As a young graduate student in the United States years ago, I was most puzzled by the American expression, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”. In India there were many free lunches, literally. The daily “langars” at Sikh Gurudwaras are commonly known across north India. There’s nothing material expected in return, when a middle-class India donates meals, food or grain to a local charity, not even a tax deduction. My own father quietly funded several indigent students without telling anyone but my mom about it. Just across the Misssissippi River from my university was the ISKCON (Hare Krishna) temple where free lunches were offered to anyone who walked in.
Charity in India has a long traditon and it goes beyond free meals. Across the country in which I grew up, “dharamsalas” offered virtually free (or low cost) accomodations for travellers, pilgrims or otherwise. The only thing close to it in the USA are “youth hostels”. Temples and bridges to reach temples were and are funded by wealthy families.
Most recently Azim Premji, the Chairman of Wipro Limited, a large outsourcer, pledged $2 billion to educate Indians. And the Akshay Patra foundation keeps 1.2 million poor children is school by feeding them lunches; it is the largest such NGO in the world and is funded partly by Indian and Indian American billionaires. The American India Foundation and Pratham are other charities that do great work in India based on donations.
So I am puzzled that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are headed to India to encourage wealthy Indians to donate to charity. In a letter this year, Gates highlighted the need for donations, especially to plug a $720 million gap in a global program to wipe out polio. Before the Global Polio Eradication Initiative began in 1988, the disease paralyzed at least 350,000 children in more than 125 countries annually. This is a good cause for sure. But I am not sure that Gates needs to travel to India to promote fundraising for it.