Editorial: December 2011
Business tycoon Mukesh Ambani’s $1 billion 37-storey residential building Antilia in Mumbai has attracted a lot of flak and censure. Reportedly, the home has three helipads, six floors of parking and floating gardens. Ratan Tata recently stated that the Ambani residence is an example of lack of empathy for the poor. Somebody else remarked: "It’s so obscenely lavish -- we are heading into the sort of culture where money is not a question when setting up a home."
It is reported that Vijay Mallya is building an ultra high end 34-storey millionaire’s paradise on top of which he would have a penthouse, with a built up area of around 40,000 sq. ft, ‘a White House in the sky.’
Are the wealthy obliged to share their wealth with the poor? Should the rich avoid the unabashed display of wealth? Though there is nothing mandatory about such issues, in order to ensure a stable and prosperous society, it is only proper that the rich should share their wealth.
The rich should consider themselves as trustees of their wealth. A part of it should be shared with the community. They do not have the right to use their wealth only for their personal enjoyment or stash it away in safes and bank lockers. They should curb their urge to lead ostentatious lives. To live opulent lives in the midst of poverty is not in good taste. It is outrageous to live a lavish life. However, philanthropy should come from the heart of people, from their desire to give back to society.
Tatas have been a shining example of personal philanthropy. They have been philanthropists par excellence. There are not many in Corporate India who have followed the path of Azim Premji. It is necessary to demonstrate a true generosity of spirit. "If you haven’t got any charity in your heart, you have the worse kind of heart trouble."
In contrast, Steve Jobs, one of the most famous billionaires, kept a very low profile as charitable donor. His worth was estimated at $8.3 billion. Unlike Bill Gates and Mark Zuckenberg of Facebook, he did not sign the Giving Pledge, the effort under which the richest individuals in the US commit to giving at least half their wealth to philanthropy. New York Times published an unflattering report as follows about Jobs, a few months prior to his death in October 2011 due to pancreatic cancer: "There is no public record of Mr. Jobs giving money to charity... Nor is there a hospital wing or an academics building with his name on it." (May be, this lack of public record is because he requested anonymity).
Indians have emerged as one of the leaders in charitable giving among emerging markets, compared to other nations such as China and Brazil. During 2010, Indians gave approximately $5-6 billion, up from $2 billion in 2006, according to the report of a global consultancy firm, even as 80% of our population is still struggling to find a sense of equality. The poor are still searching for the right to live, with clean water and health.
There was optimism that philanthropy is poised to rise further in India as the population of rich individuals grows and more advanced systems come into place to help people to give more. The report says that 40% of wealthy Indians plan to increase philanthropic donations over the next five years. Wealthy Indians are giving away 1.5-3% of their annual household income into charity. The wealthiest of Indians are donating much less as compared to their US counterparts, who contribute about 9% of their income. Individual contributions are estimated to rise to $4.6 billion by 2015, as compared to the current estimates of $1.5 billion.
Private charity contributions were largely dominated by money pumped in by foreign funds, with individuals contributing only 26% of the total. India’s private charitable donations amounted to between 0.3% and 0.4% of the GDP in 2010 (0.2% in 2006). This is far behind the developed countries. Private philanthropy in the US accounted for 2.2% of the GDP in 2009. In the UK, it was 1.3% in 2010. Individual philanthropy amounted to 75% of all private giving in the US, while in the UK, it stood at 60%. However, in India, individual donations constitute only 26% of all private charitable contributions.
The rapidly growing economic pie and parallel rise in government revenue and expenditure have given rise to greater opportunity for graft and a similar growth in levels of greed.
Lal Bahadur Shastri, Prime Minister from 1964-'66, presided over a cabinet of largely honest men and women. Gulzarilal Nanda, who was interim Prime Minister after the death of Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri, lived his last days in a small, dark, cramped flat in Ahmedabad with nor car, no fridge. In the 1980s, a robber who raided the room of EMS Namboodiripad (Chief Minister of Kerala during 1957-'59 and 1967-'69) could find only Rs. 800 and a gold coin.
Back in 1987, the biggest corruption scandal was the Bofors deal involving a payoff of Rs. 60 crore. In the recent past, the number of scandals involving much larger amounts has increased several fold. Greed and opportunity have joined in unholy matrimony as projects--infrastructure, telecom, real estate--have reached a whole new scale of size, expenditure and revenue potential. We have reached a new low in moral and ethical standards.
