Indian Philanthropy

        The main administrative block of my medical college is called the “Rajah of Panagal” building. Donated in 1931, it remains an affectionate memorial of the charity of the erstwhile Chief Minister of Madras Presidency towards the city on the coast. The Victoria Maternity Hospital was donated by the Raja of Gajapathi and our Hospital for the Handicapped was donated by Rani Chandramani, the Zamindar of Chemudu. All in Visakhapatnam. The rich and the generous have supported my college all through.

In the fourth age of man, the goddess of Dharma, represented by a divine cow is shown to be limping only on one leg, indicating the erosion of moral values. It has been accepted that the only value that holds up the fabric of creation in this age is “Daana” or charity.

Very often, actually more often than required are we reminded about the great entrepreneurs of the West who are donating X% of their assets to charity or to some foundation. Bill Gates, Jackie Chan, Warren Buffet and Richard Branson and the list goes on. As usual our media goes into “excited cheerleader” overdrive mode whenever they see a shiny new thing in the West. And accordingly they don’t stop with extolling the virtues of the Western Charity. They start exhorting that our wealthy don’t donate enough and question the ethic of the Indian philanthropy and its alleged hesitance to venture forth.

I have nothing against or for the Indian wealthy. You can’t expect a Birla or an Ambani or for that matter a Karlapu (yours truly) donating 50% of his/her wealth to charity. India is a deeply structured inheritance based society where each individual would want his children to inherit the fruits of his labour. Nothing wrong in it. You can’t force philanthropy. But at the same time, you can’t pass judgment that the Indian rich don’t do enough to serve society. India’s elite and ruling classes have always been charitable. Right from the donations of emperors to temples, in the form of maintenance and land grants until the charity of modern day powerful,  India’s history is replete with examples of the magnanimity of the affluent. The Bhoodan ( Land Donation) movement started out of the sleepy, silk weaving village of Pochampally and grew to  the voluntary donation of a million acres in post-independence India. Several embellishments of the city of Mumbai are mostly a result of the donations of the wealthy Indians, notably the Parsees and Jews community ( JJ Hospital, Mahim Causeway, David Sassoon Library, Masina Hospital etc). We all know about the Birla Mandirs.

            Indian philanthropy is different. As with everything about India, our charity can never be captured in account books and excel sheets. Ninety percent of us never keep tabs for the charity we have done. India isn’t its millionaires. India is its middle class. I believe that the cultural ethos and traditional heritage is so strong in the middle class that we think donation isn’t mere charity, it’s a moral responsibility.

When a man thinks it’s his responsibility rather than a legal obligation to part with a little of his wealth to help the poor out, it’s real SOCIALISM.

Every day as I walk home after work, I would see an aunty from the building across the road come out with Dal Khichdi and start whistling. Within no time, a pack of stray dogs start scampering towards her and lap up the food she has with her. I asked her once if it was leftovers from dinner. She merely replied that she always cooks a little extra for the dogs.


The great Indian middle class is taught to share, to donate and to give. It is also taught to repay and forget. In our own households, we see this happening. The kid breaks off a piece of his/her chocolate and gives it to the maid’s kid, as instructed by the mother. Old clothes and clothes out of which he has grown are recycled. Leftover food is given away. My grand aunt had got her maid’s daughter married, full kharcha. And I am sure she didn’t declare it in her income tax returns as a donation to charity.

I feel that Indians have an inherent mistrust towards large corporations and NGOs. That’s the reason we don’t see many large Pan-Indian foundations operating, solely based on individual donations. The bigger foundations are always supported by a large corporate donor. Indians prefer to trust God. No wonder the temples have such a large and steady cash flow. We may say that we are offering our gratitude towards God when we make donations, but sub consciously all of us know and trust the temple to proceed with some charitable activity with our contributions. Whenever each of us drops a coin into a Hundi in Tirupathi, ISKCON or  Shirdi, we know that somewhere a kid is being fed, some village is getting drinking water or a free surgery is being performed. The community kitchens of the Gurudwaras and the Annadaana schemes of temples are all financed by the devotees, all clutching notes of tens and twenty. All of us are aware that we are donating, not to God, but to others. Its these little donations that count. This is the Indian idea of philanthropy. Its ok for a billionaire to part with a few millionaires. But the salaried employee or the small time trader who donate, often at their own expense is the real hero.

            I am reminded of a Telugu movie a few years ago, called Missamma ( Loosely translates to Madam) where an ailing heiress dupes a married middle class man into tying the knot with her so that he can inherit her wealth legally and spend it wisely. The only reason for zeroing in on this particular gentleman is that in spite of a fixed salary; he donates a large part of his salary to charity and leads an exemplary life. There are many such gentlemen and women in India, all donating silently but diligently. How else do you think India still survives? It’s because of these good folk.


About Kiran Kumar Karlapu

The Prince of the Monsoons. Dreams in English but swears in Telugu. High strung, hyperactive and generally distracted. Fights crime and tweets about them when not forced to attend a Sarkaari Daftar.
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4 Responses to Indian Philanthropy

  1. ISOTC says:

    Interesting. Thoughts:

    Isn’t there a difference between individual acts of donation to a religious entity vs. an individual pledging money towards a particular cause? Most times donations to god are made in the spirit of appeasement and few bother about accountability or how the money is finally put to use. Sure, it might make someone feel good to know that it goes towards some kind of charity, but how does one really know? I think the Mint article that you are responding to was trying to illustrate large scale acts of giving in support of specific causes. Your part about helping a maid’s child get married cannot really be compared to these institutionalized acts of donation. It is unequal to draw comparisons between the two simply because the causes differ too. Helping someone we know personally or feeding stray dogs happens as a matter of everyday social interaction and cannot really be particular to a single culture. Acts such as that of helping one’s maid by handing down clothes or food also form part of an implicit social contract with various terms and conditions attached to them that may or may not dignify the receiver. The donations of estates by the wealthy carry with them benefits that transcend much more than mere monetary acts of giving. It is about building institutions that benefit from a certain visionary thinking that people like Azim Premji are endowed with. Sure, we have had our share of philanthropists that have established college such as yours, still we could do with a few more Azim Premjis. That said, your point about Indian inheritance is well taken.

  2. K. V. Suresh says:

    Beautiful. Nice observation..:)

  3. Bhalchander Vishwanath says:

    Maybe you missed the recent headline – Azim Premji is planning to give away more than 50% of his wealth. There is no mention of that in your post. It is a joy, let us celebrate. When we see Tendulkar or a Sehwag or a Dhoni score a double hundred against a formidable opponent, we celebrate. We share their joie de vivre. At that moment we don’t discuss about Geoff Boycott’s flawless batting technique. So let us cherish and celebrate the act of generosity of a wonderful human being.

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