Indians do not have the right to be in Palaces

Why does it take the kindness and generosity of a few dozen Western strangers to help a billion Indians feed so many of their children, when a few dozen Indians are billionaires?

I am writing this at 2am (before having to get up at 5am for a flight) following yet another charity fund raiser for Indian children – to school and feed them. I attend, donate, sometimes help organise and sometimes compere these charity fundraisers. Whether Loomba Trust, Akshaya Patra, Pratham, Isha VIdhya, Sewa, GOAL..oh the list goes on. I’m not bragging – I’m fed up. I donate, as many of my readers do, more as a percentage of my income than the United Kingdom or the United States does as a percentage of its gross national income. And I’m fed up. Not with the charities but with rich Indians who don’t pull their weight. I have better things to do at 2am – like sleep. But I can’t sleep. I can’t sleep because too many wealthy Indians are sleeping comfortably and the uncomfortable destitute Indian can’t sleep and are keeping me awake.

So I ask again, why does it take the kindness and generosity of a few dozen Western strangers to help a billion Indians feed so many of their children, when a few dozen Indians are billionaires?

I don’t get it. Can someone explain it to me please? Can someone explain the Ambani tower? I don’t mean explain why it looks like an NCP car park, but what audacity a man has to build something like this when all around are living in squalor? An Englishman has the right – because by and large he won’t be overlooking a slum. But an Indian has yet to earn the right to live in a Palace – not until his country is rid of destitute slums.

When I worked in the US Congress, an Indian diplomat told me the Government of India did not want US aid. Not because India didn’t need it, but because the Americans in giving it would lecture the Indians on the floor of the Congress for hours and hours. He used it as an example of how the Indian in America were doing things, in pushing for aid to India, which the Government of India did not consider in the Indian national interest because it put on the record so many anti-Indian sentiments and lectures.

Just like the Chinese Premier said he didn’t like being lectured. Just like I am lecturing. Well, being lectured at is the price you pay when your house is not in order. And I’ll keep on doing it. I’ll do it because Gandhiji and Patel did not live in Ambani towers.
And for those who think this is self-righteous, pious indignation – I say this – far far more than me is done by the dozens you never hear about. Take someone you will never have heard of – Minaxi Mistry. She organised the fund raiser for Isha Vidhya (I confess all the auction items were out of my price range – so a more modest donation will be due from me) or Dipika Khaitan who with CB Patel organised this past week’s Akshaya Patra fund raising dinner. They all do so much. As does the proprietor of this paper.

So where is the Bill Gates and Warren Buffett of India? I don’t mean someone who has made as much as these two men, but who has given away as much as them. You want to know why America is great? Carnegie, Rockefeller. Billionaires who endured through charity not wealth. Ambani will always be nought until it becomes a Carnegie.

Indian business giants have yet to understand what makes a great society. I worry for Indians when they have to learn from American history and not their own.

1 Comment

  1. A provocative but much needed post, Alpesh. I agree with almost all of what you have said here, but we do need to be careful about valorising diasporic aid-giving (and aid-giving in general). As I’m sure you know, a slew of development economists have blown holes in the aid model. To genuinely reach India’s BoP the emphasis needs to fall on the provision the venture capital, business skills and market intelligence to foster inclusive entrepreneurship (social or otherwise). A major issue in supporting social enterprise over the past decade has been the availability of patient capital for social enterprise start-ups. This is only slowly being remedied, and I would like to think that diasporic or second/third generation Indians have a role to play in expanding the provision of such capital and the transmission of business skills.

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