The World's Greatest Philanthropists

Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta

The Zoroastrian philosophy of “good thoughts, good words, good deeds” has been the raison d’être for the Tata trust

Illustration by Kishore Das

“I am proud of my country, India, for having produced the splendid Zoroastrian stock, in numbers beneath contempt, but in charity and philanthropy perhaps unequalled and certainly unsurpassed.” —Mahatma Gandhi, in a speech in the UK, 1940s


It’s hot, blazing hot at 48 degrees in Mahoba, one of the seven districts in south-central Uttar Pradesh that, along with six others in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, make up the Bundelkhand region. Infamous for its droughts, Mahoba is home to 800,000 families spread across 450 villages and it is here that Arvind Khare found his calling. The founder of Gramonnati Sansthan, an NGO that works for the upliftment of the rural poor, has been working in the district since 1986. The scorching heat saps the energy of any outsider but sitting in his spartan office, 58-year-old Khare is completely at ease and bubbling with enthusiasm as he speaks of the slow transformation underway in the region. A terrible series of droughts in the past decade led to large-scale migration of farmers from the region, seeking menial jobs in the cities and leaving their families behind to fend as best as they could. Since 2010, Gramonnati has been helping villagers in six villages build ponds to store rainwater that made a difference. 

“Earlier, more than 200,000 people used to migrate seasonally but that has now come down by 30%,” says Khare. Land prices have also appreciated; from around ₹10,000-₹15,000 an acre just five years back, the going rate now is around ₹1 lakh. “Unlike the cities, where urban development is driving the price, here it’s all about agriculture,” says 42-year-old Rajendra Nigam, a field officer for Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, which has been engaged with Gramonnati for some time now. Apart from farm ponds, the trust’s rice intensification programme has also given villagers an alternative to the otherwise overwhelming reliance on wheat and Bengal gram. “When it comes to ideas, the district authorities have a very quick buy-in but when it comes to releasing money, the wait can be painful,” says Khare. It’s here that Gramonnati found a helping hand in the trust, which has so far disbursed over ₹30 lakh for building 60 ponds. “Our relationship with the Tata trusts is not transactional, it’s more collaborative,” points out Khare. 

Travelling through southern Rajasthan, you will hear a common refrain, “Pass hua toh zindabad, nahin toh Ahmedabad (If you pass that’s great; if not, there’s Ahmedabad).” Reach any street corner in the Gujarat state capital between 7 am and 9 am, and you will get first-hand evidence that school results in Rajasthan aren’t all that great. The nakas are where migrant labourers congregate everyday, hoping to be picked for the day’s job — there can be hundreds gathered at a time. At TPM naka, 31-year-old Vinesh Kumar from Kherwada, Udaipur, shows an identity card with his personal and employment details, attested by his village sarpanch, certified by the Rajasthan government, and issued by the Aajiveeka Bureau. “This helps me prove my identity and avoid harassment from police forces.” 

Aajeevika has issued 100,000 such cards to migrating workers from four districts of southern Rajasthan (Udaipur, Dungarpur, Rajsamand and Banswara). “It helps them get SIM cards, bank accounts and government services,” says Rajiv Khandelwal, executive director, Aajeevika Bureau.

That’s just one of the four ways the NGO assists vulnerable migrants: it also provides legal aid in matters such as non-payment of dues, injuries and exploitation; at Udaipur, a facility called STEP trains workers in skills such as mobile repair, tailoring, plumbing, beauty services, etc.; and there is a mobile kitchen where workers can cook food for themselves by paying a nominal ₹5. Aajeevika’s legal and collectivisation cell has so far helped in 1,850 cases, of which 961 were resolved by mediation. It has also helped form 32 collectives and three trade unions (two for construction workers and one for headloaders) to protect these workers’ interests. 

