Gali Janardhan Reddy is a very pious man and he must now think he has just bought a one way ticket to heaven after gifting Lord Venkateswara at Tirupati a diamond-studded crown that came for a staggering Rs 42 crore. Of course, the crown is heavy at 20 kg and would probably break the neck of the God if He ever attempted to wear it.
But then Reddy, Karnataka's tourism minister and Bellary mine baron, doesn't give the impression that he is a very sensitive man. Had he been, he would have set aside most of the money that went into procuring 32kg of 'aparanji (pure)' gold, 70,000 diamonds weighing 4,000 carats and a huge 890-carat emerald from Africa, to some trust that benefited fellow human beings in his impoverished country - a surer ticket, I am sure, to heaven if there be one.
This display of superfluous piety, in stark contrast to the deprivation faced by millions of us all around, merely underlines two very important aspects of our society - the misplaced sense of benevolence and the utter lack of a culture of true charity in India. Why is this so in our country? In January, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation edged past Britain's Wellcome Trust to become the largest in the world, with assets of $21.8 billion. The Microsoft man has given away most of his fortune to those in need and says he will give more.
According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Andrew Carnegie donated - to man, not God - $350 million before he died in 1919, a sum that would be worth about $3 billion today. John D Rockefeller contributed $540 million to various organizations before his death in 1937, an amount that would be more than $6 billion today. It would be interesting to know how much our rich, the Ambanis, Mittals, Birlas, Tatas, Hindujas, Premjis et al, have given to the cause of humanity.
This is a problem with Indians. They will look upwards and give money to God to drive away their sins, ensure a safe seat in heaven or a comfortable life in case they are reincarnated, but they will not glance around and dig a well for the thirsty hordes, set up a free kitchen for the hungry millions or build schools for the innumerable illiterates. And there cannot be a greater irony. According to a government census, just Kolkata has about 1, 27,000 of the absolute poor, of which 67,000 have no shelter. Internationally, an income of less than $1 per day per head is defined as extreme poverty. By this estimate, about 45% of Indians are extremely poor. That's half the country, Mr Reddy. If the daily income per head is less than $2, then the family is described as poor. This would mean about 80% of Indians.
Even now, after all these years of "growth", the per capita income is 2,500 per month. For a family of five that boils down to Rs 500 per head, which is less Rs 20 a day for food, shelter and water, forget luxuries like electricity. In the cursed KBK belt of Orissa (Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput), people still eat poisonous mango kernels when they are starving and the mortality rate is a highly disturbing 140 per 1,000. But I haven't seen either politicians like Reddy or businessmen exactly lining up to mitigate the misery.
Reddy's offering, and to be fair he's just one of the rich who lavish their wealth on God, has added to a Tirupati kitty that already holds over 11 tonnes of gold ornaments, making Lord Venkateswara one of the richest in the world. That's indeed a very rich God in a very poor country.
One last word, Mr Reddy. I do hope for your sake that you see the Lord wearing your diamond crown strutting away in all glory when you meet your maker. Till then, will you please dedicate your next offering to the poor and hungry.