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Anu Aga : Schooling India

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December 04, 2013
Udit Misra

Anu Aga is among the most influential voices promoting philanthropic activity in India. Her calling card : To her, giving means both, money and involvement

Award : Corporate Catalyst
Anu Aga
Age : 71
Why She won : For interpreting philanthropy as more than just signing a cheque and for getting personally involved in building philanthropic institutions.
Her Trigger : The death of her 25-year-old son, Kurush, who wanted to give away a big chunk of the family’s wealth to philanthropic causes, prompted Aga
Her Mission : Providing educational support for underprivileged children as well as promoting electoral and governance reforms.
Her Action Plan : Supporting causes which promote primary education (like Teach For India) as well as those which promote better governance like Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) and PRS Legislative Research

Some people preach a philosophy. Others live by it. Anu Aga, 71, former chairperson of Thermax, is of the second tribe. She walks the talk and, in turn, paves the path for others to follow in her stead. Ask Meher Pudumjee, her daughter and the present chairperson of Thermax. Pudumjee recounts an incident from her childhood when Aga walked in one day with two street children—both boys—and announced that, henceforth, they would be staying with them as part of the family.

Aga’s decision would have left all concerned mildly shocked—but none more than the two boys in question who, ironically, soon left the comforts of her home for the carefree abandon of the streets.

The episode provides a window into the mind of Aga and her approach to philanthropy. As it is normally practised, it typically requires two mutually exclusive sacrifices. One, when a rich person gives money and, two, when others, not as rich, spare their time to utilise that money for social improvement.

But for Aga, philanthropy isn’t ‘either or’: It means doing both. It was not enough for her to provide financial support to the two boys, nor was she comfortable with only counselling them—she had to do what she did.

Over time, this thinking has led her to emerge as one of the most influential voices promoting philanthropic activity in India. Again, it is not just about the fact that as chairman of Thermax (an over $1 billion company today) between 1996 and 2004, she decided to allocate one percent of all profits for charity. Or that the Thermax Social Initiative Foundation (TSIF) today runs nine primary government schools in Pune and Mumbai along with The Akanksha Foundation, an NGO that directly provides education to around 4,400 underprivileged children. Or that she financially supports initiatives like Teach For India and GiveIndia.

“There are very few people in India who are willing to leverage their success in [a] for-profit venture to lend credibility to non-profit initiatives,” says Vandana Goyal, CEO of The Akanksha Foundation.

With the disclaimer that she does not want to be judgmental, Aga says most well-to-do people in India get caught up in the race to consume more. “There is one-upmanship among the rich and we are often oblivious of our surroundings,” she says. “Two big examples are our weddings—with 5,000 guests and 20 dishes—and the way women dress!” she adds, comparing them to Christmas trees.

“I think some of us have been blessed with wealth… some of it we deserve but some of it is due to luck and the hard work of many others. I cannot create my own wealth. I depend on so many others,” Aga points out. “In a country like India, where you see that the basic needs of so many people are not being met, do you go on the path of more and more consumption for yourself and the family, or do you share it with the people and the causes that require it?”