This is what I wrote two years ago:
Here are three things I’d like to do in the rest of my life and which will require investments of hundreds of millions of dollars. This is not about philanthropy, but about building the right systems and foundation – in a sort-of self-generating way. Ideally, the Indian government should have been the enabler – but I don’t see that happening with the politicians we have. Indian business has started taking the lead but is not doing this fast enough – and in some cases, is not even doing it right.
First, ensuring access to quality education for hundreds of millions of Indians. Education is a life-enhancer – and nothing comes close. My father was helped by his education to get out of the village he grew up in and created opportunities for himself. How can we do the same for millions in India who are otherwise resigned to a life devoid of opportunity? This is not about trying to build the world’s best school or college, but ensuring that a sustainable and scalable system to provide quality education for everyone in India. For more, read Atanu Dey’s series on Doing Education Right.
Second, we need to build hundreds of new cities to house the hundreds of millions of people who we need to get out from the villages. Our current cities are bursting at the seams. Creating urban slums in not the answer. We need 600 new cities of a million each or 6,000 towns of 100,000 each – or a mix of both. But there is no way we can provide any reasonable future to pockets of 1,000 people living in 600,000 villages. In other words, India cannot afford its villages – and needs to urbanise fast. Else, the demographic dividend will turn out to a big nightmare. Creating these new cities right – in a clean, green, and self-sustainable way – is what I’d like to see us do. For more, read Atanu Dey’s series on Creating India’s New Cities.
Finally, I want to create a Santa Fe-like institution in India. It should be a place where multi-disciplinary thinking is the norm. It should be a magnet for smart people to spend time interacting with the best in different areas so they can forge multiple mental models which can then go out and solve problems right. We go wrong in solutions because we have partial knowledge and so we do not understand the real problem. This leads to what I call brain-dead decisions. An institution like this will ensure that we make the right decisions for the future. It will create a platform for the innovations we will continue to need.
The day after we had sold IndiaWorld for $115 million in November 1999, my wife, Bhavana, told me: “We are custodians of God’s money. If God has given us money at such an early age, there must be something He has in mind for us. We have to utilise this wealth for the greater good.” These are words which have formed the bedrock of my life since then. Till then, I was an entrepreneur trying to prove that I could, even after repeated failures, be successful at least once. Since then, I have come to believe that what good we need to do, we have to do in our present life – while we still have the physical and mental energies.