Philanthropist couples Susmita and Subroto Bagchi, and Radha and N.S. Parthasarathy collectively donated ₹425 crore to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc.) to set up a postgraduate medical college and an 800-bed multi-speciality hospital on its Bengaluru campus. Less than a year ago, the Bagchis had committed ₹340 crore towards building a cancer hospital and palliative care centre in Odisha.
Mr. Bagchi, co-founder of Mindtree, in a conversation with The Hindu spoke about why health is the most important space that requires attention and how the Covid-19 pandemic drastically changed his views about the term ‘lifetime’.
Excerpts from an interview:
Why do you believe healthcare in India requires a lot of resources, attention and focus?
For a nation of 1.3 billion people, we are woefully inadequate in terms of healthcare infrastructure and investment. The big part of this is not the hardware, it is the human capital mismatch. We do not have enough doctors, nurses, paramedics, hospital beds. As a result, access and equity have suffered hugely over the last many decades. The underbelly of the healthcare system was starkly visible during the Covid-19 pandemic, and we run the risk of collective amnesia as we come out of it.
The difficulty with us is that we think that the big strides in healthcare must be always the government’s job. But if we look at developed nations, great things in medical research and healthcare happened because private individuals came forward to write a cheque and had the sagacity to walk away from it. That is how Sloan Kettering (oldest and largest cancer centre in New York) happened. Harvard, Yale and Stanford and Oxford flourished because of commitment from non-government and non-institutional actors of change.
Giving is not so easy, it’s a special call. What prepared you and Ms. Susmita for it?
Long back, Susmita and I chose to focus on healthcare due to personal reasons. Her mother battled cancer and later dementia. My mother was blind, and my father had mental health issues. Through deeply personal experiences, deeply personal choices present themselves. That is how we decided to work on mental health, vision, cancer and ageing. We decided to set up a large cancer hospital and a palliative care centre in Odisha. This will be one of the largest cancer cure and care facilities in the country.
Sri Shankara Cancer Foundation from Bengaluru is setting up a 750-bed hospital in Bhubaneswar. Karunashraya, the hugely regarded palliative care pioneer, will set up their facility. These two will be adjacent to each other. The Odisha Government has given 20 acres of prime land to each of these institutions free of charge. With these two major projects under way, we needed to do something in Karnataka.
What made you zero in on Karnataka and IISc.?
Odisha and Karnataka are very dear to us. Odisha has given us life, and Karnataka has given us identity. But, we were looking at a possible convergence between health and education. That is exactly what happened with the IISc. project. While our work in Odisha will deliver care, our support to IISc. will lead to path-breaking inter-disciplinary research that will have bench-to-bed translational impact. It will create a special cadre of scientist-doctors that India badly needs. The facility will create a new breed of physician-scientists who will pursue careers in clinical research to develop new treatments and healthcare solutions.
Can you take us through the highlights of the discussions with IISc.?
The Government of India had taken a decision that institutes of eminence. like IISc. and IITs, could start medical schools so that science, engineering and medicine could be under one roof, as it happens in leading institutions in the world. But, the caveat was that these institutes were told to generate their own resources.
Health facilities require massive investments. It could freeze anyone into inaction. But we were stumped when we saw how far, how professionally, a group of leaders in IISc. had gone forward to blueprint their ideas. Frankly, when I read their papers, I was asking myself, could I myself have written a plan so good with my decades of institution building experience. They drew us in.
Bengaluru is already the healthcare capital of India. Why do you think the city requires another healthcare and training facility?
As I said before, India has woefully inadequate healthcare research and delivery capacity. Bengaluru is better than other places, but not good enough. Not globally comparable. Not demographically adequate. But leaving that aside, don’t for a moment think that all that is happening is an 800-bed multi-speciality hospital in IISc. The hospital is the focal point where doctors, physicists, biologists, nano-technologist, software and deep tech experts as much as med-tech start-ups will learn by doing. The bigger umbrella is the Institute of Medical Sciences, which will do cross-disciplinary research, training, innovation, capacity building. The hospital will be the stage on which they will all perform. It is called a bench-to-bed and bed-to-bench flow of knowledge.
New machines and equipment will be designed and tried here, new processes will be perfected here, new vaccines will be designed, developed and tried here. A whole new cadre of scientist-doctors will come out of it who will be able to lift the larger eco-system of healthcare in India. This isn’t yet another fancy hospital. The future of medical knowledge will unfold here.
Certain sections of the public feel a hospital venture on the pristine campus of IISc. may disturb its calm and tranquil environment, which is critical for research-related activities. What are your views?
We have been told that the green cover of IISc. will not suffer. The total area is only 15 acres in about a 440-acre campus. If there is any need for relocation of any tree, there is enough technology and capability on hand to do so. The IISc. administration is deeply committed to protecting its environment. We were very impressed with how they have executed their super-state-of-the-art fablab without sacrificing a single tree.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted your philanthropic decisions?
It made Susmita and me, and at the same time Partha and Radha, rethink timelines. It gave us a sense of urgency like never before. We had a shared belief that we must spend our money for the larger good in our own lifetime. The Covid-19 pandemic told us, don’t think a lifetime can be a long time. Engage now, tomorrow may be too late.