Nilekanis sign Gates' Giving Pledge, commit half their $1.7 bn wealth

Bangaluru power couple Nandan Nilekani and his wife Rohini announced over the weekend that they had signed on to the Giving Pledge launched by Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

 
Nandan and Rohini Nilekani  

A cofounder of Infosys, Nilekani recently returned to the company as non-executive chairman after a boardroom shakeup. He is also the chief creator of India's Aadhaar identification system, launched by the previous Manmohan Singh government and widely used without even a courtesy acknowledgement by the current Narendra Modi administration.

The couple's commitment to give away half their wealth, pegged at $1.7 billion, was made in Bangalore in the presence of Gates, who launched the Giving Pledge with wife Melinda and Warren Buffett seven years ago.

Signatories to the initiative commit to give away at least half of their wealth either in their lifetime or through their wills.

The other Indians to have signed the Giving Pledge are Azim Premji of Wipro, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw of Biocon and P N C Menon of Sobha Developers. Notably, all four Indian signatories to the pledge are from the tech hub of Bangalore.

The addition of the Nilekanis brings the total number of members of this elite network of donors to 171 from 21 countries.

The Nilekanis' public commitment caps two decades of backing various philanthropic causes led initially by Rohini, who founded Arghyam, a foundation focusing on water and sanitation issues. Her efforts earned her a spot among Forbes Asia's annual list of Asia's Heroes of Philanthropy in 2010.

''Wealth comes with a huge responsibility and is best deployed for the larger public interest,'' Nandan and Rohini wrote in their pledge.

''We have been doing philanthropy for almost 20 years. But signing the Giving Pledge helps us join many people who are coming together and thinking about how to solve the world's large problems,'' they told The Economic Times in a subsequent interaction alongside Gates.

Rohini said, ''It took me some time to culturally adjust to this that we declare it so publicly … I think the time is right for us now. We're pretty much committed to doing only this.''

In their pledge letter, the Nilekanis say their philanthropic efforts would be directed at ''societal platforms''. These, they elaborate, are ''open, technology-enabled ecosystems or nurturing networks. Built on an elegant yet light digital infrastructure, they design spaces for cocreation and participation by all entities with a stake in positive change – from state institutions and entrepreneurs to non-profits or individual citizens.''

Since resigning as chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India in 2014, billionaire Nilekani got involved in various causes such as EkStep, a  collaborative platform to reimagine learning opportunities for children, founded by the couple to address learning challenges in primary education. He is also one of the biggest backers of a Bangalore startup that is building a spacecraft to land on the moon.

The Nilekani fortune is estimated to be about $1.7 billion, much of it coming from the family's 2 per cent shareholding in Infosys. Nandan Nilekani co-founded Infosys along with N R Narayana Murthy and others.

''Nandan and Rohini are not only a great example of generosity, they are also putting their time and energy into philanthropy. A lot of stuff they are doing is very catalytic,'' Bill Gates told ET. ''Philanthropy is tough. It forces you to think about your death. It requires a family to get to a certain point where they feel that giving makes sense for them. 171 people have signed the Giving Pledge. This is way beyond what we thought we would ever achieve,'' Gates said.

Gates and Buffett announced and signed the pledge with about 40 global billionaires in 2010. Since then, they have also been evangelising philanthropy, encouraging many more to give away the bulk of their fortune to fight poverty and promote equitable growth.

Gates, a regular visitor to India in recent years, has been personally encouraging India's fast-growing tribe of the super-rich to get more philanthropy-minded at annual gatherings convened together with Premji. While several billionaires have flocked to these meetings, there have been notable absentees such as Mukesh Ambani, India's wealthiest person, whose family is Asia's richest.

Signatories to the Giving Pledge are free to direct their philanthropy to causes they feel most drawn to. This is not a legally binding agreement, but just a voluntary and moral commitment.