Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Mohandas Pai: An emerging leader in philanthropy

In 1999, TV Mohandas Pai decided to step outside his 'work life' and, today, he is the man behind India's largest school mid-day meal programme, and many more similar initiatives

Debojyoti Ghosh
Published: Jan 7, 2015 06:24:16 AM IST
Updated: Jan 7, 2015 11:58:16 AM IST
Mohandas Pai: An emerging leader in philanthropy
Image: Mallikarjun Katkol for Forbes India
TV Mohandas Pai, chairman, Manipal Global Education Services

It is every man’s obligation to put back into the world at least the equivalent of what he takes out of it, said Albert Einstein. And these words echo TV Mohandas Pai’s idea of philanthropy.

“When I was growing up, we never had surplus money to give away,” says Pai, 56, chairman, Manipal Global Education Services, who describes himself first and foremost as an “ordinary person” with a “simple middle-class upbringing”. His sense of responsibility has manifested itself through his various initiatives, the most important being the mid-day meal programme for schoolchildren run by the Bangalore-based not-for-profit organisation Akshaya Patra Foundation. Started in 2000, the foundation comprises volunteers from Iskcon Bangalore, and more than 50 public and private sector companies; it feeds 1.4 million schoolchildren every day across 10,800 government schools in 11 states.

Mohandas Pai: An emerging leader in philanthropy
As the largest non-government, mid-day meal initiative in the country, the programme addresses the critical problem of malnutrition and chronic hunger among children. Furthermore, schools where the programme has been introduced have seen dropout rates fall by an average of 10 percent as parents are keen to keep their children in school, even if only for the certainty of a nutritious meal. The programme aims to feed five million schoolchildren by 2020.

It all began in late 1999, when a friend introduced Pai to Madhu Pandit Dasa (Swamiji), the temple president at Iskcon, Bangalore. “I suggested that he [Swamiji] start a mid-day meal programme like what former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, MG Ramachandran, did in the early ’80s. He gave the idea his nod and wanted three vehicles to start the programme. I donated one vehicle and got people to donate two more to deliver food to nearby schools. Initially we started the programme by feeding 1,500 children a day,” says Pai, a trustee at the Akshaya Patra Foundation.

Started with an initial funding of about Rs 30 lakh (in the form of donations from Pai, Abhay Jain, and PNC Menon, founder, Sobha Group), Akshaya Patra boasts of a balance sheet of Rs 200 crore for the current financial year and a team of 5,000 employees across the country. The donor base today comprises more than 20,000 people and 100 private corporations; 10 percent of donations come from the US and UK chapters of the foundation, while about 55 percent of the budget comes through central and state government grants.

The programme mostly targets government-run schools in urban and rural areas. Food is cooked in 14 centralised kitchens that cater to urban schools and in five decentralised kitchens—run by women self-help groups—for rural schools. Fresh vegetables are procured every day, while rice is supplied by the Food Corporation of India. All kitchens follow a standard process of preparing the meals, adhering to several checks and balances to maintain quality and hygiene. Regular feedback is sought from the schools to help maintain quality and efficiency.

“In areas that he [Pai] has worked he made sure that it is institutionalised and it scales up. Till 2010, all his free time was devoted to Akshaya Patra, which included putting in place governance, fund-raising and expanding the programme,” says Abhay Jain, group advisor, Manipal Education and Medical Group (MEMG). As the programme began to garner more funds and efficiency, over the past few years, it has required less intervention from the trustees in matters of daily functioning.
But it wasn’t always a smooth run for the foundation during its initial years, reminisces Jain, Pai’s childhood friend, who has also been involved with Akshaya Patra since its inception: “At one time [2007-08], there was no money to pay the bills, but we couldn’t stop feeding the children. The foundation decided to borrow money from a bank to run the programme, and we took a loan of Rs 2 crore at a high rate of interest. But within a week’s time Sudha Murty [wife of NR Narayana Murthy] gave a Rs 6 crore cheque to the foundation. We have seen several such moments of divine interventions. This programme is beyond all of us, we are mere instruments.”

Pai makes substantial personal contributions to Akshaya Patra and was instrumental in pushing senior executives at Infosys to support the programme through funding and time. At present, trustees include V Balakrishnan, former board member and CFO, Infosys, Raj Kondur, founder and CEO, Kondur Corp, Ramadas Kamath, senior vice president, Infosys, and Abhay Jain of Manipal Group among others.

“He [Mohandas] influences others purely because he has no self interest in any of the social ventures. He works across domains and platforms to ensure that good people get in and make it sustainable in the long run,” says Jain. Although Pai himself shied away from discussing his monetary contribution to the various initiatives he supports, his friends and colleagues stand testimony to his generosity. “I’m witness to this. In several years, he [Pai] has given away more than what he has earned,” says Jain.

