Subroto Bagchi has always believed in breaking new ground and exploring new ideas. Keeping in line with this worldview, the Mindtree co-founder had quit his highly rewarding job at the tech major and opted to become the Chairperson of Odisha Skill Development Corporation (OSDC) on a princely salary of Rs 1 per month at the invitation of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik in 2016. By all accounts, skilling has reached new heights in Odisha during the five years he has been in charge. When Covid-19 started spreading its tentacles in the state in March, 2020, he was appointed as the state government’s spokesperson on the pandemic. With his panache and enviable articulation, he successfully tackled this new challenge, as well.
And now, Odisha is raising a toast to him after he pledged Rs 340 crores for setting up a cancer and palliative care centre in Bhubaneswar. In a state, where there are not many examples of such acts of philanthropy in the modern era, this was something unthinkable and compliments haven’t stopped pouring in since the decision was announced by the state government on Monday.
In an interview with Outlook’s Sandeep Sahu, Bagchi talks about the motivation and inspiration for this extraordinary act of philanthropy and his dream for Odisha. Excerpts:
Q) When did you first consider the idea of setting up a cancer care centre in Odisha? Who did you discuss this idea with, before deciding to go ahead?
A decade ago, we had a family meeting, when Susmita, me and our two daughters, when we discussed how we will handle our money. At the time, we decided two things-- one, that our savings will not be inherited by the family, except for a small portion and that most of it would be used to serve humanity. We did not fix the amount then, but the idea was agreed upon.
We saw ourselves as the custodians of our wealth and not its owners. During this journey, we have been deeply impressed by people like Nandan and Rohini Nilekani and of course Azim Premji. Looking at their philanthropic initiatives, we made a template for ourselves. They taught us that to address massive problems we need to act boldly and immediately.
Q) Do you plan on setting up similar cancer care centres in other cities or do you intend to solely focus on Odisha?
We gifted a million dollars to University of Florida, a long time back. This was to say ‘thank you’ for hosting Mindtree in their campus. We have been deeply involved with Aravind Eye Hospital. We have engaged with Amrita University and Ahmadabad University to institute Chairs in public health. We have been grateful for the opportunity to engage with Karunashraya for their expansion in Bengaluru. We lent similar support to many others institutions, as well.
But after we moved to Odisha to work full-time with the state government in 2016 at the invitation of Shri Naveen Patnaik, we realised most of the wealth must be channelled in one place, to make a big difference. We come from this land, so, much of our burden must be offloaded right here so that we can travel light into the future.
Q) Were you aware that you are doing something that not many people have done in recent times, at least in Odisha?
It does not matter to us as to who has done what. It is vain and arrogant to think of it. Each one of us has an altruistic side. In one way or the other, everyone wants to give back. Many people, particularly the young, are engaged in philanthropy. Some of us are lucky to get an opportunity to play a bigger role on a larger platform. We must do what we can and not indulge in comparison. We must have deep humility, before we begin such initiatives and know that there were problems before us and there will be problems after us. If I pause and look around it becomes evident that I walk in the shadow of giants.
Q) Why cancer care? After all, Odisha is not a high incidence state when it comes to cancer, is it?
The issue is that Odisha’s caseload, like anywhere else in India, is grossly underreported. We have, officially, 120,000 patients under treatment right here and every year, 60,000 new cases get reported. In global comparison, that is quite large. The other aspect is the low infrastructural preparedness to deal with the disease. The number of doctors, nurses, paramedics, counsellors we need is far less than required. Then there is the devastating consequence of cancer as a non-communicable disease. It destroys people at a physical, emotional and economic level. The impact is multi-generational. Even a simple cancer could mean 2.5 lakhs in treatment cost. For the poor, it means wiping off life savings. If we talk about a bone marrow transplant, it could be 20-25 lakhs. Thus, it may or may not be high incidence as far as Odisha goes, but it is a high-impact disease. Finally, we must deal with it even before it silently shows up. We need advocacy, outreach, early diagnosis so that it does not debilitate us.
Q) Why Bhubaneswar? Would Bargarh, which reports the maximum number of cancer cases in the state, not have been a more appropriate venue?
Let us make a beginning somewhere. When like minded people will see the model working, we hope others will come forward, they will build new alliances and create many bigger, better set-ups by combining philanthropic capital, collaboration with great institutions and the government. Meanwhile, we must start somewhere. We are here to create the template. Let this be multiplied in other places and not stay limited to cancer. Let each one who have the means, look for a large societal issue in different parts of the country, invoke the power of institutional, multi-lateral collaboration and make a difference.
Q) Why don't we see more such acts of philanthropy in Odisha? Is it because there are not enough people with money to spare for such causes or are there some other socio-cultural factors at work here?
Susmita and I work on what we think best, what we can do best. It is not for us to judge others. We are not here to pause and reflect. We are here to do and move on.
Q) Any other plans for Odisha in future?
Odisha will be 100 years old as a state in 2036. My dream is to see 100 great ideas worth pursuing to make it a state of pre-eminence in the larger, global canvas. I started with skill development and Susmita engaged with government schools and now, oncology. Who knows what is the play of adjacency? Sometimes, you must keep the window ajar so that providence can tip-toe in. We believe in the power of providence. We are keeping the window open.
Q) Where do you see Odisha 10-15 years from now? Do you think it would shed its image as one of the poorest states in India by then?
We are not one of the poorest states. Economic indices are not enough to judge a people. Odisha is among the country’s most civilised states. We are one of the last bastions of humanity. Come to Odisha once and you will know how rich the land is, how big-hearted her people are. Odisha is a land whose time has come.
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