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No Government Can Ignore the Problems of Deprivation

Irrespective of how much corporate bodies or individuals give, the government cannot dilute its responsibility to its stakeholders

Published: Aug 13, 2014 06:00:39 AM IST
Updated: Aug 13, 2014 08:31:42 AM IST
No Government Can Ignore the Problems of Deprivation
Image: Sameer Pawar
Anu Aga Former chairperson, Thermax Ltd; chairperson, Teach For India; closely associated with the Thermax Social Initiative Foundation (TSIF); awarded the Padma Shri for Social Work; currently a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha (2012); former member of the National Advisory Council

Does the politics of the ruling party influence philanthropists? Is philanthropy, the act of giving for a larger cause, determined by the ideology of the party in power?

I would not think so.

One gives, I feel, because of a need to bring about a positive change in society, not to please a government or to find favour with some political group or the other. For me, philanthropy is neither an act of donating money to secure an easy conscience nor an exercise in brand building. It is about taking responsibility, about contributing with one’s resources and skills; about being a change agent in one’s own society. It is about playing a catalysing role in the development process of our country.

Irrespective of how much corporate bodies or individuals give, the government cannot dilute its responsibility to its stakeholders. Unlike rich individuals who may or may not choose to be generous, governments are elected to protect the interests of the largest number of people, not just some favoured groups or factions. A government is expected to ensure the well being of the entire population.

In terms of economic attainment, what is the state of our population? We have the world’s biggest middle class and a small but growing number of super-rich. However, let us also not forget that, even by conservative estimates, one-third of our people are poor and vulnerable. So, when governments craft policies and programmes, can they wish away this large group?

UPA or NDA, left-wing or right-wing, no government can afford to ignore the problems of deprivation and human rights. Let us also not shy away from using words like ‘poor,’ because even as we hurry to the age of bullet trains and designer brands, we still remain mired in poverty. GDP, annual growth rate, consumption statistics or the wild swings of the stock market: Ultimately, development is not just about these numbers. As it rides in the high-speed elevator, development also has to consider homelessness and poverty, malnutrition and migration, critical issues that are not only about want and despair, but also about violations of human rights.

Before we raise apprehensions about the new government’s policy shifts, let us consider what we achieved before this election.

In spite of earlier governments that professed allegiance to the socialist mode of development with a centralised planning structure, and after six decades of targeted fund allocations, we have created a society of festering inequality. I am not saying we have made no progress, but our track record in the areas of education, health and skill development, and protection of the girl child are far below that of many countries aligned on the right and left sides of the ideological divide. Increasingly, we have become a society paying ritual lip service to the cause of equity and distributive justice while allowing just the opposite to thrive.

No Government Can Ignore the Problems of Deprivation
Image: Mansi Thapliyal / Reuters
Children collect mid-day meals at a primary school in New Delhi. The new government has not dismantled welfare schemes introduced by the previous one

Of course we set aside crores of rupees for welfare schemes and religiously earmarked thousands of crores in our annual budgets for schools, sanitation and health care. But during Rajiv Gandhi’s time—in a rare moment of candour for any government—it was acknowledged that for every rupee spent on the social sector by the government, only 15 paise reached the intended beneficiaries. Yet, successive governments have followed the fund-allocation route without really trying to stop leakages.

So, we should not be labouring under the impression that we are about to witness a fall from grace, a sudden exit from an Indian paradise where justice and equal opportunities were there for everyone. That would be a myth and a lie.

Even during earlier governments, were philanthropists queuing up to give? Of the hundreds and hundreds of listed companies, can we count even a few dozen that went beyond the standard line of “we pay taxes and we generate employment”? Did they embrace all their stakeholders?

Yes, there have been notable exceptions in the last decade when corporate philanthropy went beyond its early confines. Organisations like the Tatas reached out to their communities much before concepts like CSR and inclusive growth became the flavours of the season. But we should not be hyping the cause of philanthropy either.

The fact of the matter is that there are immense tasks waiting to be accomplished by both government and aspiring philanthropists. If by right-wing we mean a government working to create wealth and productive conditions for its people, we should welcome that. The obvious caveats must apply: It should not be a case of a few amassing wealth at the expense of misery for the multitudes; the productive engines of society at all levels should be energised to take that wealth to all strata of society; jobless growth should not leave people stranded without livelihoods; and rapacious development models should not be allowed to ravage the environment, stripping the land of its sustaining powers. Whichever way the political winds blow, let us respect the basic economic principle: Wealth has to be created before it can be distributed.

In its first budget, this government has not dismantled its predecessor’s welfare schemes, though it has repackaged some with new names. I see this as an indication of the new rulers accepting the reality of taking care of the vulnerable.

They should go many steps further and make sure that the funds earmarked for the needy reach them. This can be done only by combating the twin spectres of corruption and mismanagement. We have had any number of vision statements and grandiose plans, but we always faltered when it came to execution and implementation. With the right approach and political will, this government can make a real difference in this area and give substance to its ideal of development for all.

No Government Can Ignore the Problems of Deprivation
Image: Getty Images
India ranks 138th in the UN’s Human Development Index (2012-13); it was at 134 earlier

We have to remind ourselves and the government that following development or economic practices as if people matter is not about socialism; rather, it is about strengthening capitalism. It is only by being responsible and humane that capitalism can truly create opportunities and wealth for the maximum number.

For philanthropists, the torchbearers of capitalism, the ground reality remains the same. In spite of the impressive advances we made post-liberalisation, in UN’s Human Development Index ranking for 2012–13, India has fallen from 134th to 138th (out of 186 countries). We stand below Indonesia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

I would like to share a striking passage I read: The business of business is to generate growth and profits or else it will die; however, if that is the sole purpose of a business, then also it should die, for it no longer has a reason for its existence.

This is even more applicable to a country like ours where we have huge challenges posed by persistent poverty and the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Writing cheques is important, but it is not enough. Philanthropists, as leaders of the corporate sector, must use their moral authority to urge their peers to build alliances with the government and civil society, with the objective of overall social development. They must join the relevant discussion on appropriate development models, so that we can avoid the uglier legacies of the earlier phases of development elsewhere.

With this approach, philanthropists might also be able to moderate the exclusive emphasis on mining- and construction-led development process. This way, the environment will get its due focus and we will not forego our future for immediate profits. It will also mean that while we grow, we will not turn a blind eye to the people who have not benefited from this growth. Being alive to a wider world of stakeholders will also see us truly investing in a green economy, where the focus will be equally on the well-being of the people and social equity, which means focusing not just on wealth generation but also on its distribution.

Such an approach would see philanthropists being active participants who contribute and, at the same time, demand accountability from the government.

We don’t need any more road maps from government documents; they are already there. What is important is to persuade the government to implement effectively and to make sure that a robust regulatory framework is brought into play.

Rhetoric and platitudes can only take us this far. For those outside the charmed circle of development, it has been a terribly long wait. Patience is wearing thin and those in power would do well to read the urgent notes scribbled on our political landscape. They should know that the electoral bells toll for everyone.

(This story appears in the 22 August, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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