Editors’ Note: Scholars have often engaged the rise of modern philanthropy in the developing world through the tensions between indigenous traditions and cosmopolitan practices. Mircea Raianu explores the place of Tata philanthropy in modern India to complicate that dichotomy.
What is the relationship between corporate philanthropy and the modern nation-state? Or, to put it another way, what kind of infrastructure does a nation need, and under what conditions do private corporations provide it? India offers a rich, yet little explored, historical terrain to consider these questions. Whereas in the United States the past, present, and future of corporate philanthropy is often told with reference to the names of Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller, and Gates, in India one name stands above all others: Tata.
Tata has long been India’s largest and most powerful corporation, its interests ranging from steel to automobiles, aviation, chemicals, hydroelectric power, information technology and consulting. In parallel, the Tata Trusts, established by founder Jamsetji Tata’s sons in the early twentieth century, supported India’s first higher education institute dedicated to science and technology, first professional school of social science, first specialized cancer hospital, and an Institute of Fundamental Research that served as the cradle of India’s atomic program. No account of the making of modern India is complete without understanding the role played by Tata.
Historians have emphasized the indigenous or vernacular character of philanthropy in India, showing how mercantile gifting practice disturbed the neat distinctions imposed by British colonial law between public and private ends. For example, the Charitable Endowments Act of 1890 was designed to separate gifts to schools, hospitals, and other “objects of general public utility” from the circulation of capital within family firms. Self-consciously modern, humanitarian, and utilitarian forms of philanthropy introduced by the British were socially ‘thin,’ except perhaps in the Westernized Parsi community in Bombay (to which the Tata family belongs). An enduring binary between deep-rooted indigenous practice and superficially imposed Western philanthropy has proven difficult to overcome. The wealth of material available in the Tata Archives, now open to researchers, tells a different story. In my work, I examine the defining characteristics of Tata philanthropy throughout the long twentieth century, and show how they help us make sense of India’s philanthropic encounter with the world today.
From the very start, Tata philanthropy was simultaneously vernacular and global, nationalist and cosmopolitan (transcending communal and geographic boundaries). The Indian Institute of Science, established in 1909, was founder Jamsetji Tata’s first major bequest. It was inspired both by a conversation between Tata and the celebrated Swami Vivekananda, icon of the swadeshi (self-sufficiency) movement in Bengal, and by the example of new universities in the United States such as Johns Hopkins. The Institute did not find much favor with the British colonial state, whose commitment to higher education remained limited. Tata initially ran into countless legal and political obstacles to his endowment not because he offered a different model of philanthropy, but because his plan competed with the colonial state’s own modernizing and rationalizing aspirations. It was the cosmopolitan rather than the vernacular nature of the Institute that rendered it subversive.
The Dorabji and Ratanji Tata Trusts, set up by the founder’s two sons in 1919 and 1932, respectively, built upon Tata’s vision of “constructive philanthropy.” As Jamsetji Tata expressed it, “what advances a nation or community is not so much to prop up its weakest and the most helpless members, as to lift the best and most gifted so as to make them of the greatest service to the country.” The Trustees gave expression to this philosophy by establishing pioneering institutions: the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (est. 1936), the Tata Memorial Hospital (est. 1941), and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (est. 1945), all before the nation-state came into its own. Each of these institutions relied on far-flung networks of expertise, employing scientists, scholars, and practitioners from Britain, the United States, Germany, France, and all over India. At times, the Trusts did face criticism that they were not doing enough to address the problem of Parsi unemployment in Bombay during the Great Depression, anticipating recurring tensions between foundations and their cities of origin, for example between the Ford Foundation and Detroit.
The Ford comparison is not anachronistic or accidental. By 1947, the Tata Trusts owned more than 80% of the share capital in the parent firm, Tata Sons. This was an arrangement cited by the Trusts themselves as a path-breaking precedent in India, yet one that mirrored the Ford Foundation’s controlling stake in the Ford Motor Company. Many contemporary observers also believed that the Trusts were an Indian manifestation of Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth,” mixed with the emergent Gandhian ethic of “trusteeship.” According to noted sociologist and economist B.K. Sarkar, Tatas’ bequests proved that India had “her Carnegies, big, medium, and small,” and was thus “qualitatively, if not quantitatively, at one with the West”– another illustration of the global and the vernacular as two sides of the same coin.
With the coming of independence, the focus of Tata philanthropy shifted. Control over institutions that had grown to maturity passed onto the government, not by nationalization but by a smooth handover confirming the soundness of the Tatas’ nation-building spirit. Such a move had the added advantage of freeing up funds for the Trustees to invest in new ventures while preserving the pioneering aspect of their endeavors. Through a Rural Welfare Board and model village projects, the Tata Trusts began to shadow the state more directly, staking a claim for private philanthropy in the realm of basic service provision. Meanwhile, other large Indian firms took up institution building on the Tata model, as seen in the Birla Institutes of Technology.
A glance at the scope and activities of the Tata Trusts today, after the liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991, reveals essential continuities in a new register. The Trusts own a smaller, yet still predominant, 66% share in Tata Sons. NGO collaborations are a new phenomenon, but the focus on rural development, a legacy of the post-independence moment, remains. The Tata model of endowing a foundation from company shares has been replicated several times, notably by Wipro chairman Azim Premji. The Premji Foundation, however, is more explicitly dedicated to the singular goal of improving education.
Conversely, the Tata Trusts’ high-profile global collaborations with foreign universities (among them MIT, Cornell, and UCLA) continue a long tradition of deploying expertise dating back to the colonial period, now recalibrated as the nurturing of innovation and sustainability. The Indian government recently mandated that large companies spend 2% on corporate social responsibility, which current Trusts chairman Ratan Tata has publicly opposed. Tata philanthropy continues to be seen as distinct and autonomous, free to set the terms of engagement with the state, and may go its own way when confronted with globalizing demands such as the Giving Pledge. But it will do so fully at home in the world as well as in the nation.
Mircea Raianu is a PhD Candidate in History at Harvard University, currently completing a dissertation entitled “The Incorporation of India: The Tata Business Firm Between Empire and Nation, ca. 1870-1960.”
 According to figures in the latest annual reports (2013-14), the Dorabji Tata Trust allocates 55% of its funds to NGO-led projects, with 43% of NGO sector grants going toward “Natural Resource Management and Rural Livelihoods,” while 72% of all grants made by the Ratan Tata Trust fall under the category of “Rural Livelihoods and Communities.” See http://www.dorabjitatatrust.org/pdf/SDTTAR2013-2014.pdf and http://www.srtt.org/downloads/annual/Annual_Report_2013_14.pdf.