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Philanthropy – What’s that?

August 27, 2009

In today’s Times of India, Bangalore edition, there is a news item that mentions an eminent citizen of Jaipur’s house having been raided and more than $2 million (Rupees ten crores) found in his possession in currency notes. He had kept the money in trunks under his bed. Obviously, the stock broker was a wealthy man and had mansions and at least ten cars parked in his drive way. It is the amount of cash in his possession that amazes me. The simple question – how much is enough, comes to my mind. In India, for most people, I guess, the answer would be, the world and more and nothing less!! This craving for wealth is an obsession here in India. I am sure people in other parts of the world are equally greedy, but here the idea is to gather all one can and still some more. The gentleman when he was caught looked drained and as if everything was lost. It is very unlikely he will face imprisonment, chances are he will be slapped a penalty and will be let off with a warning unless it is proved that the money was ill-gotten wealth.  Surprises me as to how people can literally sit on hordes of cash and live at peace with themselves when they see poverty and hunger all around. And this man is not an isolated case. India is home to some of the richest people in the world. Even if there are four to five percent super rich in India that makes it a lot of people in real terms. And what do they give back to the society that they have earned all this wealth from? Zilch!!

A random check on the Wikipedia shows the difference. There is an endless list of American philanthropists and if you punch for Indians, there is a meager list of less than two dozen such individuals. Take out the Parsees and a couple of Indian Jews from the list and it will boil down to half that number, one that can be counted on ones finger tips. Why such difference, one may ask. The answer is simple – giving is just not an Indian trait. Me, myself and my family – that is the motto. It is amazing how selfish one can be in a country where there is such widespread poverty.  The problem is that the more one has the more one wants.

Then there is another Indian trait that I am not sure many people know. Indians are the biggest savers in the world next only to the Japanese. Saving is in our blood. We save for a rainy day, or a hot summer day – in Indian parlance. Indians just can’t help but save. Indians are generally very wise with their money. They know the value of money and also know how difficult it is to earn money. It is pretty tough to get money out of an Indian. They will try their levels best not to pay up. It is crazy how we cling on to it.

It may surprise some, but Indians have this love for the yellow metal. Yes, gold is a weakness of us Indians. Gold ornaments are passed on from generation to generation. There are festivals when it is believed that it is auspicious to buy gold. We call it Akshaytritiya. One will find a queue in front of gold and ornament shops – the jewelers. One of the things that they discuss in any Indian marriage is the amount of gold gifted to the couple. It is crazy – this fondness for gold. India is the largest importer of gold in the world. World gold prices depend on the demand from India. Indian marriages are perhaps the most ostentatious in the world. We spend like crazy on weddings. It is as if we are there to outdo each other when it comes to spending on weddings. We pour out all that (not quite) we have saved over the years on marriages.

And then you look at the poverty that abounds and one is left aghast. Why such disparity? And how does a fair section of the population live in complete peace with itself in a sea of destitution. There is no sense of responsibility. There is no sense of remorse. Perhaps we as a society are scared that if we start giving we will be as poor and as destitute as the ones we are trying to help. It is not the middle class that is as much at fault as the super rich that abound. Many of these neo-rich are first generation or second generation entrepreneurs. But in this short time they have made impressive progress financially. If they wanted they could make a difference to the society. The middle class tries in its own humble ways to do something but that is not enough. Till the super-rich start thinking of the society, I am afraid that this disparity will only increase. If they wanted, they could do a lot. A statistics that appeared was that Indians had $1256 billion stashed in Swiss banks!! This is just the stats for Swiss banks, there are other tax havens and one can only imagine how much money is stashed overseas.  The government is trying to get these huge sums of money back home. The amount in Swiss banks is six times the foreign exchange reserve with the Reserve Bank of India. If all this money is brought back to India, a lot could be done for the common Indian. And, yes, the Indian rupee will become much stronger than what it is today at Rs 49 to a dollar. Imports will then become cheaper and the country will be on a much stronger footing. By the way, this is the largest fund stashed by citizens of any country in the famous Swiss banks. For all one may know, it could well be that the gentleman who had kept a couple of million under his bed was actually in the process of transferring the booty to a foreign bank!! Philanthropy – what philanthropy? That is not a part of Indian lexicon. And never will it be. It takes a Bill Gates to come to India and work for those afflicted with AIDS here. We Indians have no time for our brothers who need help. Shame…. I could go on!!!

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