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In India, charity begins – and stays – at home Add to ...

For his 50th birthday last year, billionaire investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, known as “India’s Warren Buffett,” flew out 200 family and friends from Mumbai to Mauritius for three days of celebrations.

Amid an endless flow of champagne and non-stop partying, the only quiet moment was the evening Mr. Jhunjhunwala took to the stage at the beach resort to speak about his father.

“One of the things my father told me was that whenever anyone comes to you for help, greet them with the open hand of generosity, never a closed fist,” he said, adding that his father would never have finished his education had it not been for the timely help of a friend.

Inspired by his father, Mr. Jhunjhunwala stunned Indians earlier this month by pledging to give 25 per cent of his fortune to charity in his lifetime.

The announcement was big news in a country where – honourable exceptions aside – the wealthy love to splurge on weddings, mansions, cars, planes and yachts, but tighten their fists when it comes to charity.

India’s growing list of billionaires – 55 according to the latest count by Forbes – are enjoying the fruits of India’s rapid economic growth but have been slow to take up philanthropy.

It’s a sensitive topic. It was embarrassing when Microsoft founder Bill Gates and investor Warren Buffett visited India in March to ask 70 of the country’s richest tycoons to give more of their fortunes to charity.

The two men were promoting their “Giving Pledge” campaign to persuade some of the world’s richest to give away half of their fortunes. While their campaign in the U.S. prompted 57 American billionaires to make a pledge, it fell flat in India.

Rich Indians prefer to leave their money to their sons and daughters. The reasons for this lack of charity are complex, but one could be the bias in Indian society toward favouring the family over the wider community. If, for example, a cousin or nephew needs money or a job, people will go all out to help, but when faced with a beggar or urchin at the traffic lights, will studiously avert their faces.

India’s new super-rich and middle class prefer to give only when they get something in return. They donate generously to temples, mosques and Sikh gurdwaras because they seek to procure their personal salvation. It is to these temples that billionaires and Bollywood stars troop to please the gods and receive a blessing in return for their donations.

While these temples are so fabulously rich they make the Vatican look like a pawnbroker’s shop, anyone running a charity in India has a hard time. An acquaintance who runs a home for destitute widows outside New Delhi struggles to persuade affluent Indians even to pay for cows so that she can provide the widows with milk.

The culture of philanthropy has yet to take root in India. You hear all the time about weddings that cost as much as the American defence budget, but hardly ever about charity balls or fundraising dinners.

A second reason for this parsimony could be a deep insecurity. Perhaps, when they know around 600 million of their fellow citizens live on less than a dollar a day, well off Indians living on islands of affluence, are fearful that, one day, through a twist of fate, they too could sink into the sea of poverty around them.

There are plenty of examples of this primeval insecurity. Corrupt Indians never take just “enough” bribes to buy a house or send their children to university. They go on and on accumulating because whatever they squirrel away is just never enough for “a rainy day.”

At the home of one civil servant couple in Madhya Pradesh, central India, tax officials found, during a raid earlier this year, that they owned 25 flats, 400 acres of land, and kept suitcases stuffed with gold.

But the insecurity argument might just as easily apply to middle-class families where, if the breadwinner loses a job or falls sick and runs up a huge hospital bill, the risk of sinking into financial trouble is real. It cannot, however, explain the stinginess of the seriously rich.

A more plausible explanation, suggested by Mr. Jhunjhunwala, is that the super-rich are not yet ready to give because they are still preoccupied with getting.

The new wealth is just a generation old, acquired over the past 20 years since India embarked on liberalization. Perhaps new money has to become old money before philanthropy can be taken up. So we’ll have to give rich and selfish Indians the benefit of the doubt … for the moment.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance writer in India.

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