For wealthy Indians, generosity is yet to become a way of life

Amrit Dhillon suggests reasons why India ranks low on the global generosity scale

Poverty is rife in the slums of Mumbai and wealthy Indians seem overwhelmed by it. (Danish Siddiqui / Reuters)
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A recent survey has found that India’s rich are stingy. India ranked 106th in a survey of 145 countries and last among the eight countries included from South Asia, according to the World Giving Index, a study based on surveys carried out by Gallup.

India is poor but so is Mynamar, which ranked the highest in the world for generosity. The US is second, New Zealand third, Canada fourth and Australia fifth. The next five most generous countries are the UK, Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Ireland and Malaysia.

The ranking sits badly with the fact that a record 90 Indians with a combined net worth of $295 billion (Dh1.08tn) featured in the 2015 Forbes Billionaires List.

The miserliness of India’s wealthy when it comes to charitable donations is nothing new. A report by consultancy Bain & Co in 2011 found that Indians with high net wealth gave an average of 3.1 per cent of their income to charity – about a third of what wealthy Americans give away each year.

It is no surprise that India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, has not signed The Giving Pledge, launched in 2010 by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates to encourage billionaires to donate at least half of their wealth to charitable causes. As of August 2015, 137 billionaires had signed up.

Only one Indian, Wipro’s Azim Premji, has signed up. Mr Premji said: “I strongly believe that those of us who are privileged to have wealth should contribute significantly to try to create a better world for the millions who are far less privileged.”

These words are rarely heard coming out of the mouths of a rich Indian, honourable exceptions such as investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala notwithstanding. He is known as “India’s Warren Buffett” and he has pledged to give 25 per cent of his fortune to charity in his lifetime.

The reasons why rich Indians are so tight-fisted vary, but they can probably be put into three broad categories.

One is that the majority of Indians are Hindu and Hinduism is not a congregational religion where people come together to worship. Prayer is an individual affair, either at home or in a small temple that you visit alone. There is no opportunity for Hindu religious leaders to address a congregation and instil in them the awareness of the need to give to the poor.

Secondly, much of this wealth (though by no means all), is first-generation wealth. Having only recently made their money and having only emerged from proximity to poverty, business families still feel insecure. One wrong step or a stroke of bad fortune and their wealth could disappear, they fear. In a country that is, for much of the world, synonymous with poverty, a primordial fear of falling into poverty is widespread among those who are not poor. By contrast, many families in the West have been wealthy for generations and that helps the younger progeny to feel secure about giving money away.

Thirdly, the sheer immensity of India’s poverty can deter even the most well-meaning. The unending landscape of millions and millions living in hovels with two sets of clothes, no money in the bank, no money for medical treatment, stunted physiques and terrible diets can make you feel it’s hopeless. What good can one donation do when the scale of the problem is beyond comprehension?

Nonetheless, many rich Indians could easily do much more but they are selfish and care only for their own. This is a flaw in society. Your family is important but not your fellow Indians. Your concern extends only to you and yours.

This explains why Mr Ambani could build his 27-storey home at a cost of $1 billion in Mumbai without realising the insensitivity of such a palace in a city where 60 per cent of the residents live in slums. The desire to help strangers or those not related to you is weak.

It’s also a fact that many affluent Indians like to give only when it is going to be publicly acknowledged – in the papers, in photographs, by public gratitude. They love being praised while simulating embarrassment.

While defending actor Salman Khan in a hit-and-run case this year, his lawyer spoke in great detail about the star’s donations to charity. Few are like Shah Rukh Khan, the King of Bollywood, who gives handsomely but never talks about it.

As the survey shows, the culture of philanthropy has yet to take root in India. It will be some time before you stop hearing about weddings that cost as much as sending a mission to Mars and hear instead about charity balls or fund-raising dinners that raised huge amounts.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist in New Delhi