Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Anurag Behar leads one of the world's largest philanthropic initiatives. What has it taught him about education in India?

Do government schools deserve the bad rap they get? What do people from the remotest regions say about learning in India? A new book by the CEO of the Azim Premji Foundation reflects on his decades-long career and voices of people on the ground to find some answers

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Sep 1, 2023 11:13:52 AM IST
Updated: Sep 2, 2023 11:23:13 AM IST

Anurag Behar, CEO of  Azim Premji Foundation at the Bangalore office on 24th July 2023.
Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Forbes India Anurag Behar, CEO of Azim Premji Foundation at the Bangalore office on 24th July 2023. Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Forbes India
Anurag Behar says his own contribution to the social sector is “absolutely nothing”, not too significant to talk about. It seems like he means it.
It’s definitely self-effacing, considering he’s the man who leads the Azim Premji Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic initiatives in the world that works with an endowment of approximately $29 billion (around Rs 2,40,000 crore), as of January 2023.

It was founded in 2001, and was to be funded solely by Wipro Chairman Azim Premji by way of transfer of his personal shares in the IT company. It has been working in the education sector under Behar’s leadership, and expanded into health care about 12 months ago. As part of Premji’s philanthropic endowment, along with other assets, the Foundation has 66 percent economic ownership of Wipro, says their website.
Working in the education sector for over 13 years now, Behar has a team of about 1,500 people spread across about 250 remote locations in 57 of the most disadvantaged districts in seven states of the country, including Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Odisha and Karnataka. Between 10 and 60 team members are present in each of these districts, working directly with government school teachers, principals and staff on program management, capacity development, training etc. They work with about 3,50,000 schools across these districts. Behar himself has been involved in framing education-related policies, including the National Education Policy, 2020, and the National Curriculum Framework, 2022.
As part of his job as chief executive officer (CEO), Behar travels to some of the remotest corners of the country. He says he wants to have an ear to the ground because his father, a retired civil servant, always used to say, “mauke pe jaake dekhna chahiye”, meaning you should always go to the place and then understand. These travels helped him realise the “deep disconnect” between realities on the ground, and those in positions of power, those with wealth and social status.
These travels to underserved districts and schools run by the Foundation in rural areas also resulted in memorable, even poignant, experiences. Of parents who moved their kids from private schools to the government schools in which they studied out of a sense of community and belongingness, of teachers who learn new languages or set up a makeshift school under a tree in the absence of a building, and of children who display extraordinary warmth, wit and wisdom in a world that’s becoming more polarised.
Behar started documenting these experiences, and his views on education, in fortnightly columns for newspaper Mint when he took over the reins of the Foundation in 2010. A collection of 100 of these essays are part of his recently released book, A Matter of the Heart: Education in India, published by Westland. The title, he says, comes from something his father—retired IAS officer Sharad Chandra (SC) Behar, who had spent a considerable part of his career helping improve public education—had told him a long time ago, that “the heart of the matter in education is that education is a matter of the heart.”

Also read: India will see a big improvement in education at the mass level: Ashish Dhawan

Runs in the Family

Most of Behar’s childhood was in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, where his father served as the chief secretary in mid-to-late 1990s, and was later an advisor to Digvijaya Singh when he was chief minister of the state. “I grew up in a household that was full of books, people, dialogue, discussion and debate about school education. Most of my father’s career, from 1977 onward, was actually in school education, which is a lot of what I do today,” he says.
This culture of dialogue and work in the education sector helped Behar develop a “very humane attitude towards people,” says Umashanker Periodi, one of the earliest members of the Foundation when it was started with Dilip Ranjekar at the helm as founder CEO. “Like his father, Anurag too goes out of his way to help people.” Behar’s father was a director in the Foundation until recently.

