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The Bajaj Family Has a Tradition of Giving

Jamnalal Bajaj’s family continues to live by the Gandhian’s beliefs: That philanthropy is as much about doing good for society as it is about following the principles of simplicity, integrity and hard work in one’s life

Published: Dec 3, 2013 06:47:53 AM IST
Updated: Dec 3, 2013 03:56:05 PM IST
The Bajaj Family Has a Tradition of Giving
Image: Prasad Gori for Forbes India
Rahul Bajaj: “I don’t want the wah wah”

Award: Distinguished Family of the Year
The Bajaj family
Three generations of businessmen, into fourth generation now. Jamnalal Bajaj, born in 1889 and founder of the Bajaj Group, dedicated his life towards serving Gandhiji and propagating his principles. Rahul Bajaj, chairman of Bajaj Auto, is the head of the family. Brother Niraj is in charge of the Group’s charitable trusts; Shekhar looks after the Group’s activities in Wardha; and Madhur is in charge of the Jankidevi Bajaj Gram Vikas Sanstha.  

Why They Won For dedicating their wealth, time and effort for the public good and preserving the tradition of giving.
The Trigger Jamnalal Bajaj was a firm believer in ethics in business. He gave away almost all of his wealth towards Gandhiji’s ideals and objectives. The family has tried to keep that tradition alive.
The Mission Provide education to the poor as well as vocational and technical training and health care; also, bridge the rural-urban divide by working towards the development of villages.
The Action Plan Schools like balwadis (non-formal mode of imparting pre-primary education, where mid-day meals, milk, pick-up and drop, as well as health check-ups are provided to students); vocational and technical training institutes which includes adopting ITIs and training rural womenfolk in tailoring and embroidery, health in the form of hospitals and rural development programmes under the umbrella of Jankidevi Bajaj Gram Vikas Sanstha.
Their Next Move Hamara Sapna, initiated by Minal Bajaj (Niraj Bajaj’s wife), for Jamnalal Bajaj Seva Trust aims at transforming the lives of women living in the slums of Mumbai (Tardeo and Dharavi) through education (compulsory English language classes), empowerment (self defence classes and yoga) and skill development (tailoring).

In late 2008, Krishna V Iyer, senior manager in charge of corporate social responsibility at Bajaj Group, was worried. He had received extra medicines worth almost Rs 45,000 from the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) in New Delhi. Bajaj’s anti-retroviral treatment centre in Pune (where AIDS patients come for second-line treatment free of cost) needed only 70 kits but NACO had sent 200. “I was worried that these medicines would expire. So I wrote to NACO in Delhi and Maharashtra AIDS Control Society in Wadala [Mumbai],” says Iyer. “But they didn’t respond. I sent them seven reminders but nothing… Eventually the medicines expired and I had to write them off.”

In the quarterly review, this tiny little detail caught Rahul Bajaj’s attention. The chairman of Bajaj Auto, who is also the head of the family, was livid. “Mr Bajaj said that this is the tax payers’ money and you have no business writing it off,” says Iyer. “He asked me to buy medicines at our cost and send them to other centres which need them. That is your responsibility, he said.” Iyer immediately bought the medicines and dispatched them to NACO.

Quite often, philanthropy is looked at from a very narrow lens—working for the poor or donating money to an organisation or individual in need. In the Bajaj family, though, that sort of philanthropy comes second. What comes first? Ethics—in business and in life. Rahul Bajaj firmly believes that before helping others, it is important to look inwards to understand how you have earned your wealth. There can be no compromise there. “Whether I have made $1 or a billion, the question is how I made that. And I am not a Gandhi. Subject to that, I am proud about how I made it,” Bajaj told Forbes India in an interview earlier this month. This is a tradition that goes back almost a century when Jamnalal Bajaj founded Bajaj Group. And while Rahul might claim that he is not a Gandhian, his grandfather most certainly was.

“Jamnalalji surrendered himself and his all without reservation. There is hardly any activity of mine in which I did not receive his full-hearted co-operation and in which it did not prove to be of the greatest value… Whenever I wrote of wealthy men becoming trustees of their wealth for the common good, I always had the ‘Merchant Prince’ principally in mind.”
-MK Gandhi

Few business families in India can claim to have a legacy of philanthropy quite like the Bajaj family does. In 1931, Mahatma Gandhi left Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat with a commitment that he would not return until India gets its independence. It was around this time that Jamnalal Bajaj, a rich Marwari businessman, convinced Gandhiji to come to Wardha in Maharashtra. That is how the Sevagram Ashram was founded; it went on to become the epicentre of India’s freedom movement.