In 2006, Khandelwal approached the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust with a UNDP study and solid data showing the plight of migrant labour from Rajasthan as well as the results of the NGO’s two years of ground work. “They saw value in the data and our work,” says Krishna Avtar Sharma, co-founder of Aajeevika. So much so that the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and the Sir Ratan Tata Trust have collectively disbursed over ₹5 crore to the NGO already and committed an additional ₹6 crore till 2016. On the trusts’ instance, the Aajeevika model has been replicated in Uttar Pradesh with four other organisations; with nine others in Odisha; one in Madhya Pradesh; and with five others in other parts of Rajasthan. “In a way, they [the trusts] acted like pioneers because they were quick to realise the cause and found it worthy enough to support, especially at a time when facilitating migration is seen as being politically incorrect,” says Khandelwal. 

Jaipur isn’t known only for its palaces and handicrafts. It is also home to the Jaipur Foot, the world’s most widely used prosthetic. And the organisation that’s behind the rubber-based artificial limb is Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti (BMVSS), founded in 1975 by DR Mehta — who served as Sebi chairman from 1995 to 2002. The initiative to provide ‘mobility with dignity’ has so far rehabilitated over 1.3 million amputees and polio patients with artificial limbs, calipers and other support. And all this, free. 

Running a charitable entity means that there is a perennial fund crunch. It was during one such shortage that Mehta knocked on the doors of the Tatas. “We approached Sir Dorabji Tata Trust three years ago for a grant. After some queries and a thorough due diligence by an auditor, last year the trust approved a commitment of ₹3 crore over a three-year period,” says Mehta. 

BMVSS’ work has been made a case study at various institutes such as Harvard Business School, London School of Business and IIM Bangalore, among others. But, for Mehta, associating with the right funding partners is of more relevance than being praised by teaching institutes. “Tata Trust is a unique philanthropy organisation that is compassionate but equally selective… their relationship is very important for us both in terms of funding on a sustained basis and the credibility that they bring,” he says.

There’s a pleasant nip in the air in Dehradun, thanks to a pre-monsoon shower, and the view outside Malavika Chauhan’s bungalow is all green. It’s easy to see why Chauhan, a dyed-in-the-wool Delhiite who has worked in 14 countries around the world, has fallen in love with the Uttarakhand state capital. It’s not just the climate and the surroundings, of course: Chauhan’s enthusiasm for the city has a lot to do with her work. 

The PhD in environmental science and a doctorate holder in wetland ecology is executive director of the Himmotthan Society, a non-profit organisation that is an outcome of Sir Ratan Tata Trust’s Central India Initiative that began in early 2002 to focus on the root causes of rural development issues in the state. Himmotthan runs four major initiatives in Uttarakhand: enhancing rural livelihoods through participatory watershed management; improving community health through drinking water and sanitation; livelihood enhancement through farm and non-farm activities; and an integrated fodder livestock development project. 

The Tata trust has spent cumulatively close to ₹60 crore in the Uttarakhand region through direct and participatory interventions; Himmotthan itself has an annual outlay of ₹2.5 crore-₹3 crore. “The scale-up has been so fast that we now function more like a go-between for the trusts and other grassroots NGOs by focusing on strategy development, fund raising, monitoring and implementing scaled-up programmes,” says Chauhan. “The best part about the trusts is that there is no diktat from Mumbai. Their complete faith [in the working of] the on-ground team is admirable.”

Collaborative, pioneering, compassionate, admirable… these accolades are nothing new for Sir Ratan Tata Trust (SRTT) and Sir Dorabji Tata Trust (SDTT), the two oldest philanthropic organisations in the country, which have been working tirelessly to improve the lives of countless Indians for close to a century now. In the past decade alone, the two trusts have disbursed over ₹3,500 crore in grants and show no signs of slowing down. If the trusts are of relevance today, it is also because their foundations rest on rich past — one worth revisiting.