Anurag Behar, CEO of  Azim Premji Foundation at the Bangalore office on 24th July 2023.
Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Forbes India Dileep Ranjekar, Founder CEO, Azim Premji Foundation.  
Image: Deepak G Pawar/The The India Today Group via Getty Images
Working in the social sector, however, was not part of Behar’s plan. In fact, he never had much of a plan at all with regards to his career. “When I grew up, if you didn’t think too much about what you will do in life, you would end up doing engineering or medicine if you were fortunate enough to get in,” he says. He has a degree in electrical and electronics engineering, though he never worked as an engineer. “I’m an aborted, failed engineer.” After that, he decided not to go to the US, unlike many of his friends and “drifted along” for some time. “If you’re not going to the US, you do an MBA. And what do you do after that? You get a job,” he says.
He soon joined Wipro in the 1990s, becoming the first member of his immediate and extended family to take up a private sector job. Almost everyone else in his family was in public service one way or another, he says, as civil servants, doctors, lawyers, etc.
He joined an organisation that was Wipro’s joint venture with GE Healthcare, which manufactured, sold and serviced medical diagnostic equipment. In the early days, the company operated just like a startup, Behar, 53, says. So one day he would find himself in the bank filling up slips to deposit cheques, and another day he would be part of strategy meetings to achieve market domination. “There was no limit to what you could do. It was an exhilarating experience,” he says.
In the early 2000s, around the time when the Azim Premji Foundation was being set up, Behar moved to a new role in Wipro’s corporate office. He was in charge of social initiatives, brand, quality and innovation at the company, reporting directly to Azim Premji. This began what Behar calls an “eight-year-long internship” that became a stepping stone for his current work in the social sector. Along the way, he also became the CEO of Wipro Infrastructure Engineering, a post he held while also focussing on building social initiatives at the company.
Colleagues who worked with Behar at the time found him to be a business leader with a difference. PS Narayan, global head of sustainability and social initiatives, Wipro, built the sustainability program at Wipro alongside Behar. Those days, sustainability was a greenfield area, Narayan explains, and “Anurag played a stellar role in helping it take off by socialising it among leadership, starting with Chairman Mr Premji, to all seniormost leaders. He basically built consensus, step by step.”
In fact, for the first Sustainability Report that Wipro released in 2009-10, the team was thinking of how to represent the interconnectedness between people, purpose and profit, and it was Behar who came up with the idea of using the Mobius strip as a metaphor, Narayan recollects. “Like the Mobius, sustainability challenges do not have defined start and end points and there are no clearly defined boundaries between the economic, social and ecological dimensions of any problem,” the final report reads.
As a colleague and a leader, Narayan says, Behar has the ability to separate the grain from the chaff and get people to focus only on what’s important. “He would do all this in a way that would ensure things move forward without being pushy, overwhelming or overpowering, which is a rare quality in the world of business, where the stereotype is that your ability to get things done depends on where you are in the hierarchy; and by virtue of you being pushy and a hard driver,” he explains. “Anurag is great at empowering people and giving them space based on trust and transparency to get work done, without having the need for any of those attributes.”
During the eight-odd years that he was part of Wipro’s business leadership, Behar says it was becoming clearer to him that he did not see his life there. Even when he was in his corporate job, Periodi remembers how Behar used to quietly join their meetings. “He used to come and just sit, observe and listen. We used to talk about our field experience, what was working, what was not, proposing different ideas. And he just observed, did not speak much. Sometimes, he asked very sharp, pertinent questions. That was my initial image of him,” he says. “Those days, we did not connect him to the Foundation. We just knew him as an executive from Wipro. But that was the way he was slowly getting to know Foundation work.”
Behar says Premji and he spoke about moving to the Foundation, and around 2009, around the time the latter decided to give away most of his personal wealth to the Foundation, Behar was offered a choice to shift, which he took. Then there was no looking back.

Also read: The changing purpose and process of philanthropy: Aparna Piramal Raje

Understanding government schools

In his book, Behar narrates stories that show how the ‘mainstream’ perspective about government schools is and our resultant preference for private schools, as he puts it, “less than half-baked”. These perceptions seem to disturb him no end, and he brings it down to the fallacy of judging people and institutions from a distance, and drawing “oversimplified” popular narratives based on that.
“Only when you understand that government school teachers, a very large number of them, do a good job, will you actually drop this weird idea that somehow the solution to India’s school education problem is to have more private schools,” he says. “But a majority of private schools do a shoddy job because they are run as commercial establishments. Too many of them have no interest in children learning. We do not understand that, because we see things sitting at a distance.”
He gives an example of a teacher in rural Rajasthan, who cycled 14 kilometres from one village to another, just because the school in the other village did not have a teacher. “Morning to afternoon, he taught in one school, then cycled 14 kilometres in the blazing sun to go to the second school and teach a second shift there. I encounter people like this all the time and it took me a while to understand that it is only I or people like me who see this as some kind of miracle. Their approach is that they are simply doing their job, because if they won’t who will?” At the heart of the state of education in India, therefore, is ordinary people doing extraordinary things, Behar says.
There is no simple solution to the challenges government schools face, but part of it would be people like you and me being conscious of it and respecting teachers, he says. And from a structural and policy perspective, the priority should be to understand the ground and the frontline and integrating their priorities and concerns into policy and development.

