The change of tack in the Tata Trusts concept of philanthropy over the last few years has been significant. How has this change benefitted the collective organisation and its outcomes in the field?

Several things have changed in and around Tata Trusts. For one, the funds available to the Trusts for philanthropy have increased exponentially. If we had continued doing what we did earlier, in the context of scale, it would have been difficult to disburse all our funds in a truly meaningful manner.

We felt Tata Trusts should be in a league where we pursue important causes that are good for society and India as a whole. So we looked at areas such as nutrition, water, healthcare, education, rural uplift, urban poverty, energy and livelihoods, areas where we could contribute in a substantial way.

The profile of our beneficiaries has not changed, but we are now looking at utilising our resources, our skills and our vision to address issues and needs that have been largely ignored, or areas where the government’s initiatives could be made more effective. To give an example, it is not for the lack of funds that malnutrition has not been conquered. The government has been spending huge amounts of money on nutrition, but much of these funds do not end up reaching the required segment of the population or are wasted in the course of execution. The more involved you get, the better your understanding of alternate and more efficient ways of using those same funds.

The trusts of the Tatas were created to attempt to alleviate personal hardship of individuals and assist communities at the time of hardship. The objectives of our philanthropy remain largely unchanged but we are now more deeply involved on the ground with how the projects we support are implemented. We have been judiciously backing ventures which result in sustainable benefits to individuals and communities. Our intention is to have our grants create sustainable solutions and bring self-sufficiency to communities, rather than establish long-term dependencies.

In nutrition, for example, we started out by trying to combat malnutrition among infants. That led, naturally enough, to maternal health and so it became mother and child. From healthcare to safe drinking water, to sanitation, to education and more, all wrapped into a holistic initiative. The NGOs or nonprofits partnering us continue to play a critical role in delivering these packages to communities.

The involvement and support of state governments is crucial because they have ... the penetration, the resources and, in many instances, astute individuals who are very happy to see the money coming in being spent where it should be.

Tata Trusts would have had to face a different set of challenges when it became more interventionist and more directly involved in the implementation of the projects it funds. Has the approach been tricky or difficult?

As the resources flowing into the trusts from Tata Sons increased, it became more and more difficult to find well-run NGOs capable of handling large projects. That’s when we started to look at getting involved in bigger causes and undertaking projects ourselves, maybe not physically but managing them and participating in them to a much greater extent than previously.

I don’t know whether one can say this amounts to an interventionist approach. Earlier the approach was to classify projects and initiatives on a thematic basis. There are some thematic schemes which continue but the major initiatives are defined under specific spheres. Many of these initiatives continue to be run through NGOs, if one can be found, or else we manage them in a different fashion, frequently in partnership with state governments and official agencies, who have welcomed us joining hands with them.

What has it been like working with state governments?

The involvement and support of state governments is crucial because they have the administration, the penetration, the resources and, in many instances, astute individuals who are very happy to see the money coming in being spent where it should be.

The chief ministers of the states we are working with have been keen to see these programmes succeed, so it has been a win-win kind of situation. The challenge, initially, was that the state governments had not worked in this manner with others, and neither had we. That challenge is behind us.

Technology and innovation have become recurring themes in the new Tata Trusts way. Why is that, and could you give us examples of their influence in the evolving scheme of philanthropy?

The world around us is turning to technology to meet many of its needs. It would be senseless for Tata Trusts to not pay attention to this reality, to remain moored to the way it operated, say, 50 years ago. To illustrate, a ‘save drinking water’ campaign undertaken 50 years ago would have addressed the issue in a particular way, trying to keep water sources clean and so on. Cut to today and safe drinking water is about filtration, which involves technology. Similarly, nutrition involves plenty of technological inputs. Technology is a tremendous tool in solving social problems.

Better collaboration between Tata Trusts and Tata companies with their common social development objectives has been an elusive goal, though you yourself have said this would result in a “greater impact in what we are collectively trying to do”. Do you see a truly unified effort unfolding on this front in the coming years?

There are Tata companies, and Tata Steel in particular comes to mind, that have large social development programmes. These are essentially the programmes of individual companies. In the years that I was the Chairman of the Tata group, I tried to bring our companies together to have a more unified approach in this regard. The last four years have seen the dismantling of that approach and a return to individual companies doing their bit. Consequently, instead of one powerful set of initiatives, we could end up having disparate projects run by various companies.

