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The Early Altruists

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The landmark Birla Mandir in Delhi is called the Lakshmi Narayan temple. But like scores of others around the country, this one, too, is better known by the name of its patron — the late G.D. Birla, one of India's better known philanthropists of the pre-Independence era.

Nation building drove that generation of philanthropists — such as Lala Shriram, Jamnalal Bajaj and Gujarmal Modi — to build noted educational institutions and hospitals. In fact, Birla and J.R.D. Tata had co-authored the Bombay Plan, which defined how CSR could help build a nation. "Birla was a great leveller, Tata a great unifier," says Rajashree Birla, chairperson of Aditya Birla Foundation.

On top of the list of philanthropists of the era were the Tatas. The family members transferred a majority of their holding in group companies primarily into two trusts. First came the Sir Ratan Tata Trust, set up in 1913 by the younger of Jamsetji's sons. Then Sir Dorabji Tata Trust was established by his elder son by donating all his wealth, estimated at Rs 1 crore then. The reason why the Tata family members don't make it to our list of personal philanthropists is because they own very small fractions of the group. And these trusts, besides doing philanthropic work, also control 66 per cent of the shares of Tata Sons, the group holding company. In 2009-10, the Tata trusts and companies would spend $151 million on social welfare.

Much of philanthropy in the old era was on religious grounds. But 100 years ago, Jamsetji evolved a more secular way. Tata Trusts, established "without any distinction of place, nationality or creed", went on to build the Indian Institute of Science, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and the Tata Memorial Hospital. "...what advances a nation or a community is ... to lift up the best and the most gifted, so as to make them of the greatest service to the country", said Jamsetji.

Down south, noted banker Annamalai Chettiar founded the Sri Meenakshi College in Chidambaram in 1920, adding a few more institutions that formed the Annamalai University in 1929. In 1920, Ardeshir Godrej donated Rs 3 lakh to the Tilak Swaraj Fund for the upliftment of the downtrodden. Recently, Ahmedabad-based Sarabhais set up a few notable institutions. Vikram Sarabhai, father of Indian space programme, founded the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, the IIM-Ahmedabad, the Nehru Foundation For Development and the Indian Space Research Organisation.


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 17-01-2011)