Shiv Nadar: The outstanding philanthrophist

From donating a billion dollars of his personal wealth to philanthropy to pushing the education agenda in the country to, now, helping accelerate development in rural India, he is giving both time and money to causes bigger than himself
Shiv Nadar is a restless man these days. The chairman of the $6.3 billion HCL Technologies has been preoccupied with his self-admittedly most ambitious project yet and, he says, he can’t seem to get a handle on it. “I just can’t seem to figure it out,” says Nadar, promoter of India’s fourth-largest software company. “It”, in this case, is Samudhay, the latest initiative from the Shiv Nadar Foundation, the philanthropy organisation started by Nadar in 1994. He confesses that he doesn’t remember spending as much time on any of his big-ticket IT projects as he has on this one. “I spend a minimum of three hours every day thinking about this,” he says.

And here’s why Samudhay is presenting such a challenge: The initiative is a grand plan to develop a replicable model of development for villages across five critical parameters—education, employability, health, infrastructure and water. According to Nadar, “This is the biggest project anyone has ever dared to do in our country.”

But, like any astute businessman, Nadar is taking inspiration from his primary domain of expertise—in his case, the IT industry. “Have you heard of crowdsourcing?” he asks Forbes India. “We will use this process (of getting work done or drawing inputs from a crowd of people) to find the best NGOs in the country, whether large or small, learn about the work they are doing and apply their best ideas to this project.”
In other words, Nadar is searching for a tried-and-tested development model that can be applied across villages. “Reinventing the wheel delays development but if we can find an already successful model, we can achieve results in a shorter time frame,” says Nadar, who is ranked 7th on the 2014 Forbes India Rich List.

Unfortunately, in India there is little record of work done by NGOs. This means Nadar’s team is creating its own database. But it will be worth it, the team says. “This is so that we can learn from them [the NGOs] instead of doing things from scratch,” says Nadar.

Work on Samudhay started around six months ago. The project team has visited at least 20 underdeveloped villages in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Odisha to understand various development models. “There is an NGO called Atmashakti Trust which works with tribals in Odisha. We went and stayed in villages where the trust operates to get a first-hand experience of the issues there,” says Navpreet Kaur, officer on special duty in the office of the chairman, HCL Technologies, who is closely involved with the Samudhay project.

For instance, on the provision of clean drinking water, the team is studying NGOs that have done exemplary work in that domain. Those learnings will help Samudhay arrive at a model that can be implemented in any village across the country. “Research and discovery is on. We will find a source code (replicable model) and, depending on the condition of the village, we will implement it with a few changes here and there [to the code],” says Kaur.

Nadar elaborates on this concept by comparing it to his two-year-old grandson’s Lego set. “You can make a truck or a train out of a Lego. Our model will work the same way,” he says.

Given the scale of the project—across 120 villages in the western region of the state—Shiv Nadar Foundation will not only work with NGOs but also join forces with the UP government to implement Samudhay. The state is an obvious starting point for the project as HCL is headquartered in Noida, UP, and almost all of Nadar’s philanthropic work has been primarily concentrated in that region.

A memorandum of understanding is in the process of being signed wherein the UP government will fund the project while the foundation will provide the technical know-how. “We have discussed this with UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav because we wanted their political co-operation,” says Nadar, adding that he has no political affiliation. “I don’t and never will.”

The UP government is excited about the project, says DK Srivastava, president-human resources, HCL Corporation Pvt Ltd, who is working on this project with Nadar. “Every state wants to showcase itself as the most developed state,” says Srivastava. “We can’t construct roads or toilets but we can show the government how to get it right.”

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