Gates, Buffet & the Art of Giving

Dear Bill & Warren,

Delighted to learn that you plan to tour India, amongst other countries, to inspire and ‘grow’ the practice of ‘giving’ amongst our super-rich. Indeed, to have them follow in your charitable footsteps and part with vast sums of their wealth as you have, for a good cause. This does get to be a bit of a problem with those for whom Charity Begins at Home and stays there. And for a corporate world which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh concedes, (much like your own corporate world) suffers from a perceived ‘ethical deficit.’ On the bright side, Dr. Singh’s government also generously concedes billions of dollars in freebies each year to the ethically-challenged, doubtless to bridge that deficit. Close to 20 billion dollars in corporate income tax write-offs in this year’s budget  alone. This offers your campaign a vantage point, surely. No need to ‘give-till-it-hurts’ here. All that’s been done with public revenue. Now they can give without hurting.

Moreover, your pal Steve Forbes has just brought out his new list which, taken together with our budget, lends powerful ammo to your proselytisation project. Stevie’s list tells us India’s  billionaires have done us proud again. There are now 55 of them. That’s more than last year despite a few unfortunate dropouts  —  Shahid Balwa of DB Realty amongst them  —  who have plunged into the austere misery of mere multi-millionairedom. And while China may have posted a list of 115 billionaires, theirs are mainly Little Leaguers, with an average net asset worth of no more than $2.5 billion. Way below our own $4.5 billion average. (It was over $6 billion in 2008, till those twits on Wall Street blew it). That places us above —  and China below  — the $3.7 billion global average net asset worth of these super-rich. And there is also our obvious moral superiority over the Russians who keep sending their billionaires (101 of them) to prison. We send ours to parliament. And while China and Russia might have sneaked ahead of us on the numbers, we’ve knocked those Germans off their perch (52).

I’m eager to help with the planning of your trip. Let’s start with the pre-visit homework. There are now 1,210 dollar billionaires on the planet, the Forbes list tells us. We don’t believe this for a moment, though we agree it’s a fun exercise to undertake each year. Our own number has to be much higher. But concealed income in India is so huge that it, firstly, denies a number of our billionaires due global recognition. Secondly,  it leads to their being grossly undervalued. Anyway, 14 of those Indians whose wealth can be established in the ten-digit range occupy slots within the top 15 per cent of those 1,210 super-rich. The top seven of these make it within the first 100 of the Forbes list. And two  —  Mukesh Ambani and Lakshmi Mittal  –  make it to the list of the ten richest men in the world. True, unlike both of you, swanking around at ranks two and three, they languish lower down at ranks six and nine. But we do have the policy structures in place to remedy that in a while.

The net asset worth of our boys (and three girls) is around US $ 246.5 billion. This of course does not include unaccounted income, or stuff stashed away from public gaze. But even on this modest sum of wealth, let’s assume they earn an equally modest annual return of 10 per cent. (Now we know that for the super-rich, anything less than 30 per cent’s a joke, but let’s just assume ten. At least as the part they will be persuaded to give away, by both of you.)  Then you might want to glance at these humble calculations before you make it here to inspire ‘giving’ amongst the Indian super-rich.

A return of ten per cent on the declared wealth of Indian billionaires comes to over $ 24 billion. Let’s recall for a moment that 836 million Indians live on a daily expenditure of  less than 50 cents ( which is 20 rupees, or even much less). We might have clocked in fourth on the billionaire stakes, but in share of poor people, those in hunger, those getting the lowest number of calories, fastest rising food prices  —  we’re up there at the top of the world.

Well, the modest interest amount of $24 billion would easily cover the annual consumption expenditure of 150 million poor Indians. If the return on wealth was actually 20-30 per cent, then the numbers whose consumption could be taken care of each year would be twice or thrice as many.

Take our health budget —  now around $6 billion after finance minister Pranabda hiked it by 20 per cent over last year. That ten per cent return on the wealth of the dollar billionaires (let’s call them DB for short, a now familiar acronym that’s almost a household word here) would cover that  budget for four years at least. Or the health and higher  education ($4.8 billion) budgets together for two years. On a return of just ten per cent, that’s a bargain. The more so when you consider that health and higher education budgets together are just a little more than half the nearly $20 billion Pranabda is writing off in corporate income tax, apart from other freebies for struggling billionaires.

Now, that $20 billion would run our National Rural Employment Guarantee Program at present levels ($ 8.8 billion) for at least two years. But Pranabda probably realised, shrewdly,  that a ten per cent return on the wealth of the richest would provide over $ 24 billion —  and provide that each year. Which means all three —  health, higher education and rural employment programs  — could be run for many, many years. (Assuming the banks stay afloat). And there would a bit left over for covering budget allocations for sectors like Handlooms. Somewhere between five and ten million families  with perhaps the finest weaving skills in the world, have to depend on a fraction of the $95 million given to the handlooms sector in the present budget. Who knows we might even be able to cover the whole central Textile budget, a piffling $1.2 billion. (Come to think of it, the total value of our Flying Fifty Five at US $246.5 billion is just a little short of the total expenditure proposed in our central budget at $278 billion. But let’s not go there just now).

Pranabda also probably knew the two of you were coming down to persuade our guys to part with a fraction of their wealth for noble purposes. He’s a wise guy, our finance minister. I think he’s also figured that if he could get 10 per cent of the interest on the funds the Indian super-rich have stashed away overseas, we could probably bridge our deficit as well. So he’s thinking of offering them an amnesty on their little fiddles. That way we could access those funds painlessly. I can’t help thinking you ought to meet Pranabda too, when you visit. Like both of you, he believes in persuasion and his skills in that direction are unique. He’s working hard to ensure that the guys you will persuade to ‘give,’ accumulate more each year and thus have more to give. After all, more giving leads to more giving. He’s also thoughtfully creating more hungry people they can help.

Looking forward to your visit and a year of giving.


P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories From India’s Poorest Districts. He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.




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P Sainath is the founder and editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought.’ You can contact the author here: @PSainath_org

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