A few good men…

Remember the iconic Tata Steel tagline of the 1980s — ‘We also make steel’? The genesis of that thinking in India’s biggest conglomerate can be traced back to its founder, Jamsetji Tata. Born in a family of Parsi priests in Gujarat in 1839, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata went on to become India’s biggest capitalist — with an equally big heart. In 1898, when he was among the country’s wealthiest men, he donated half his fortune — 14 buildings and four landed properties — to create the Indian Institute of Science (IISC) and also set up the foundation of India’s biggest steel plant. After Jamsetji’s death, his sons, Sir Dorabji and Sir Ratan, continued to contribute to social and political causes. And it is the brothers’ magnanimity that led to the setting up of the two key trusts that have since played a pivotal role in Indian philanthropy.  

“Though Jamsetji Tata demonstrated his vision and munificence in founding the JN Tata Endowment for the higher Education of Indians in 1892 and providing for the founding of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, his philanthropy did not establish a single, multipurpose foundation. That was left to his younger son, Sir Ratan, who died in 1918,” writes Tata chronicler RM Lala in The Heartbeat of a Trust. Leaving part of his wealth to his wife, Navajbai, Sir Ratan bequeathed assets worth about ₹80 lakh to the trust, which was established in 1919. His will, written six years earlier, established the principles on which it continues to function — “…such work is not [to be] undertaken from a stereotyped point of view but from the point of view of fresh light that is thrown from day to day by the advance of science and philosophy, on problems of human well-being.” 

Like his father and brother before him, Sir Dorabji believed that wealth must be put to constructive use and less, than a year after his wife died, he bequeathed most of his personal wealth to his trust for the benefit of all Indians — irrespective of caste or creed; he died three months later, in 1932. “Under his Trust Deed, Sir Dorabji bequeathed certain landed properties, shares and securities, trinkets, ornaments, jewellery and ₹23 lakh standing to his credit in Tata Sons, to the trust. The total estate was valued at ₹1 crore in 1932, equivalent to about ₹83.4 crore in 1984. The trustees were empowered to sell Sir Dorabji’s lands, shares, securities and jewellery. The jewellery and landed properties were sold by them in 1937, when prices were fairly depressed — even the fabulous Jubilee Diamond (purchased in England for about ₹3 million in the late 1920s) fetching less than what Sir Dorabji is reputed to have paid for it,” notes Lala in the book.

PC: Soumik KarSince inception, the two Tata trusts have established an exemplary track record in philanthropic activity in the country. “The kind of benchmark the Tata trusts have set in philanthropy is very hard for others to emulate — in fact, it would be impossible. They have never hankered over name or fame but have worked for a cause. They could as well have named the National Centre for Performing Arts under the banner of Tata, but the name says it all — it is a gift to the nation,” exclaims Noshir Dadrawala, chief executive, Centre for Advancement of Philanthropy. 

Certainly, between them, the two trusts have promoted several pioneering institutions of national importance: the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, the Tata Memorial Centre for Cancer Research and Treatment, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, NCPA, IISC, JRD Tata Ecotechnology Centre, the Tata Blood Bank and the Tata Department of Plastic Surgery at the JJ Group of Hospitals and the Demographic Centre at the Institute of Population Studies, Mumbai. The JN Tata Endowment, the first philanthropic initiative from the Tatas, has till date supported about 3,500 scholars and awarded more than ₹3.5 crore to promising students from various strata of society.  

…and their trusts

If the brothers brought substance to philanthropy while they were alive, they infused life into the concept of trusteeship in their deaths. Both Sir Dorabji and Sir Ratan were childless, but instead of letting their holdings getting fragmented in the years to come, they chose to gift it to trusts. SDTT and The Allied Trusts as well as SRTT and Navajbai Ratan Tata Trust (named after the wife of Sir Ratan Tate) are part of the 11 Parsi trusts — each generation of the Tata family left the bulk of its wealth with such trusts — that collectively own 66% stake in Tata Sons, the holding company of the Tata empire. Tata Sons derives a large part of its income from dividends declared by the over 217 companies in the Tata group, and that continues to be the big source of funds for both SDTT and SRTT.

