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Indian philanthropists can’t ignore the crisis of democracy


Amitabh Behar

It is exciting to see that with donations worth $102.4 billion, Tata Group founder Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata is the world’s biggest philanthropist of the last century, much ahead of Bill and Melinda Gates, who came in second. Wipro Founder-Chairman Azim Premji, who gifted about $22 billion for noble causes and ranked 12, is the only other Indian in the list of 50 global philanthropists recently compiled by Hurun Research and EdelGive Foundation.

This remarkable revelation, read with the trends of significantly growing philanthropy in India as pointed out year after year by the Bain philanthropy report, raises several important questions about the role philanthropy is playing in the 75th year of Indian independence. These questions about the role, influence, and impact of philanthropy gain much greater salience in a context of massive challenges of, unprecedented pandemic and its consequences; endemic developmental deficits in a deeply polarised and caste-divided society; and reconfiguration of democracy and rights due to majoritarian politics and populism. This attention on philanthropy is also underscored by the changing architecture of India in which the role of the State is diminishing and the market plays a much bigger role. 

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To evaluate the current status, impact, and role of philanthropy in the 75th year of independence, let us explore two important areas. First, philanthropy and its relationship with civil society and impact on development, rights, and social change. Second, philanthropy’s response to the challenges of democracy and liberal worldview, which is almost central as an enabling/base condition for philanthropy to survive and thrive. 

Techno-managerial approaches

The rapid growth of philanthropy is playing an important role in reshaping the contours of Indian civil society through the funding priorities set by philanthropic institutions and Ultra high net-worth individuals (UHNIs). The current emphasis and prioritization of philanthropists move towards a dilution of the richness of organically grown civil society anchored in the ethos of national movement and peoples’ power, in favor of more techno-managerial approaches to development and social change. The philanthropic sector is also influencing the developmental discourse in the country including privileging specific solutions to some of the big developmental challenges faced by the country. It is also attempting to fill in the stark service delivery gap in specific locations though this remains almost an insignificant fraction of the service delivery needs of the poor and vulnerable communities in India. 

Much of these trends of philanthropy need to be analyzed and critiqued to make sense of their impact in India. Organized philanthropy in India is still nascent and is primarily engaged in questions of poverty and developmental deficits through a service delivery lens. With the exception of a few, it has not adopted a rights-based systemic approach to analyzing and addressing the wicked problems of poverty, injustice, and indignity.  For example, the caste question, so central to India, is addressed as an issue of developmental deficits and not as a function of the inhuman and oppressive caste system that needs to be dismantled.

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Odisha, Aug 29 (ANI): BPL (below poverty line) beneficiaries stand in a queue to collect their free ration kits at a makeshift distribution center, in Bhubaneswar on Sunday. (ANI Photo) (Sarangadhara Bishnoi )

A mute bystander

Sweden-based V Dem Institute’s recently published report on democracy says that India is no longer an ‘electoral democracy’ classifying the country as ‘electoral autocracy. Freedom House in its ‘Freedom in the world’ report downgraded India’s status from a ‘Free’ country to a ‘Partly Free’ country. These reports reflect the dramatic and deeply polarizing churning in India and the challenges the country faces. 

It is surprising to note that philanthropy in India is oblivious to these massive challenges. Maybe it is complicit by its silence or at best a neutral bystander to the battle of ideals that would define the future of the country. All the core values and ethics, the philanthropic world stands for and codifies as its mission and vision, are under deep stress and are reaching a break-point. The necessary conditions, for the philanthropic sector to exist, function and do any meaningful work—like rule of law, separation of power, robust civic space, independent media—are under threat. 

Still, philanthropy in India has chosen to remain silent and disengaged at this critical juncture. History will judge it harshly.

Members of All India Democratic Women’s Association take part in a protest against the government following a price hike of fuel prices next to a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinder, in Chennai on September 3, 2021. (Photo by Arun SANKAR / AFP)

Moving ahead 

Maybe the current Indian philanthropy needs to borrow some leafs from the philanthropists of the pre-independence era. The Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, which was the centre of satyagraha and satyagrahis between 1915-30, may not have survived without the generosity of a philanthropist. As Ramachandr Guha writes, “Not long after it started, Gandhi admitted an untouchable family, whereupon his patrons withdrew support. The shortfall was made up by a man identified in Gandhi’s autobiography only as ‘the Sheth’ (but whom we know to have been Ambalal Sarabhai).” 

Surely, this must have been an act of courage to go against the British Raj and the orthodox Brahmanical society. The spirit of Indian philanthropy was not dampened and infact got only more emboldened in its support for the national movement. As Guha writes further, “If one large-hearted businessman saved Gandhi’s ashram in Ahmedabad, another, Jamnalal Bajaj, funded Gandhi’s next (and equally epoch-defining) ashram, which was located in Sevagram in central India.” 

Today, some bold global philanthropists are taking risks and responding to address and support issues that might be considered contentious but have a critical impact on our societies and polity. MacKenzie Scott recently gave away $4 billion in four months. She wrote in her blog that she wanted to give money to those “that have been historically underfunded and overlooked”. A large number of organisations benefitting from her philanthropy work on racial inequality and “bridging divides” between different religions—issues which are certainly deeply polarising in her country and across the world. 

Indian philanthropy will play an important role in shaping the journey of the country over the next 25 years. When India completes hundred years, the philanthropic sector should be able to look back with satisfaction for playing a constructive role in building a just, equitable, and sustainable India.

Read at: Mint Lounge | News | Taking Point | Indian philanthropists can’t ignore the crisis of democracy | Amitabh Behar | 5 Sep 2021

About the Author

Amitabh Behar

Amitabh Behar is the Chief Executive Officer of Oxfam India.

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  1. Excellent piece. The “neutrality” of techno- managerial philanthropy has the effect of pulling the earth, so to speak, from under those working with and towards addressing entrenched hierarchies and often dehumanising exclusions by apparently working “around” these issues. As with many realities in India, I believe this too is a reflection of class, of urban rural divides … and the absence of a shared experience. The gap between the “doers” and the “receivers” of “good works” is only deepening.


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