Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Wealth : August 27, 2000
"My wife cooks well, manages the house, helps me in the field. Why won't I be happy?" asked the young smalltime farmer in a remote village in U.P. This matter-of-fact statement assumes momentous significance when you learn that the wife had been a widow before he married her with the consent of his diehard community and family. No, he was not a widower himself.
Nor is this a singular miracle. Other widows had found spouses in the region, thanks to Hindalco, the Birla business concern, which is committed to improving the quality of life of the people in the 300 villages around its plant at Renukoot, its mines in Bihar and M.P. Other initiatives include the promotion of dowryless marriages, healthcare, literacy, empowerment of women, family planning, providing aids for the disabled, training villagers in skills from basket-making to carpet weaving for sustainable livelihoods. Such rural developmental schemes suitable to the areas of operation are part of every Birla company today, whether Grasim or Vikram Cement. Available government/NGO resources are tapped, and villagers are helped to access government grants.
The industrialists of modern India, both big and small, have known from the start, that commerce and philanthropy must go together. For the Tatas, the first business family of India from the progressive Parsi community, hvarshta (good deeds) has been a major goal, which directed the use of personal wealth for the public good, in every sphere of secular, social welfare.
More conservative industrialist families started with charity for dharma and for punya. "Spend the bare minimum on yourself. Use money for removing the miseries of the poor," wrote the Gandhian G. D. Birla to his son Basant Kumar. Over the years this goal widened its reach from building temples and running schools to serve the changing needs of the community.
Rajashree Birla who spearheaded these new schemes explains that such changes were inspired by her husband, the late Aditya Birla. "He had been deeply concerned about the underprivileged, but pragmatic in his approach, he said that doling out fish to a hungry man gave him a single meal, but teach him fishing and he'll never go hungry in his lifetime." He systematised the developmental drives with all the professional organisation of any Birla undertaking.
Some of the welfare projects are radical. Take the hand pump project which has brought water to the doorstep of the villager. It was a formidable task to convince the men to let their women be trained to "man" the pumps as mobile mechanics, and go cycling on their rounds. The women had their reservations. Says Rajashree Birla, "Handling tools and mechanical equipment belonged to the male domain," she reflects. "Of all our projects, the widow remarriage scheme is truly pathbreaking. We have been able to resettle 200 widows so far."
Dr. Pragnya Ram, President, Corporate Communications, who works closely with Rajashree Birla explains, "We adopt evolutionary - not revolutionary - strategies. Changes must be brought about with the consent of the community, after discussions with the village elders and panchayat." 90 per cent of the trainees in the carpet weaving project in Khor, Rajasthan, are women from the poorest Muslim community, who have been provided a safe working space. "Now their magnificent output is in demand for export."
Though Kumar Mangalam Birla of the younger generation has no time at the moment for social work, he is imbued with the idea of "wealth as trusteeship, emphasised in our family through seven generations." In the future, he would like to "offer education to suit individual talent, and not pigeonhole everyone within slots" as in the present system.
Sometimes, a little incident sparks missionary zeal in a particular area. A century ago, P. S. Govindaswami Naidu (Coimbatore) divided his wealth into five equal parts, one each for his four sons, and the fifth to start a trust for the PSG charities. When his daughter was denied admission in a local school on the basis of her caste, son Rangaswami Naidu launched the first of the PSG educational institutions, the Sarvajana School without bars of caste or sex. Today Coimbatore is as reputed for the PSG colleges of arts, science and technology as for its textile industry.
One of the grandsons of the family, the late industrialist G. R. Govindarajulu, proved a most able trustee. He expanded the activities, urging they become self supporting as far as possible. He also started the GRG Charitable Trust to promote women's education. Daughter-in-law Nandini Rangaswami tells you, "GRG believed the donor had a responsibility beyond doling out money, to build and monitor the running of institutions committed to community development. Education was the key to progress, and women's empowerment. He had a vision."
