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Updated: January 5, 2013 01:59 IST

A wish list for public giving

Kamaljit S. Bawa
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CASE STUDY: The contrast with the situation in the United
States, where professionals run private foundations and income
is disbursed in the form of grants, is instructive. The file picture
is of Bill Gates at Guleria in Bihar.
AP CASE STUDY: The contrast with the situation in the United States, where professionals run private foundations and income is disbursed in the form of grants, is instructive. The file picture is of Bill Gates at Guleria in Bihar.

Philanthropy in India has looked at poverty, health and education but environment has not received proportionate attention

In India, philanthropy is an ancient and venerable tradition. Apart from directly helping the poor and the underprivileged, people have always offered money to religious organisations, which in turn run orphanages, hospitals, and educational institutions. Even the poor are engaged in philanthropy by devoting a proportion of their income directly or indirectly to the needy.

In the last century, the trusts created by some prominent families formally organised giving, both by setting up institutions linked to the trusts, and by offering assistance to unaffiliated organisations. Formal giving thus transformed India’s institutional landscape, leading to the creation of some of the country’s finest institutions.

The phenomenal increase of wealth in India over the last few decades has reinvigorated philanthropy. Although, our economic, social, political, and environmental problems continue to worsen, “new” philanthropists can play a critical role in improving the human condition in our society

The target areas

Philanthropy in India has a number of targets: poverty, social and economic inequity, injustice, health, education and the environment, to name a few. Indeed, problems in these sectors are enormous and complex, and progress in their resolution calls for focused and sustained efforts. However, our deteriorating environment and declining natural resources receive proportionately less attention than other areas.

Unfortunately, our present environmental problems are acute and worsening. Air quality is declining, water is becoming scarce, land is being degraded, soils are losing their organic matter, and biodiversity is diminishing. We have a huge and unique biodiversity. At the beginning of the last century, perhaps 50 per cent of our land area was covered by natural habitats. Today, it is less than 20 per cent.

The value of biodiversity and associated ecosystem services, when translated into monetary terms, exceed the total annual Gross Domestic Product. The ecosystem services include water regulation, carbon sequestration, and provision of pollinators for agriculture, enemies of insect pests, and a vast range of products. They offer spiritual and aesthetic enrichment — yet they are universally taken for granted, considered “free” by society, and suffer benign neglect.

With ongoing climate change, it is the state of the environment that will determine the fate of human societies in the 21st century, and not merely our ability to clothe, feed, find shelter, combat disease and educate ourselves.

Diminishing biodiversity and degradation of habitats exact a heavy toll on rural communities, for whom local ecosystem resources sustain livelihoods. There are hundreds of millions of such people in our country. The Naxalite movement that has spread over much of India represents a long and bitter struggle of indigenous peoples for rights over their environmental assets, and frustrations over a development process gone awry. Yet, with a few exceptions, the ecosystems themselves, or the people dependent upon them, do not appear to be on the radar of “new” Indian philanthropy.

The new approach

An implicit goal of philanthropy is social transformation: the engagement of civil society to resolve complex problems when the state or its agents lack resources or the means to bring about change. One can try to transform society oneself, or one can support new institutions that will be fully qualified for and engaged in the process of transformation.

A diversity of institutions, often with overlapping missions, enriches ideas and approaches to address problems.

India’s vast geographic scale, its ethnic and cultural diversity and its aspirations as a model pluralistic society also require a diverse array of institutions, but the record of the “new” Indian philanthropists in creating and supporting new and emerging institutions, with a few exceptions, has not yet been stellar.

While a few older foundations, such as the Tata Trusts, have been run as purely donor agencies, the approach of the “new” Indian philanthropists has been more ambivalent, indicating a sense of wanting to fix things themselves. More often, foundation resources are devoted to direct implementation of specific projects dear to the heart of the founder. In several cases it is the attempt to alleviate poverty, improve health, or primary education in particular areas. More recently, such projects have taken the shape of private universities. These are all noble causes, clearly worthy of support, and it is to the credit of the “new” philanthropists that such initiatives for the betterment of society are increasing at a rapid pace.

Lacking for the most part, though, are grant-making programmes that benefit specialist institutions and organisations that can foster new ideas and innovations. The contrast with the situation in the United States, where professionals run the private foundations and income is disbursed in the form of grants is instructive. The system fosters a diverse array of ideas, institutions, and approaches to flourish and compete. The thousands of grantees — institutions and individuals — become agents of long-lasting change.

The good news is that many “bright stars” on the institutional skyscape in India are young, innovative environmental organisations receiving good support from some “new” philanthropists. As philanthropy and its vibrant non-governmental organisations mature in India, hundreds if not thousands of such stars will shine — together forging a better environment and a just society.

(Kamaljit S. Bawa is president of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bangalore, and distinguished professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.)

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