The rub off effect

Increase in dividend income since the 1990s has triggered an exponential increase in SDTT disbursals 

In FY13, 12 companies paid dividend to the parent company, with TCS the biggest contributor at ₹3,630 crore. So it’s not surprising that, as per available data, over the past decade, the income of SRTT saw an over six-fold increase to ₹243 crore, while that of SDTT went up four times between FY06 and FY13, to ₹441 crore. As a corollary, in FY13, SDTT disbursed ₹285 crore, while SRTT disbursed ₹215 crore — put together, that constitutes 13% of Tata Sons’ profits of ₹3,714 crore. It’s a huge number and few charitable institutions in India can match. 

One reason for that is the significant stakes the trust’s own in the parent company. Besides their holdings in Tata Sons, SDTT, Lady Tata Memorial Trust (set up in 1932 by Sir Dorabji in memory of his wife, Lady Meherbai) and SRTT hold direct stakes across four major group firms: Indian Hotels, Tata Motors, Tata Steel and Tata Chemicals. The market value of the stakes, as on June 26, was cumulatively close to ₹1,000 crore. Certainly the Tata trusts are unique in their construction and history. But what is more important is the way they are conceiving the future — of getting the social development agenda right. 

Change agents

“The wealth gathered by Jamsetji Tata and his sons in half a century of industrial pioneering formed but a minute fraction of the amount by which they enriched the nation. The whole of that wealth is held in trust for the people and used exclusively for their benefit. The cycle is thus complete; what came from the people has gone back to the people many times over.” That statement by the late JRD Tata is even more relevant now. Over the years, the Tata run trusts have evolved from being mere charitable institutions into agents of societal change.

Strength to strength

Over the past decade, SRTT’s disbursals have gone up six fold

From its inception in 1919 till the early 1990s, SRTT’s operations were largely confined to Bombay. It gave individual grants for education and medical relief, and institutional grants also focused on education, health and support for allied trusts.

But, the increase in resources that began post liberalisaton and the changing social needs meant there was a need to take another look at how the trusts would cope in a changing India. “Many old trusts have either stagnated or lost their relevance as they failed to keep up with the changing needs. But just around the time that India embraced liberalisation, so did the trustees of both the trusts. They proactively decided to overhaul the way their philanthropic endeavour would approach and tackle issues in the new millennium,” points out Dadrawala.

Under the chairmanship of Ratan Tata — who took over at the helm of the trusts as well as the group in 1991 and continues to head the former after retirement — the trusts have developed a pan-India focus, playing a key role in strengthening the non-profit sector and investing in projects with a wider impact. The focused approach is largely on account of the five-year strategic plan that was scripted in 1995 by social activists Girish Godbole and Vijay Mahajan (who went on to found Basix, the first for-profit microfinance institution in India), which suggested five thematic areas. SRTT was the first to adopt the strategic plan, followed by SDTT. “These strategic plans have helped us realise that we should look at scale, quality, decentralise our operations and verify the impact on the ground,” says Ganesh Neelam, development manager, SRTT.

Hinterland calling

The bulk of SRTT’s grants is towards rural portfolio

Today, an outcome of that is visible in the thematic allocations of SRTT, which covers rural livelihoods and communities, education, health, enhancing civil society and governance, arts, crafts and culture. Similarly, SDTT’s area of specialisation is natural resource management and livelihoods, urban poverty and livelihoods, education, health, civil society, human rights and governance, and media, arts and culture. 

More importantly, the trusts have switched to a decentralised style of working. “We realised that only funding the NGOs to implement programmes on the ground will not be enough to ensure results. There should also be an engagement that the trust feels,” points out Neelam. Accordingly, SRTT’s Mumbai team only works on giving financial approvals or some larger programmes iteration; the 80-member field force is based in different locations and on deputation to various NGOs. Spread over 16 states and 170 districts, the trusts now cover 800,000 households through its network of partner organisations. “The reason for identifying these geographies is also because we have long-term presence in these regions and there are critical issues on livelihood and health,” he adds. 

