Gates, Buffett bid to open rich Indians' wallets

Two of the world's richest men, software pioneer Bill Gates and investor Warren Buffett, are set to visit India this week to persuade the country's super-wealthy to part with more of their cash.
The pair made headlines last year when they said they would seek to get fellow billionaires to commit half of their wealth to good causes as part of the "Giving Pledge". So far, 59 rich Americans have taken the pledge.
But while charitable giving is widespread in countries such as the United States, it is less well established in developing nations such as India and China, where Gates and Buffett went in September on a similar mission.
The former, in an open letter in the Times of India newspaper, said he and Buffett plan to sit down with some of India's affluent business leaders "to talk about our own enthusiasm for philanthropy and the impact it can have".
"We come not as preachers, but more like cheerleaders," said Gates, just a few months on from the billionaires' high-profile China trip, where they wined and dined the country's richest industrialists to promote charity.
Fast-growing India is home to some of Asia's richest billionaires, making it "an exciting time to be having this conversation," added Gates.
But while there is no shortage of billionaires for Gates and Buffett to meet, it may not be the easiest of missions.
India's booming economy -- growing by nine percent annually -- has 55 billionaires with an average net worth of ê4.5 billion, according to Forbes, the third-largest pool of billionaires after the United States and China.
Yet rich Indians are often criticised by local media for a reluctance to part with their cash.
In fact, India's wealthiest social class has the lowest level of giving -- just 1.6 percent of household income compared to 1.9 percent for the country's middle classes, according to global consultancy Bain and Company.
A ê2 billion education donation by high-tech tycoon Azim Premji late last year was a rare exception -- and shone a harsh light on the patchy philanthropic track record of India's wealthy.
Arpan Sheth, a consultant for Bain who is author of a recent overview of Indian philanthropy, said the country's charitable potential is huge.
"Should individuals (in India), particularly the well-off, be giving more? And can they afford to make more and larger donations? The answer to both questions is, 'Absolutely yes'," he said.
Philanthropic activity has failed to keep pace with growing riches, partly, Sheth believes, because the rapid accumulation of individual wealth is still a relatively new phenomenon.
"We have a history of scarcity and so it takes a while to build confidence that the future will be better on a sustainable basis and let go of newly earned wealth," Sheth told AFP.
There is also a suspicion that charities are badly managed and so donors fear their contributions "won't be put to good use or are at risk of being misappropriated," Sheth added.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the charity set up by the software tycoon and his wife, was tight-lipped about the visit, citing security. 
"The visit of Bill and Melinda Gates starts Tuesday," said a spokesman.
He declined to give details about who they would meet but India's Business Standard newspaper reported Gates, his wife and Buffett would hold talks with the country's wealthy on Thursday in New Delhi.
There is no doubt that the need to help India's teeming poor is glaring.
Some 42 percent of Indians, or 455 million people, live on less than ê1.25 a day, according to the World Bank. India's statistics on health, infant mortality and malnutrition are worse than those for some countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
There are signs, though, that India's billionaires are waking up to the urgent need to bridge the yawning gap between rich and poor in the country of 1.2 billion people.
India's richest man Mukesh Ambani, who heads the country's largest private company Reliance Industries, warned earlier this month that "there will be no peace" if people are "discontented, deprived, unhappy and therefore angry."
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