Pai’s social impact journey was influenced in no small amount by his corporate successes. He joined Infosys in 1994 and, in his 17 years with the company, took on several roles across departments. His success at spearheading various training and human resource initiatives stands testimony to his dedication and his resolve to give his best to the job at hand. He was also instrumental in instituting the employee stock option plan that enabled Infosys employees to be a part of, and consequently share in, the company’s wealth.

“The stock option plan was such that even the Supreme Court ruled that no tax should be payable on the gains that people made. It was one of the largest stock option schemes in the country. It was driven by NR Narayana Murthy’s philosophy, I structured the scheme,” says Pai.

Pai was Infosys’ chief financial officer (CFO) between 1994 and 2006. He then voluntarily gave up his position as CFO to become the head of human resources, and Infosys’s education and research departments. In 2011, he quit the IT major to join Manipal Global Education Services.

“Mohandas is one of the most socially conscious human beings I have met. Behind that tough exterior, he has a soft heart when it comes to poverty and education. He wants to do better for our society and spends an enormous amount of time on social issues. He doesn’t give up easily and watching him from close quarters has inspired me too. His generous contributions to a good cause are amazing. He doesn’t like to talk much about it but it inspires a lot of us to do the right thing,” says Ranjan Pai, chief executive and managing director, MEMG.

The two Pais, who have known each other for at least 14 years, have been associated with multiple educational initiatives and promoting entrepreneurial ventures. Both run a large scholarship programme (set up five years ago) for Vishwa Konkani Kendra, an organisation that works towards preserving Konkani culture and heritage. The scholarship programme has so far helped more than 8,000 students, and, this year, gave a total scholarship amount of Rs 3 crore to 2,500 young people to help them pursue higher studies in engineering, medicine science and general courses.

“He [Mohandas] has personally given a lot of money to the Akshaya Patra Foundation. He has also instituted scholarships within our community [Konkani] that help a lot of children from underprivileged backgrounds to fund their higher studies and training for jobs,” says Ranjan Pai.

“I see things differently,” says Mohandas Pai. “As an Indian, first you must do something for the country, then the state where you stay, followed by your community. It was around 1999 when I started thinking about doing something outside my work life. At that point of time, I had an ambition that I should do something for my school and college which taught me all that I know.”

Mohandas Pai: An emerging leader in philanthropy
Image: Girish GV for Forbes India
The Akshaya Patra Foundation feeds 1.4 million school children every day

His efforts include: Setting up a computer centre in his school (St Joseph’s Indian High School, Bangalore) in 2000 at a cost of about Rs 50 lakh; donating a convention centre in the same year in the memory of his father at the Canara High School, Mangalore, his father’s alma mater; funding a computer centre at St Aloysius College, Mangalore, in memory of his close friend Dewang Mehta, who was head of Nasscom from 1991 to 2001; donating funds to St Aloysius High School in 2001, and to Mount St Joseph in 2002, to build schools; building a computer centre in Haliyal, a town in Karnataka, in 2003.

“My principle is very clear. You must pay back your debt to society and help educational institutions to enhance their capacity for the future to impart knowledge. It’s important to work towards solving problems in the area of education,” says Pai.

Apart from being directly involved in these initiatives, he has established think tanks that help citizens take informed decisions on political, social and legal issues. Pai is a founder-donor of Gateway House Mumbai, an independent foreign policy think tank; he has funded a New Delhi-based legal NGO, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. In February 2013, he co-founded Bangalore Political Action Committee (BPAC) with Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairman and managing director of Biocon. The BPAC is a citizens action group that aims to promote good governance, identify ideal political candidates and endorse them, push social and economic inclusion and improve infrastructure in the city.

“We felt there was a need to create a lobby for educated, urban dwellers to fight for a better Bangalore. I regard Mohandas as one of the most dynamic and engaging individuals that I have come across. His sharp intellect and ability to reinforce his arguments with hard facts and empirical data is simply amazing. Mohan has always championed social causes, whether it is promoting primary education through the Akshaya Patra Foundation or raising civic awareness through his involvement in BPAC,” says Mazumdar-Shaw.

In his investor avatar, Pai has a stake in the Unitus Seed Fund which seeks to encourage and build social impact ventures in India. His other investments in the startup space and in private equity funds seek to encourage young entrepreneurs. In 2011, Mohandas and Ranjan Pai launched Aarin Capital Fund to invest in health care, life sciences and technology; it has invested in 11 companies in India and abroad. Last year, Mohandas launched Exfinity, a private equity fund, along with V Balakrishnan, Girish Paranjpe, former joint CEO of Wipro, and Deepak Ghaisas, former CEO of i-Flex Solutions. At present, Pai runs 10 funds to promote entrepreneurial ventures. “He is a great believer in unleashing the entrepreneurial energy of India and has both invested in and mentored many startups,” says Mazumdar-Shaw.

Giving, in that sense, is second nature to Pai. “I always believed that wealth is something God has given us, that we may give ahead, and not hold and pass it all on to our children only. We need more compassion in this country. All the people who have made money need to give more money back to society,” says Pai. “The power of wealth is the power to give it away.”

(This story appears in the 09 January, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)