Taking the level of engagement further, SRTT has created associate organisations, such as Himmothan, in locations where the engagement is over a longer period, say eight or 10 years, within its rural livelihoods programme. These are initially seeded by the trusts but in due course have to rely on other avenues of funding as well. 

According to regulations, charitable trusts in India have to disburse 85% of their funds every year. The Tata trusts, while following the rules, have taken a conservative approach towards disbursements. “Historically, we have never provided 100% [funding] for any single project. We have always believed that wherever there is capex involved, at least 10% should come from the community and wherever there is opex involved, 100% should come from the community,” says Arun Pandhi, chief development manager at SRTT. So, one mandate of the associate organisations is to leverage resources from the other stakeholders, such as the government or other independent donors, to strengthen initiatives within a region. In taking that approach, the trusts have also spread out their expertise to cover a wider canvas of initiatives.

All about scale

Sanjiv Phansalkar has been at SDTT for just eight years but was associated with the Tata group since the late 1990s as a consultant. The SDTT programme director is currently overseeing the group’s five major initiatives: system of rice intensification (SRI); diversion-based irrigation; migration support; women’s literacy; and adolescent education. “With a budget of around ₹300 crore, which is less than the budget of a district collector in the country, we are no match for the government. But we are ensuring efficacy in any initiative we undertake,” point outs Phansalkar. 

The SRI programme, for instance, has proved to be a runaway success. Started in 2006, the programme entails spacing out seedlings, resulting in higher rice yield using less inputs and water. It is currently being implemented by nearly 200,000 small and marginal farmers in 11 states, thanks to some robust outcomes. For instance, rice production in Bihar was 3.64 million tonne in FY10, which increased to 8.7 million tonne in FY13 and is expected to yield 10 million tonne in FY14. The state agriculture ministry has pointed to a 40% increase in paddy yields using the SRI method. “At a time when the agriculture extension machinery in the country is more or less defunct and agri input companies are concerned only about selling their products, such initiatives are the need of the hour,” points out Phansalkar, who is executing the programme with the help of over 80 partner organisations.

SRI also has the support of state governments and financial institutions such as Nabard. For example, Bihar has initiated a SRI Vidhi Mahaabhiyan to create more awareness about this scientific method and to encourage farmers to adopt it. Similarly, Nabard is providing grant assistance to implementing agencies; it has sanctioned 17 pilot projects on SRI to various NGO partners for implementation of the scheme in 334 villages in 17 districts of Andhra Pradesh. In FY13, it released ₹36 lakh for the project, taking the total so far to ₹2 crore. 

An allied programme is the diversion-based irrigation (DBI) system being promoted in hilly terrains inhabited by neglected tribal communities. DBI diverts a portion of water from a natural source such as a spring or mountain stream by constructing a bund across the stream for raising and diverting water and using a pipe to transport water into the fields. Compared with the dam-and-canal system that costs ₹3-4 lakh per hectare, DBI is highly economical to set up, involving a capital outlay of a maximum ₹25,000 per hectare. Currently, the initiative covers 643 villages with 61,000 households and has resulted in additional irrigated area of 58,000 acre in 46 districts across 13 states. “Since such an irrigation technique is limited in its ability to serve only small farms, it may not excite the state irrigation department. But for us, even if it impacts the lives of a small sample size, that’s rewarding enough,” points out Phansalkar.

SDTT’s other focus area, its migration support programme, helps provide basic services to the 120 million people who migrate seasonally from the hinterlands to cities in search of employment. “When these migrants come to cities for jobs, they don’t have any proper identification and are always at the receiving end of the law. In cities, we all want our bais [maidservants] or cooks to come to work on time but once their work is over we are not bothered about where they stay or in what conditions they live,” says Phansalkar. This is where Aajeevika Bureau is making its mark. “All we try to do is to make that migration a little more human,” he adds.

