Tough act to follow

July 15, 2015

Azim Premji is the chairman of India’s third largest exporter of software, Wipro

IT czar Azim Premji donates a whopping R500bn to social causes, making it, perhaps, the largest in the sub-continent. Are other industry leaders watching?

Sometime in the last decade, people in the western state of Maharashtra wanted to emulate a platform set up by the southern state of Karnataka to improve urban governance. The platform was focussed on the state’s capital, Bangalore (now called Bengaluru) to improve infrastructure since it had established itself as the technology capital of India. Its then chief minister, S M Krishna, had convinced IT icon, Nandan Nilekani, to head it. 

The interesting part of the Bangalore Agenda Task Force or BATF was that it brought government stakeholders on the same pedestal as the citizens and became a fine example of public-private partnership. During the course of its functioning, it was realised that there was an urgent need to build public toilets for working women which could also be maintained for long periods of time in a hygienic manner. The contribution came in from Sudha Murthy, wife of another IT icon, N R Narayan Murthy.

She promptly parted with R80mn (RO490,000 approx) of her money for the building of public toilets, aimed at primarily improving facilities for working women. There were other contributions as well. But what surprised Bangaloreans and Indians, generally, was that there were individuals who could part with their money for the benefit of other citizens. A few years later, a member of the BATF was asked by some industrialists as well as public spirited individuals in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, to hand hold them through the setting up of a similar platform there.

Everything worked well until the then BATF member made a mention of how donations poured in from people involved in the industry in Bangalore and it was necessary in Mumbai, too, since it was a public cause. For reasons
unknown, the response to donations or contributions for such projects has been either nil or lackadaisical from Mumbai as compared to Bangalore. It is not that Mumbaikars have not contributed for public causes. But, when it comes to donations of the kind made in Bangalore, the country’s commercial capital has been found wanting.

This episode comes to mind because last week Azim Premji, chairman of India’s third largest exporter of software, Wipro, did something to beat his own record of parting with his wealth to make yet another contribution to the social sector. Three years ago, it was US$12bn. This time it surpassed all contributions made by anybody in this part of the world, that is, if Warren Buffett and Bill Gates can be considered as belonging to the other part. It was 18 per cent of his stake valued at a humongous R532.84bn (RO3.23bn).

His announcement came with, perhaps, the simplest of thoughts. ‘A company can only be as strong as the society it is a part of’, he wrote to the shareholders of his company. Over the past 15 years, he pointed out that he had ‘irrevocably’ transferred 39 per cent of the shares of Wipro to a trust which was set up to support the work of The Azim Premji Foundation (APF) and the Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiative. The APF works in 350,000 schools spread across eight states in the country in developing teaching skills in teachers and improving the public education system in rural and disadvantaged areas of the country. This is apart from setting up the not-for-profit Azim Premji University.

Premji was speaking with the same modesty with which he had once mentioned to this writer and a couple of colleagues that he did not like to talk about his wealth. “Tomorrow, if I decide to sell 100 shares in the market, the price of the share will simply crash. We shouldn’t be talking about somebody being the wealthiest. It is all notional value.” This was at a time when he came to be recognised as the richest among Indians. Yet, every time Premji makes an announcement of parting with a certain percentage of his equity (his family once owned 73.9 per cent of the stock in his company), the focus naturally shifts to the other rich men in the country.

A lot of them have made their contribution in several ways in many sectors. The Tatas have done so. The Birlas have tried to match up. The Ambani’s, too. But, for some strange reason, it is not at the scale that this alumnus of Stanford University has done. It is not that he was born with a silver spoon like some of the others. He took over the reins of the Western India Vegetable Products, a company manufacturing cooking oil, when his father passed away.

Since then, he has entered sectors that others would not have dared to, finally emerging as an IT icon. This is why when he becomes the only Indian to sign up for the Giving Pledge, an initiative of Buffett and Gates, to make the
rich donate at least half of their wealth to charity, it speaks a lot about the attitude of the wealthiest of Indians towards their commitment to social causes.

Interestingly, Premji wrote to his shareholders: ‘The owners - individuals or other entities - of such corporations can do a lot more for society, because they can choose to exercise the right of their ownership, and invest their wealth in any social cause, to their utmost’.

It is difficult to say whether Premji has realised that not all can emulate the art of giving that he seems to so naturally possess. Or is the reticent czar of Indian IT just being his natural self ?

A step forward? 
Going by the language used by Pakistan’s foreign policy advisor Sartaj Aziz just a couple of days after a goody-goody meeting between the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan at Ufa, Russia, it would appear like a case of two steps forward and two steps backward. Aziz has spoken in very emphatic terms that the Jammu and Kashmir issue was very much at the core of what had been described as outstanding issues in the joint statement issued after Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or SCO last week.

He has also gone on to say that the probe into the 26/11 Mumbai attack would proceed only if there was more evidence forthcoming from India. India has always maintained that it had provided all the evidence possible for the speedy trial in Pakistan. The vagueness in the joint statement in describing critical issues that have dogged the two nations does give the impression that those who drafted it preferred to keep some room to address domestic constituencies across the border. Those sections that do not want to give peace a chance or that section which doesn’t want the two countries to deal with other issues unless the contentious ones are sorted out.

This is the first meeting between the two prime ministers where the two have had some serious discussion after Modi called off the foreign secretary level talks when Pakistan’s top diplomat to India called the Kashmiri separatists for talks. Clearly, it was an agenda-setting action that did not work out and Ufa came in handy for talks. Russia and China, too, were keen on the two neighbours talking. There was nothing path breaking in the talks except that it appeared to set the possibility of something emerging in the future subject to various extraneous players throwing the spanner in the works apart from the all-powerful Pakistan Army. The only achievement, however, is the blame for the breakdown in talks with Pakistan will not be on India after Ufa.

India’s tennis fans are on a roll. They have never had it so good on grass all these years. Indians on their own did not make it to the Wimbledon finals, but they did so in doubles and mixed doubles. With Martina Hingis, the Swede for company, Sania Mirza and the evergreen hero at 42 on the tennis court, Leander Paes, clinched the titles in both the categories.

But, there is one more Indian who can take credit for being in the envious position. He was right there in the final that Novak Djokovic won. He is the line referee from the southern city of Mysuru. Sagar D Kashyap had the honour of being in the centre court. He had also had the privilege of doing something many may frown upon but very much a part of his duty. Duty because many a time players just forget to do what they should be doing, at least, before the finishing set. Like, tell Roger Federer during a set break that this was the time to go to the toilet!