Azim Premji is the chairman of Wipro Ltd, the seventh largest IT company in the world and one of the largest publicly-traded companies in India. He is also a passionate philanthropist who has spent decades working to alleviate poverty and inequality. Since 2001, he has done this through the Azim Premji Foundation, which works at primary school level to test new approaches in education with the potential for systemic change, and the Azim Premji University, which offers programmes to develop education and development professionals, and also invest in educational research.
Q. How did your philanthropic journey begin?
I became responsible for Wipro in the late 1960s, and for more than three decades I dedicated myself almost completely to building the business. During this time I travelled extensively within India, and this gave me a first-hand view of the two extremes that had emerged in our country: rapid development and opportunities making people unimaginably prosperous, even as sections of society continued to be steeped in poverty and want.
I saw that many of those who remained in poverty lacked some of the basic amenities that any human being should have. It felt unfair and wrong: a society must take care of everyone, and those who are well off have a responsibility to do their bit to ensure that everyone’s basic human needs are met, and that opportunities are created for everyone to develop and grow.
So I had a very simple idea when I started: what could I do to contribute to a better India? To me, it meant that we must focus on the most disadvantaged and underprivileged.
Q. Why did public education become your priority?
The only way that you can hope to make a difference is to focus on a specific social issue. For me, education stood out as the key process and building block of a good society. Its importance goes far beyond the economic opportunity it offers: it has a vital role in empowering individuals and societies alike – socially, economically and politically.
If we really wanted to build a just, humane and equitable society – as envisaged in India’s constitution – then education would be the transformative force, and because children from the most disadvantaged families go to government-run schools, we knew that we had to work with the public system.
Q. How has the foundation engaged with capacity building?
Today we work in eight states, which have about 350,000 schools, although of course we should remember that India has 1.5 million schools. Our foundation works very closely with all levels of the public education system – at the operational level in districts, blocks and clusters; at the level of institutions that support the operations; and at the policy level.
We also work on all dimensions of the system, from capacity building among teachers and headteachers, to curriculum development, and assessment reform.
Q. What do you hope will be the impact of your giving?
As well as visiting schools in the field, I also regularly interact with students at the Azim Premji University. These are remarkable people who could have had very lucrative careers but have committed themselves to working in education, with all its complexities. There is meaning and purpose there, not financial reward or glamour, and I am very proud we have been instrumental in getting talented and committed people to work in the sector.
We hope one day to see an outstanding public education system in the country. When I say ‘we’, I don’t just mean our foundation, but all our partners and the government working together. We have to remember that social issues are complex and take a long time to change, and so we don’t expect to achieve what we set out for in five or 10 years – we know it is going to take decades.