In the case of SRTT, its Central India Initiative is a big project covering tribal regions in the heartland. “The focus is on seeing how livelihoods of tribal communities could be enhanced and that they are then sustainably able to manage things on their own,” says Neelam. The programme covers tribals in nine states, 90% whom are directly or indirectly dependent upon agriculture. As part of this effort, it has set up a cell, Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives, which is now a nodal agency for the central Indian states and work comprehensively towards livelihood enhancement of tribal communities.

By setting up cells, the trust’s engagement continues for a longer period of time. Says Pandhi, “If you take a tribal livelihood where someone is earning ₹15,000 a year, you have to get them to perhaps ₹1.6 lakh a year and ensure they do not drop back. That implies you have to work through a series of interventions, either in education, livelihood or agriculture. In tribal areas, such an initiative could take about seven or eight years.” As the trusts scale up their interventions, equal emphasis is being put on creating an adequate bandwidth to tackle the growing mandate. Today, both the trusts employ over 150 people, including on-ground staff, a near three-fold increase in the past decade.

“We have professionals trained in various fields as programme officers. We hire them and encourage them to develop their own subjects of interest since it is a labour of love,” says Phansalkar. 

Having bigger teams has resulted in a more proactive approach to finding and educating partners on their initiatives, but at the same time sifting the wheat is a matter of routine and vetting and clearing proposals is a time-consuming process. “There are two levels of vetting — financial and programme-wise. We can invest [in a project] only when the associate organisation finds it’s programme good,” says Neelam. It’s a fairly detailed process. Once a grantee organisation is shortlisted, the trust sends an external auditor to look into its financial systems. If that is passed, the associate organisation team on the ground engages with the NGO on designing the proposals in detail. It takes about three to four rounds of vetting before a proposal is approved.

NGOs aren’t complaining either. Mehta of BMVSS points out that he had sent his proposal three years back, but SDTT gave its final nod only last year. But, he adds, “We value their relationship as being associated with the trust only adds to our credibility.” Concurring with Mehta is Aajeevika’s Khandelwal. “The trust’s association has made it easier to get donors.” The NGO’s current list of donors includes Ikea foundation, Nabard and EdelGive, in addition to SDTT. More importantly, even as the trusts have managed to create a strong ecosystem of NGOs and associate entities, they have also managed to cobble a stronger alliance — the government. 

Leveraging alliances

Fodder scarcity is a very grim reality in Uttarkhand, which is why in 2004 Himmotthan kicked off an initiative to encourage development of fodder resources. “Fodder shortage is one of the main issues affecting the development of rural areas in Uttarakhand. It leads to both poor quality milch animals and the degradation of forests. We said, ‘NREGA is anyway supporting 100 days’ employment. Since the programme involves a lot of labour, why don’t we talk to the government?’ Thankfully, the government agreed to it,” says Neelam. The initiative was kicked off under MGNREGA in 28 villages across seven districts. A total 133 hectare of land was brought under fodder promotion, over 6,300 people participated and over 700 tonne of fodder was produced from community-managed plots.  Not surprisingly, when that 10-year engagement programme ended with the Uttarakhand government in early 2014, it was promptly renewed for another 10 years. “It is now a strategic partnership with the state,” says Chauhan from Himmotthan.

PC; Ajit SolankiSimilarly, in Punjab, where the green revolution showed its own ill-effects in terms of the paddy-wheat cycle affecting the soil and ground water levels, SRTT introduced Bt cotton. “Cotton was the main crop in north-west Punjab. But because the cotton variety was not fetching the income required, they shifted to paddy. But paddy was again not a good economic proposition, which is when we introduced Bt cotton,” says Neelam. The initiative was started in 2005 in partnership with Punjab Agriculture University and the state department of agriculture, beginning with 20 villages but now extending to 100 villages. The impact on yield is visible: from 1.65 million bales in around 509,000 hectare in FY05, cotton production rose to 2.3 million bales in 520,000 hectares by FY13.