The first concrete step was a memorial to his mother, the Krishnammal Higher Secondary School for girls (1956). Wife Chandrakantiamma was put in charge of running it. Today she finds herself monitoring projects from KGs to Ph.D. in 16 schools and colleges, all for women, including a polytechnic, centres for applied computer technology and management studies. These institutions charge the government stipulated fee, but no capitation fee or donations. The Trust is responsible for maintenance and infrastructure. Interestingly, scholarships are offered to deserving students from economically deprived forward communities. Some free schools, one of them for tribals, have been established in the remoter areas.
"If employees work for eight hours, you work for twelve - that was GRG's advice to family members," smiles Chandrakantiamma. "He made me learn to operate the tools in our factories, join the State Welfare Board to work for the underprivileged, contributing half the funds for its activities. He not only allocated cash, but also land to promote the cause of women's education on par with men's."
The Chettiars or Nagarathars of Tamil Nadu have, from ancient times, been celebrated for their charitable endowments. Poor feeding and temple renovation were visible areas of their philanthropy. A.M.M. Murugappa Chettiar, the founder of the Murugappa family business now based in Chennai, was conscious of his civic duties which made him provide a water tank and the first modern hospital in his native village Pallathur in 1924. When the Murugappa group moved back to India from Burma, Singapore and Malaysia, and into modern industry with Ajax Products and TI Cycles, its charities were formalised and became the AMM Foundation in 1953, with family members as trustees. Soon, the women of the family took responsibility for monitoring the projects.
The thrust of the Murugappa Foundation is two-fold. To create awareness, and offer healthcare assistance to the poorer communities with hospitals near their factories and plants, as also with research in technologies and devices for pan Indian rural application. It provides high quality education for lower and middle class students through schools with supplementary government aid, in Ambattur, Tiruvottriyur, Kadayalmedu and Kotturpuram. The last shares its facilities with the children from the Spastic Society, to the mutual benefit of both groups. The Murugappa Polytechnic (1958) is equipped with sophisticated labs and workshops, modernised with grants from the impressed Government of India and the World Bank.
The pride of the Foundation is of course its unique A.M.M.Murugappa Chettiar Research Centre (MCRC), which has pioneered in several field projects from the Kumaon Hills to the Coromandel Coast. Says M.V.Murugappan, Managing Trustee, "The aim is to work on low cost technologies with renewable resources, suited to the rural areas, especially women related projects."
A notable success is algae growth, taught to women to do in their backyards, to provide nutrition supplement to their children. Naturally, this led to drives for healthcare, sanitation and literacy. Now the alga spirulina is sold commercially. "We also propagated a simple solar still, made by local artisans for distilling water, a primary need in the villages today," explains Murugappan. Future plans of the Foundation will focus more on such grassroot requirements.
"The corporate citizen must give something back to the society from which he draws so much," declares Kumar Mangalam Birla. "Industrialists do make contributions whenever necessary, as we did during the Kargil war."
"Yes, they do, but not all of them do it adequately, or regularly," says Y. H. Dalmia, one of seven brothers from another conservative clan manufacturing cement and sugar refractories in U.P., Orissa and Tamil Nadu. They too had started with temple building by father Jaidayal Dalmia in Mathura. The sons are motivated by "a sense of social duty and piety."
Says Y. H. , "Because we don't have the expertise to run welfare institutions ourselves, we find it easier to make donations." However, the family runs two schools in their native Chirawa with government aid, supports orphanages, temples, runs two more schools and medical centres for employees where locals are welcome, helps villagers dig borewells, started an Industrial Technical Institute at Dalmiapuram, Tamil Nadu.
You'd think that's enough. But says self effacing Y. H. , "Today's businessman doesn't do enough for the larger good. Not because of any current day financial crunch. It's more a frame of mind. We certainly don't do as much as our parents did. Their own lives were very simple, even austere. Whatever they earned they put back into the industry and into community welfare. They found the time to deal with individuals and their problems. We are more materialistic, which means more selfish, our children much more so...We don't have time for others."
The truth one suspects, lies between these two view points. Mobilising systematised welfare activities, manned by efficient, trained workers, in tandem with government schemes and NGO initiatives, may, in the long run, be more beneficial to the community at large than charity under arbitrary personal control. But there is no substitute for personal involvement, and for some idealism that is hard to come by in our corrupt, calculating and cynical times.
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