The Bajaj Family Has a Tradition of Giving
Image: Vikas Khot
Niraj Bajaj, director at Bajaj Group, is in charge of the Group’s charitable trusts

Jamnalal Bajaj devoted his life to supporting Gandhiji, so much so that the father of the nation adopted him as his “fifth son”. Jamnalal renounced the title of ‘Rai Bahadur’ conferred on him by the British. A believer in social reform, he abolished the purdah system in his home and opened the doors of the family temple to the dalits (untouchables). He travelled across the country propagating the use of khadi and goseva (cow protection).
“My grandfather gave away everything. Money is the least [of it]. He gave himself away and became a fakir. He was washing cows, propagating Hindi and digging wells for the poor. In our mind, Jamnalalji was a saint,” says Rahul. “We don’t claim to be great. But we have tried to uphold the values of simplicity, integrity, decency and hard work.”

However simple they may be, it is not easy to stick to values that belong to a different era. Even the Bajaj family agrees that the world today is very different from the times in which Jamnalal and his sons, Kamalnayan and Ramkrishna, grew up.

“For instance in simplicity, we can’t even compare our lifestyle with that of our forefathers. No ostentatious show of wealth, help others, be good, behave well with all our stakeholders, integrity and honesty…these are the basic values our forefathers lived by. So we try to be at least 20 percent of that,” says Niraj Bajaj, director at Bajaj Group and in charge of the group’s charitable trusts.  

Two examples best explain the family’s perspective on philanthropy.

First, almost 30 years ago, the Bajaj Group decided that it would not enter any business where it has to deal directly with the government—it would not buy from the government, sell to the government or bid for any government project. “What is the most obvious business to get into today? Infrastructure—because the country needs power and roads. But today you can’t do any of these projects without many, many government permissions,” says Niraj. “And they sometimes come at a price. We said that we will try not to get into it.” Despite this, Bajaj is one of the most cash-rich groups in the country today.

Second, in 2007, Sankara Nethralaya, a not-for-profit missionary institution for ophthalmic care in Chennai, approached Rahul Bajaj with a request for a donation of Rs 1 crore towards a vision research centre. Bajaj looked at the proposal, did some background checks and decided to donate Rs 7 crore instead, subject to three conditions. One, no Bajaj family member or employee would get any concession in the hospital. Two, Sankara Nethralaya should not go to a different company every year and ask for money; they must learn to run a business that can survive on its own. Three, they should repay Rahul Bajaj only by putting his father’s name on the building. Today, Sankara Nethralaya is one of the largest eye hospitals in the country.

On an average, 1,200 patients walk through the hospital doors and 100 surgeries are performed every day. The Kamalnayan Bajaj Institute for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology is on par with any ophthalmic research facility in the world.

Niraj Bajaj says that the root of this ideology can be traced to the early years. Both his father Ramkrishna and uncle Kamalnayan grew up under the mentorship of Gandhiji and Vinoba Bhave. Simplicity was a constant message in the household. “By the time I was born, the Bajaj family was reasonably rich. We could afford a lot of things but we never had them. It was always that if you have the money, don’t spend it on yourself,” says Niraj. “My father, for all his life, wore a khadi half bush shirt and pants. My grandmother, Janki Devi, who was the recipient of the Padma Vibhushan, was the first lady to be awarded this honour after independence. She did not posses more than possibly three khadi sarees.”

While the family could certainly afford to spend its holidays abroad, every summer the kids would be packed off to Wardha. “We used to go and stay with our grandmother. We saw that kind of living,” says Niraj. “Till the age of 18 all of us wore khadi. After that our parents told us, you decide. For us it was an emotional thing.”

Not many know that Niraj is a four-time all-India table tennis champion; he is an Arjuna award winner who captained the Indian table tennis team for four years. During his playing days, while living in a joint family, each brother (there are five of them) was given Rs 100 a month as pocket money. “So here I am, an all-India table tennis champion, and I had to have juice in the morning before going for practice. That would cost money and I could not manage it with my pocket money. I requested my parents [for more],” Niraj says. “In the next family meeting it was discussed that I should get another Rs 40 a month because I need to have juice three times a day or something. Now look, I was a hero in the sports world but that was the kind of simple living and discipline at home.”