In Gujarat, too, SRTT has roped in the government on its drinking water project in the coastal areas. “In Gujarat, we worked very closely with the state government’s Water and Sanitation Management Organisation (Wasmo),” says Neelam. Wasmo was set up in 2002 to facilitate decentralised, community-driven water supply and sanitation programmes in rural areas. “We are jointly promoting safe drinking water and sanitation programs. Our team is coming up with new technologies to be deployed in these regions and also helping them in the execution through an NGO partner,” he adds.

Going forward, the big kicker for the Tata trusts will come from their chairman who, since retiring from heading the Tata group, has taken the onus of knocking on the doors of state governments at the highest level. Interestingly, when he stepped down as group chairman in December 2012, Ratan Tata broke tradition by retaining the chairmanship of SDTT and SRTT — a clear sign that he wanted to play a more active role in the philanthropy space. Such an engagement augurs well for the trusts’ future, believes Shirin Bharucha, a trustee on the SRTT board. “We have finite funds at our disposal, so any approach that works to bring scale to your efforts is welcome… whether it is talking to the head of a government or approaching a government officer or energising the community. Doubtless, if you talk from the top, it will certainly have a strong impact on the ground.” What will be interesting to see is if, as the trusts forge new alliances, they also continue their age-old tradition of not associating their activities with Tata Group CSR initiatives. 

Bridging the divide?

While the Tata trusts have been handing out the equivalent of over 13% of Tata Sons’ post-tax profits in philanthropy, there’s been a Berlin wall between their activities and those of the companies in the Tata group. The mandatory CSR regulation, effective for India Inc from this fiscal, creates a piquant situation. The new Companies Act stipulates that companies with a net worth of over ₹500 crore or sales in excess of ₹1,000 crore or a net profit of ₹5 crore in any financial year have to spend 2% of their past three years’ average net profit on CSR activities. At the Tata Group, 33 of its over 200 companies are listed entities. And if you consider the CSR budget of just two big companies, Tata Motors and TCS, the total is more than what the two trusts currently disburse. Consider the total CSR budget of the group, then, and it does make for an irresistible funding avenue for trusts.

So far, the trusts’ operations and funding have been independent of Tata companies (apart from the dividends they draw as shareholders). An article on the gorup’s website quotes former Tata Steel managing director JJ Irani: “The trusts really have no obligation to the companies from which they draw their monies. There is no quid pro quo and, consequently, no burden on the Tata Group as a whole.” The article also quotes SDTT managing trustee AN Singh: “We maintain an arm’s length distance from corporate Tata because it would amount to a curious sort of situation if we were to fund some of these companies and their programmes. Their money comes to us in the form of dividends. We cannot route it back to them; that would be unethical.”

Whether or not the trusts finally break the tradition will depend on the broad contours of a common joint programme that is being developed by Mukund Rajan, the Tata brand custodian and chief ethics officer of Tata Sons. While the pros and cons of allying with the trusts will surely be the topic of much debate, Bharucha is already warming to the idea. “I have suggested that they look at what the trusts have been doing over the years and empower them in a way that will create the impact we are saying the two trusts together can make.” While the contours of the post-CSR alliance is still in the works, for now, the trusts are working on their own agenda for the future — one that includes a formal coming together of the two institutions. 

The way ahead

The Tata trusts have recently adopted a cluster-based approach, supporting multiple interlinked activities in identified clusters of contiguous villages across select geographies. “The Central India initiative is now not only about livelihood. It is also about health and education. Our other teams focused on health and education are now trying to work in the same geographies or clusters where our livelihood teams are already present. This way, the impact is multi-fold on the community, children and households,” explains Neelam.

