it’s par for the course here for wealth to be bequeathed and inherited. A study in March by Bain & Co, quoted in an excellent blog on the subject by Devin Banerjee in The Wall Street Journal, found for example that just 10 percent of charitable giving in India comes from individuals or companies, compared with 75 percent in the United States. 

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Meanwhile, the government continues to be the biggest donor here. I recall an interview on a leading English news channel with Sunil Mittal, founder chairman and group CEO of Bharti Companies, a few months back. The news anchor had asked him a question on a somewhat similar issue after Mittal spoke about the recent attempts by The Bharti Foundation, his company's philanthropic arm, to improve education in India. Mittal said Indian billionaires had amassed immense wealth over the last few decades, but were probably therefore more insecure about losing it. This insecurity could be one reason why in terms of giving, India’s rich have a less than stellar record (as does the rampantly corrupt development sector).

It has been reported that Gates and Buffett might come to India early next year to enlist pledgers here. They better sharpen their marketing pitches though, because I doubt they'll find the going as easy here.