The Bajaj Family Has a Tradition of Giving
Image: Prasad Gori for Forbes India
A pukka home for landless labourers in village Gosasi near Pune. The Jankidevi Bajaj Gram Vikas Sanstha has built 32 such homes

Similar values drive the family’s philanthropic work. There is no attempt at chest thumping or branding initiatives. The idea is simple: The Bajaj Group concentrates on the areas it is present in—that is, within 100 km of its many plants or offices. Today, the group has about 40 charitable trusts with a corpus of close to Rs 5,000 crore. The trusts operate in the areas of education, health and building sustainable livelihoods—every trust has a family member accountable for its activities.

In 2012-13, Jamnalal Bajaj Trust, the flagship trust of the Group engaged in imparting education and vocational training to rural folk, disbursed close to Rs 100 crore. Niraj says that 50 percent of the amount comprised donations to institutions and the balance was spent on activities that the Group is directly engaged in, be it a shiksha mandal, hospital, school or village programme. “This is 100 percent funded by us and we don’t ask for any donations. When we donate to other trusts, we are very careful to check if it’s a good trust, the background of people behind it and the kind of work they are doing,” says Niraj.

During a field visit to one of the Bajaj Group’s initiatives, I find myself sharing the stage with representatives of the Jankidevi Bajaj Gram Vikas Sanstha (JBGVS) and a few village elders. We are sitting in a temple (guests on white plastic chairs and other villagers on the floor) in Gosasi, a small village 40 kilometres northeast of Pune. Kishanrao Gorde, 64, a former sarpanch of the village, stands up to welcome us. He begins by tying a pheta, a red and yellow turban, on my head. And then he offers me a coconut and flowers. VG Deshmukh, director at JBGVS, who is sitting next to me, says that the ritual is a mark of respect that he experiences every time he visits the village. After welcoming the guests, seven in all, Gorde launches into a speech.

One by one, he details the activities that the trust has carried out in Gosasi. There are 32 pukka houses which have been built for landless labourers who had migrated from various parts of the country to Gosasi in search of work. The houses didn’t come for free. Every family contributed about Rs 5,000. Most farmers in the village grow only one crop in a year; to supplement their annual income, the trust along with the Rotary Club of Pune (North) donated 38 cows. They also helped build separate cowsheds. Gosasi used to be a drought-prone area. Using the government’s Drought Prone Area Programme, the trust built dams and storage areas through which rain water could be routed to wells. It has helped in holding rain water for use in the dry season and also increased the ground water level. A few families have also been provided with bio gas plants. Thanks to these initiatives, in the last five years, income per family has grown from Rs 16,000 to Rs 60,000 per annum.

Established in 1987, JBGVS is active in over 100 villages in Pune, Aurangabad and Wardha in Maharashtra, and Sikar in Rajasthan. Deshmukh says the idea of the trust is to bridge the divide between urban and rural India by focusing on integrated rural development activities.

It is important to mention here that JBGVS simply acts as a catalyst.

It is not doling out funds in the villages. Instead, it works with the villagers to implement government schemes which already exist. The trust chips in with money when there is a shortage. For instance, if a school needs funds for repair work or maintenance and the money from the government is not enough, the trust will come in to make good the balance. It is a model that has worked well. It helps villagers become independent and it does not tie up JBGVS’s human resources indefinitely so the trust can move from one location to another—the trust works in a village anywhere from five to seven years.

Back in his office in Akurdi, Rahul Bajaj firmly believes that this is the model to follow. It is not about telling the world that one has donated 50 or 100 percent of his wealth. “Who the hell cares?” says Bajaj. More importantly, it is certainly not the Indian government’s mandate to impose a rule on anybody’s conscience. He refers to the 2 percent CSR rule in the New Companies Act which will come in effect next year. “You cannot and should not mandate my generosity and conscience,” says Rahul. “Charge me extra 2 percent tax, I don’t mind. We are paying you tax for you to do the good work. Our job is to run the industries well. I don’t need to commit myself. I don’t want the wah wah.”

(This story appears in the 13 December, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Vivek Khanna

    Congratulations to the family and truly earned by the family. Jamnalalji had a vision, that included inviting Gandhji to Wardha, for this humble town. Rahulji/Shekharji, Wardha again today stands at the crossroads of its destiny... We look forward to a vision roadmap

    on Dec 29, 2013