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Debating Islam ( 2 Dec 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Will Azim Premji Be A Trendsetter?

Editorial in Asian Age, New Delhi

Dec 03, 2010

There is a quaint saying that the heart that gives gathers: going by this, information technology czar Azim Premji has gathered a wealth of goodwill. He is the first Indian to have made a staggering individual donation of $2 billion (around `8,800 crores) to further school education in India. This amounts to 28.34 per cent of what the Indian government has allocated in the 2010-11 Budget for education (`31,036 crores, or $6.72 billion). Mr Premji has transferred Wipro shares worth `8,830 crores at the current market price (amounting to 10.9 per cent of his own shareholding) to the Premji Foundation — whose objective is to promote education in rural India. Mr Premji’s commitment to this cause is heartwarming — he sees it as crucial to building a just, equitable and humane society.

The Azim Premji Foundation has nine years’ experience in this field and has been instrumental in supporting 25,000 schools, involving 2.5 million children, in this time. It believes in focusing on the underprivileged and disadvantaged in our society. This $2 billion will be like steroid to the foundation, which is well equipped to take education to those now deprived of it. Mr Premji’s gesture is truly exceptional in a country where “giving” so magnanimously to social causes is not as much the norm as it is in the West. The contribution to education and uplift of the underprivileged by Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Ted Turner and, more recently, Facebook’s Marc Zuckerberg is rather well known. In India, the Tatas are the best known for philanthropy through their various trusts. More recently, Sunil Bharti Mittal and Shiv Nadar of HCL Technologies have donated liberally for education. Anand Mahindra too gave a generous donation, but that was to an American educational institution.

Given that after China, India now has the fastest growing number of billionaires in Asia, the record is woeful, to say the least. The wealth of Indian billionaires is nothing to be sneezed at — Forbes magazine has calculated that the combined fortune of the 100 richest Indians is $300 billion — this in a country where close to 30 per cent of the population lives in abject poverty. The wealth of the 100 richest Indians roughly equals that of 400 of China’s richest. Just imagine how much India could get transformed if Mr Premji’s example spreads like wildfire among his billionaire brothers and sisters. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, a self-made icon in the world of finance, have for some time been aggressively campaigning among the world’s richest to donate 50 per cent of their wealth to charity. They had even made a special visit to China, where they made a number of converts. India’s wealthy somehow never got swayed by their fervour. Is it perhaps that the rich in this country are so accustomed to making donations in crores to temples and religious shrines that worthwhile social causes that might make a real difference to the lives of less advantaged fellow citizens leave them cold?

The advantage of having the private sector taking up the cause of education in India on a war footing — in Mr Premji’s footsteps — is that practically every rupee would be used for the purpose it is intended, and not — as would happen under the government’s management — that nine out of 10 rupees would go towards lining the pockets of a long line of middlemen and, of course, for “administrative expenses”. Now if only the many others in Mr Premji’s league would only follow in his footsteps. We don’t think it is asking for the moon!