The contribution of Parsis to the socio-economic development and welfare of the country is too wide and varied for justice in a short treatise. The Wadias have built schools, colleges and hospitals, the Petits too have built schools, hospitals, sanatoriums and dharamshalas. Whenever and wherever wealth has been generated by Parsis, its judicious use for the weal to humanity has followed close behind. There are important lessons to be drawn from the history of India’s industrial revolution pioneered by Parsis, and the value system they laid down is a beacon of light for generations to come.
Our sagacious ancestors wisely believed that wealth and its acquisition is positive and good, provided it is acquired by righteous means and used for good purposes. They also believed in the trusteeship of wealth – and how injustice could be taken out of wealth if used creatively and for the good of humanity. Fair and ethical business practices also happen to be the hallmark of Parsi business houses. In India, and for that matter, the world, the word ‘Parsi’ is synonymous with charity and enterprise.
The driving force behind a Parsi’s spirit of enterprise and charity is his religious ethos. From a religious point of view, Parsis consider poverty and suffering as an affliction of evil. To remove poverty, want, disease and human suffering is not only a religious duty and part of Parsi culture, but, an act of spiritual merit, depriving ‘evil’ of sustenance.
If Christ asked his followers to love their neighbours, Zarathushtra asked his followers to attain happiness by making others happy. (Yasna 43.1). Many religious traditions, directly or indirectly, have looked down upon wealth and its acquisition. Parsis, on the other hand, consider wealth to be fundamentally positive, provided it is acquired through righteous means and used for righteous purposes.
Jamsetji Tata and his successors firmly believed that one way to take the injustice out of riches is to dedicate riches to the service of the people. The wealth garnered by the House of Tatas established for India, the institution that built the First Atomic Reactor in Asia, the First Cancer Hospital in India, the First Centre for the Performing Arts and the Institute For Fundamental Research.
The patriarch of the Tata family, Jamsetji, lived in an age when philanthropy was its own reward – tax rebate for charitable donations was unknown then. The House of Tatas has also been responsible for creating a new industrial culture in India. At a time when captains of industry in Europe and America were exploiting their workers, Jamsetji thought of their upliftment. He cared to give them filtered water, sanitary hutments, cheap food grains, medical facilities, provident fund and accident insurance. While most captains of industry believed that man is meant to serve industry, Jamsetji believed that industry was meant to serve man. Even today, Tata Steel looks after over 300 villages in the vicinity of Jamshedpur and the far-flung mines of Tata Steel. There are many firsts in labour welfare as far as Tata Steel is concerned. For example, TISCO introduced eight hours of work in 1912 and free medical aid in 1915 which was enforced by law (Factories Act and Employees State Insurance Act) only in 1948. TISCO launched Profit Sharing Bonus in 1934 which was enforced by the Bonus Act only in 1965.
Jamsetji Tata was, no doubt, a visionary and the Father of building a Modern Industrial India. However, the Prince of Philanthropists is, without doubt, the Merchant Prince, Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy – the first Indian Knight and Baronet. The extent of his philanthropy is too vast, wide and varied to be compared with any other philanthropist. His contribution to public works and charities between 1822 – 1859 aggregated Rs.24,59,736/-. It is interesting to note that out of this staggering sum (for that period of time), less than 50% went for the Parsi community. Acts of benevolence were as natural to Jamsetjee as breathing; besides feeding the poor, clothing the needy, sinking wells for the thirsty, he built bridges and causeways to save precious human lives, dharamshalas and shelters for the homeless, shelters for the infirm and forsaken animals and the first hospital for civilians in Bombay – an institution where, even today, the poor and needy are treated totally free or at very nominal rates. At a time when primary education was lacking in India, Jamsetjee gave money to establish a School of Arts. Even today, it is the biggest school of its kind in the East.
Jamsetjee believed that true philanthropy should be aimed at making its recipients self-reliant and self-respecting and capable of earning their way through life by doing an honest day’s work. Educational facilities and employment opportunities would alone ensure this. His major philanthropic works had one aim – to train and equip men and women for life – to help them help themselves. He did build and endow fire temples. But he also built ‘temples of learning’ – schools, seminaries and schools of art.