Distributing wealth

Most SDTT allocations go to natural resource management NGOs 

Since SDTT and SRTT are set up under separate trust deeds, legally, they cannot be merged. But the trustees on both sides are looking at closer integration of their activities. “Right now, the effort of the chairman is to combine the plans for both the trusts as the target audience is the same. That will only happen if there is synergy between both trusts… it is in keeping with a long-term view,” reveals Bharucha. With about 700 ongoing projects in association with 450-odd organisations, SDTT has wider engagement than SRTT, which has 125 projects with 100 partners. “Along with SRTT, we could definitely claim that anybody who is worth supporting in the country has either been our partner or is our partner,” points out Phansalkar.

The integration will look at multi-thematic interventions in a compact geography, which will result in some solid results. “SDTT has nearly five times the number of our grantees, so we cannot have an integration at the NGO level. The ultimate beneficiary is the villager, whose quality of life we want to improve. So, while there will be integration of geographies, the idea will be to bring in education, rural development, water and sanitation initiatives to effectively ensure that you are able to create a comprehensive solution, just like a government, to that particular geography,” Pandhi elaborates. 

Currently, both trusts are working on several interesting initiatives. These include supporting crèches to provide nutritious food to children, to address malnutrition in under three year olds. Another project focuses on teachers, integrating the use of technology by students into the study curriculum. Then, there is an initiative to plant bamboo in wastelands and drought-prone areas, which favourably impacts not only the ecology but also the economy of bamboo-dependent communities. 

Besides, there is a large elementary education programme aimed at 6-14 year old children. “50% students drop out before Class 5 and they end up doing menial jobs such as picking up garbage or become street vagabonds. We are persuading them to come back to schools and are working with 16-17 partners in that field in different parts of the country,” says Phansalkar. There is also a new programme devoted to mental health. “We estimate that around 1% of the population suffers from severe mental health disorders. That means around 15 million people in a nation of over 1.2 billion. The total bed capacity for institutions in the field of mental health is just 100,000. It is a huge gap. We are trying to figure out a way of treating them,” he adds. For its part, SRTT is working on an ambitious water project that will cover about 7,000 villages over the next six years.

“We want to work on technologies that provide water to communities in a sustainable manner so that they can manage it thereafter themselves. The critical point is capital cost. If you bring down the capital cost, our operating cost comes down,” points out Pandhi.

What makes the trust approach admirable is that though both have changed priorities over the years, in line with changing societal shifts, they continue to be connected to their past institutional endeavours. Take the case of Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai. The country’s top cancer hospital is overcrowded, with relatives of poor cancer patients camping on the street outside the hospital in Parel, since the hospital infrastructure can no longer accommodate the ever-increasing flow of patients.

So, in 2011, SRTT created a 150-bed hospital in Kolkata based on the insight that a majority of patients were from northeast India, where access to quality medical care is an issue. “We may not have created an institution like IISC, but whatever we attempt is substantive… the Kolkata hospital was set up with the foresight to have quarters for families who accompany the patients,” points out Bharucha.

That view just reiterates what the chairman of the trusts feels about philanthropy. In an interaction with Vikas Shah of Thought Economics, an economics and strategic online journal, Ratan Tata revealed, “To me, philanthropy is about raising the quality of life of the people around us; and making a difference to the manner in which they live or subsist. I am reminded of a billboard that used to exist for Air India which — for some reason — has never left me and has a bearing on philanthropy. The billboard said something along the lines of: My child complained about how unfortunate he was because he didn’t have any shoes, until I met the other child who had no feet. It’s always struck me that we look at our misfortune, but very often there are people who suffer much, much more. Philanthropy is really trying to uplift those people who are less fortunate.”

Tata is well aware that the task of helping the less fortunate in India is too vast for any one individual or institution. Indeed, despite all that his family’s trusts have achieved over the past 100 years, much remains to be done. But he can take pride of being part of a legacy that only few could have dreamed of — and take inspiration from something the Zoroaster said, “Taking the first footstep with a good thought, the second with a good word and the third with a good deed, I entered Paradise.”


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