Also read: How to create enduring social impact

Building Institutions

Over the past 13 years, Behar says that the Foundation’s priority has been to build institutions that last, and their strategy is to often go deep into a particular district and a particular state, rather than diversify to many regions. According to the Foundation website, the team is projected to grow from 1,500 to 2,500-3,000 in the next three-five years, with the number of field institutions increasing to 65.
The Foundation has also been giving grants to other non-profits. “We started grant-making seven years ago, where we support other civil society organisations with grants. Currently, we are supporting around 550 organisations. These range from really small non-profits, with budgets of Rs 30-40 lakh per year, to some of the largest in the country,” Behar says. These organisations work with a variety of vulnerable groups, including women facing violence, children and adolescent girls at risk, people with disabilities, manual scavengers, migrant labourers, vulnerable tribal groups and water-deficient communities. The average ticket size of these grants is “huge range”, Behar says. “You can say, Rs 50 lakh to Rs 50 crore.”

Anurag Behar, CEO of  Azim Premji Foundation at the Bangalore office on 24th July 2023.
Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Forbes India Chairman of Wipro Limited, Azim H. Premji, (C-R) and Chief Sustainability Officer of the company, Anurag Behar (C-L) pose for photographs after presenting the Annual "Earthian 2014" awards given away by Wipro to school and colleges from across the country, in Bangalore on February 7, 2015.  Image: AFP PHOTO/Manjunath Kiran
Another aspect of the Foundation’s work is also to build universities to improve research and strengthen capacity development in the social sector. They started with the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru in 2010. As per information from the Foundation website, ten cohorts of 3,000 students from their various programmes (related to human development fields, like education, livelihoods, policy, sustainability) have graduated from the University and almost 100 percent students from their Master’s programs have received campus placements. Nearly 90 percent of these students have chosen to work in the social sector, many in grassroots field locations. At present, 89 percent of the expenditure of the University is borne by the Foundation. “In the long-term too, this would be about 80 percent, with only 20 percent coming from programme fees and other income,” the website reads, adding that about 60 percent of students are on scholarships.
Behar informs that they started an Azim Premji University in Bhopal in July and are about to start construction for the University in Ranchi.
It was a strange coincidence that just as the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, they had also taken the decision to diversify into health. “Health will be a big commitment to us over the next five-ten years,” Behar says. “Our approach here too is to first try and strengthen the public health system. We do not want to replace the public system in any way. Wherever there are significant gaps, like regions where secondary hospitals are just not there or not accessible, then we will perhaps set up our own hospitals there.”
The Foundation is working with ASHA workers, primary health care and wellness centres, and is also collaborating with hospitals and non-profits on-ground. They are building a presence in Bengaluru, apart from states including Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Foundation earmarked Rs 2,000 crore to Covid relief. According to the Foundation website, they have provided 63 crore meals to 1.5 crore people, helped 90 lakh people with livelihood generation and provided health care support to over 15 crore people by setting up more than 10,000 oxygenated beds, 1,000 ICU beds and over 100 testing centres. It also states that the Foundation supported vaccination programmes across 3,800 PHCs that catered to 11 crore people in disadvantaged locations.
It was Behar who rallied the entire organisation to contribute towards humanitarian aid, relief work and supporting the health infrastructure during the pandemic, says S Giridhar, one of the earliest members of the Foundation who later became the first registrar and chief operating officer (COO) of the Azim Premji University. “There would not have been a single day during those two years of the pandemic when Anurag was not out there on the field with our colleagues and partner organisations, shoulder to shoulder,” he says. An author himself, Giridhar helped Behar put together his book. In fact, Behar credits him as one of the driving forces behind making it happen.
Behar, who says he has always believed in trying to do his best with whatever he has been offered in life, had told Forbes India in a 2019 interview that in the social sector there can be no solutions, only efforts towards improvement. According to him, philanthropists need to be humble and remember that their philanthropy cannot substitute public goods and systems. “I think the biggest role philanthropy can play is help set up civil society organisations and build institutions, right?”