Altruism, charity and India's super-billionaires

Altruism: None of the top ten super-rich billionaires of India has given a substantial amount for charity the way Gates has. — Photo: AFP

Altruism: None of the top ten super-rich billionaires of India has given a substantial amount for charity the way Gates has. — Photo: AFP  

Altruism is central to the evolution of various biological phenomena from social behaviour to evolutionary transitions in individuality

“Variyaarku Onru Eevade Eehai; Mattrellam Kuriyethirppai Neera Dudaithu” —

Thirukkural; chapter 23.1 (To give to the destitute is true charity. All other gifts have the nature of (what is done for) a measured return).

“Iyatralum Eettalum Kaatthalum Kaatha Vahuthalum Vallathu Arasu” —

Chapter 39. 5 (He is king who is able to acquire [wealth], to lay it up, to guard, and to distribute it with wisdom).

Going by these two couplets of Sage Valluvar, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are the two emperors of the world. Buffet has pledged to donate 99 per cent of his wealth, while Bill and Melinda Gates have already donated half of theirs to charity, using it for improving the health of humanity.

What will result

And we all have read the news that Buffet and Gates will approach the rich in India and China to pledge half their wealth to charity — and are wondering what the result will be. And we also just read the news item that the richest man in India has just pledged almost two crores of rupees, not to charity, but to help cover the Tirupati temple Gopuram with a gold cover, reminiscent of what Valluvar wrote in the first couplet above.

Indeed none of the top ten super-rich billionaires of India have given any substantial amount towards any charity or for human welfare the way Buffet or Gates has.

And again, none of the top 10 Indian super-rich (perhaps excepting one) have inherited this wealth; each of them has worked to make this wealth on his own, just as Buffet or Gates has. Yet, why is it that they have not thought to do what these two have done?

Altruism is central to the evolution of various biological phenomena from social behaviour to evolutionary transitions in individuality. There is no single ‘gene' for altruism, though some have suggested that a member of the SAND-like domain genes is associated with reproductive altruism in algae. Rather, people like Richard Dawkins have argued that genes are ‘selfish' — that is they direct the behaviour of individuals in a manner that increases their propagation.

Haldane explained this “selfishness” saying that “I'd lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins”. Note that each brother shares half your genes, and each cousin one-eighth. Thus even if I die, my genes are propagated to further generations! This also explains why we bond with our relatives or even community, but why show compassion towards others totally unrelated to us?

The answer comes from sociology and our values of ethics and morals than from genetics. Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi exemplified this very well. Gandhi wanted us to ask “how does what I do help the poorest of the poor?”. It is this value of helping others that is seen in the acts of Buffet and Gates.

While most religions promote this value, it can be quite well practiced by agnostics and even atheists.

A feel for the suffering of others, an understanding of the methods available for large-scale eradication (or even reduction) of the suffering and dedication to support and contribute to the application of the method are vital.

It is for this reason that the Gates couple has decided to use their money to find scientific methods to attack and win over diseases such as TB, AIDS and malaria.

And the Gates couple has followed others who have used this idea. The Howard Hughes Foundation supports research in life sciences, while the Rockefeller Foundation has been helping scientists the world over in finding new ways to increase rice production.

And even a middle-class couple, the Hymans of U.K., who lost their daughter Miriam in the terrorist bombing in London a few years ago, have contributed the entire compensation money they received from the U.K. government to help ways to restore the eyesight of children in India (no genetic link) and rehabilitate those who are blind.

Clear cause

It seems to me that when it is realized that the suffering has a clear cause, that the cause can be understood and a solution may be found to win it over, then people are willing to give. The spirit is captured in the declaration “Aut viam inveniam aut facium” or “I shall either find a way or make one”.

There is thus a scientific rationale, and the belief that funding towards it would help, behind such foundations, charities and help groups.

Public health, farming and food, catalyzing those who may have the ability to stand on their own (through microcredits), and supporting research in hard and soft sciences, humanities and arts are sure-fire ways to promote human welfare, and to respond to Gandhiji's poser. Several people — not the top super-rich, but the rich and well-to-do, both within India and Indians abroad, have done so. The Tatas have had a tradition to do so. The Infosys Foundation supports education and research. Dr. Anji Reddy is supporting efforts in health, clean water and midday meals in schools, through the Naandi Trust.

Mr. G M Rao, and Dr. Nimmagadda Prasad are two other notable donors. While the former is supporting supported public cleanliness efforts across the country, as well as help in eye care delivery, the latter has pledged to support the initiative so that “no child in Andhra Pradesh is needlessly blind or visually impaired by the year 2020”.

Now then is the turn for the Indian billionaires. Open Foundations like the Rockefeller, Keck, Hughes and Champalimaud, and help support science to eradicate human suffering. This is what Tiruvalluvar meant in the second couplet above.


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