I think it’s for the new leadership to decide which model best suits the group. My preference, of course, would be a unified model that gives us considerable strength, scale, unity and multiple capabilities. Having said that, sometimes the concerned company doesn’t wish to share its initiative with others; the people involved may feel that’s a diversion from what they normally do and would prefer to be left alone. But whenever a Tata company is willing to work together with the Trusts, we are happy to make the connection.

These are testing times for several NGOs, especially those taking contrarian positions. What’s your opinion on how the sector should be viewed and treated in the Indian milieu?

The truth is that with the mandatory 2% expenditure under the corporate social responsibility rubric, there is a huge amount of money coming into social uplift programmes. The NGO community is not equipped to handle such a large infusion of money. The challenges faced by NGOs arise, to an extent, from this fact. How these challenges are dealt with is going to define the NGO community in the years to come.

There have been in the past — and I don’t mean to sound disparaging — many NGOs who wanted to be seen to be doing social work. That’s superficial. It’s a different feeling to touch something close to your heart, to have a collective of people doing what they believe in. The dodgy kind of NGOs will come under stress and greater scrutiny, which means they will find it difficult to raise funds. The whole form of fundraising is changing; more than ever before, donors are demanding that the actual implementation of projects be in line with well-defined goals.

What does Tata Trusts look for when it comes to forging partnerships with similar organisations, aid agencies and government bodies to realise common social uplift objectives?

Tata Trusts are not looking for agencies any longer; we are looking for causes. The partnerships we have forged have almost always been with organisations that want to join hands with us. We have collaborated with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank and other such prominent institutions. And there have been some areas where we have an NGO or an agency that’s been doing good work in a field that we want to be in. For instance, there are two NGOs — Akshaya Patra and Manna Trust in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh respectively — that give midday meals to schoolchildren. They are doing this terrific job of feeding up to 300,000 children every day. It is pointless for us to set up a similar operation, so we have allotted funds to the NGO to expand the programme.

Which emerging spheres in social development is Tata Trusts concentrating attention on, and why?

First of all there’s nutrition, which has led us to health, water, sanitation and hygiene, and education. Every one of these facets, in some form or another, help in contributing to the nutrition needs of India. We have also been involved in energy, especially low-cost and renewable energy solutions. What we have done is create certain number of spheres to focus attention on. With NGOs we are looking to supplement what they are doing by adding scale to their operations. There’s the midday meals project, as I had mentioned, and there’s a football training project for young underprivileged youths that was launched recently. These projects show how we are trying to be the catalyst in making something happen, or to bridge a gap that exists.

The Animal Care Centre is a unique initiative for Tata Trusts. What’s special about this?

I believe the availability, quality and calibre of animal care or pet care is woefully low in India when compared with other countries. Private practitioners are, generally speaking, the only option and most of them have no facilities for surgery and the like. In the circumstances, there is an urgent need for not one but many quality centres for animal care.

We are proud that we have been able to stay true to the principles and objectives for which the many Tata trusts were established...

There is nothing special about what we are trying to do, except that we are hoping to establish a facility that is world class. My hope is that there will be 10 or 20 such centres in the country. Importantly, we have to change the way we treat animals in everyday life. We routinely abuse these animals, maim and kill them, and that’s not done. They are living creatures, too, and deserve to be protected.

The JN Tata Endowment is 125 years old and most of the other Tata trusts have been in existence for long. What do you think have been the most remarkable achievements of the Trusts over this time?

To me, the most credible point has been that the Trusts have never abused their position as a charity organisation. We have never had trustees grab land or line their pockets in some other way, as happens from time to time in the philanthropy space. Rather, we have always added value to what we have done. There have been instances where we have had to pull out because we could not secure success, but by and large, we have made a difference.

I have tried to institutionalise the goals of Tata Trusts. We will contribute in full measure if we believe we can change things for the better in any given area. If for whatever reason we cannot, then we will not get into that area. For example, in days gone by, some of our trusts provided low-cost housing for poor Parsi families. This scheme was regularly misused and the truly deserving often missed out. That’s why you don’t see vast colonies of low-cost housing put up by our trusts.

We are proud that we have been able to stay true to the principles and objectives for which the many Tata trusts were established. It has been a century and more since our philanthropic endeavours began — and we have made a difference. And we expect to make more of a difference because we are more visible than we used to be.