In the early 1900s Shishir Bajaj’s grandfather Jamnalal was involved in the Freedom Movement in India alongside Mahatma Ghandi, even spending time in jail as a freedom fighter in his fight against the British. Driven by strong ethics and a will for Indians to govern themselves he added philanthropy to his arsenal of weapons, alongside his strong political ideologies. So strong, in fact, that he refused the title of honorary magistrate bestowed on him by the British Raj. Instead, he opened the first temple to the downtrodden, now 100 years old.
While Jamnalal never saw his cherished dream of an independent India, dying five years before independence day celebrations in 1947, his principles and convictions have been passed down through generations of Bajaj children. His legacy is presently in the care of Shishir Bajaj, Chairman and Managing Director of Bajaj Hindusthan sugar company, the largest in Asia and fifth largest in the world.
The principles that his grandfather learnt under Gandhi have been applied to this large industrial business, one that almost qualifies as a regional government in scale and impact. Jamnalal, with Gandhi’s blessing, saw at an early stage that there was a need for new companies to feed the economic challenges of building a new nation and formed the sugar company in 1931.
“Because my grandfather was too busy with the Freedom Movement, he set up the business and let my father run it,” says Shishir. And in a move that predates Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge campaign by 80 years, Jamnalal formed a trust for the wealth because he didn’t want to own more than he needed; a very unusual move at the time.
Two foundations, the Bajaj Foundation and Jamnalal Bajaj Trust now support more than 100,000 families in 501 villages, positively affecting the lives of more than 615,000 individuals within the company’s 12 sugar production areas. In keeping with the family tradition of social change, Shishir’s son Kushagra suggested the formation of an action plan five years ago that scaled the company’s social good onto a much larger platform.
“The number of villages we’d like to cover in the next five years is 1,000,” says Shishir. “There are about 700 districts in India and if we can capture just two I think it will be a seriously good achievement.” As the most populous country on earth with just over 1.2 billion people, two districts is not the small number some would imagine. Some of the projects Shishir is involved in include sustainable agricultural practices, and women’s self help groups.
A water resource project has seen 82 rivers deepened, 120km of riverbeds rejuvenated and schools built at seven of the ten sugar factories. Other projects include an energy company that produces 450 megawatts of power, with plans for a 2,000-megawatt power plant underway that will cost $2 billion.
One wonders what Jamnalal would say today if he saw how his sugar factory, one of the first in India, had transcended profit to become a builder of infrastructure to a nation in need. As Gandhi would have said at the time, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”