In this scenario, the Indian middle class is the most attractive feature now in the country. It is a huge viable market for private consumption; it has also been glorified with stories of motivation like that of a slum dog millionaire who rose up from being a slum dweller to be part of the shopping friendly, pizza eating middle class, that spends every holiday in the shopping mall. The middle class is guilty of spending lavishly on themselves. It is generally felt that their concern rarely extends beyond their own interest. However, top charities in the country now claim that the rise in the number of middle class donors has boosted their donations by an average of 20% in the last 5 years. The middle class helped them gain almost Rs. 10 crore during 2010. These are from individual donations of Rs. 3000 per year. The recession that hit the salary hikes and new jobs did not have any impact on the donations.
Charity has always been a constant in the religious populace, though tax benefits was the other driver. Transparency of charity organisations has helped the donors to come forward with donations. The awareness that ‘my money is being put to use and not going waste’ brings in a sense of fulfilment to the donor. "In charity there is no excess."
Whereas the corporate and the big donors give to charity for their names to be propagated, the middle class prefers anonymity. They want to follow the Biblical requirement of your left hand not knowing what your right hand is doing. "Charity that hastens to proclaim its good deeds ceases to be charity and is only pride and ostentation."
It is not surprising that Jesus’ opinion (Lk.12:13-21) was sought on a legal matter, a dispute over property. Probably, an younger brother was being defrauded of his share in an inheritance. Jesus refused to decide the matter. He, however, went to the root of the matter by giving a stern warning against covetousness. The desire to acquire more by unfair means not only leads to strife, but also expresses a fundamentally wrong philosophy of life, according to which possessions are all that really matter. God can take away the life of a man who thinks that he can retire in comfort and ease, thanks to a bumper harvest. At once it becomes apparent how useless possessions can be. The rich man (Lk. 12:20) had failed to acquire the true riches of a right relationship to God. He was a fool, a godless and senseless man. He did not consider the possibility of using his bumper crops for the benefit of others. God says to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’
The fool is not one who is mentally deficient, but the one who leaves God out of his thoughts and plans. The fool is a godless person. The highest act of human reason is to disown its sufficiency and bow before the wisdom of God.
God has clear expectations from those who choose to follow Him. An authentic and genuine commitment to Christ will be accompanied by demonstrable evidence of transformed life. Jesus’ care for the poor found consistent and concrete expression in His ministry. A genuine concern 'for the least of these' must be woven into the pattern of our thinking and faith. There is no 'full gospel' without compassion and justice shown to the poor.
Many have the persistent notion that committing one’s life to Christ begins and ends by reciting a brief prayer that activates the 'insurance' against eternal damnation. The parts about working for justice, helping the poor, and being salt and light are seen as optional. Our faith should serve as the fuel that powers the light that shines in the darkness. We should rise above our 'worship charades' and 'trivial religious games' (Isa.1:13 Message). "Endeavour to live so that when you die, even the undertaker will be sorry."
In the story (Lk.16:19-31) that Jesus narrated, the rich man did not abuse Lazarus, did not beat him, or mistreat him; he simply ignored him, passed by him day after day with indifference. We also are so preoccupied with our own lives and the daily issues that we face, that we overlook the challenges faced by others in our midst. Aspiring to material comfort and success are not necessarily core Christian values.
Some of those who do not contribute to charity take cover under Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:11 that "the poor will always be with us," irrespective of what we do. They ask, "What can my contribution do?"
An African proverb says, "If you think that you are too small to make a difference, try spending the night in a closed room with a mosquito." With some two billion Christians, about one-third of the world population, changing the world by addressing poverty and injustice does not seem to be beyond our grasp, with God’s help. The most popular causes for philanthropy continues to be education, housing, shelter and food.
Remember the Lord your God who gives you the ability to produce wealth. If we see them as God sees them, we will think differently about how we use the wealth. You cannot serve the living God and be a hoarder of His resources. How we give and how much we give is the clearest outward expression of our understanding of who God really is. Our cheque stubs speak honestly of our priorities.
"God never asks us to give what we do not have. But He cannot use what we will not give." John Wesley said: "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can."
Are we too comfortable, insulated from the rest of the world, empty of compassion and devoid of deeds?