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Azim Premji Foundation enters healthcare

More than two decades after setting up Azim Premji Foundation to improve teaching in government schools, the country’s most generous billionaire has turned his attention to healthcare for the poor.

The foundation will soon set up primary healthcare clinics in some of India’s most backward towns, which will be followed by multi-specialty hospitals and a medical university, two executives aware of the development said.

This decision to make healthcare its second focus area marks the biggest change in the history of the foundation, which was set up in 2001.

“We have done significant work on health during the pandemic, and this will be a key area of work for us going forward,” said Anurag Behar, chief executive officer, Azim Premji Foundation, in an email response. “Our focus will be on improving the health of underserved communities across geographies. Health is a public good and, therefore, strengthening public health systems will be central to our approach. In addition, where there are gaps, we will address those, both by establishing our institutions and by working with civil society organizations. Health education and research will also emerge as critical areas of work”

The foundation is the world’s fifth-largest private endowment with a $38 billion corpus.

“Primary healthcare centres will be the starting point,” one of the two executives said on condition of anonymity. “Like education, these will come up in small towns. The plan is then (in 2-3 years) to have hospitals and then a medical university.”

“In five years, (the foundation’s) spending on healthcare will be no less than on education. The foundation is not limited by money,” the executive said.

For now, healthcare work is overseen by Anand Swaminathan and run by Azim Premji Foundation for Development (APFD), an operating entity housing Azim Premji Foundation and Azim Premji University.

Azim Premji Trust is the entity that holds the endowment assets, comprising 67% of Wipro shares and ownership of Premji’s family office, Premji Invest.

The two beneficiaries of Azim Premji Trust are the grant-making arm Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives and APFD.

APF’s decision to enter healthcare was taken after multiple discussions over close to 18 months, the two executives said. Television visuals of stranded migrants returning home by foot over hundreds of miles after the first lockdowns in the summer of 2020 made Behar, along with Dileep Ranjekar, decide to spend over ₹1,100 crore in the fight against the pandemic. Wipro chairman Rishad Premji then got the IT giant to convert one of its IT facilities in Pune into a 450-bed intermediary care Covid-19 hospital before giving it to the state government to manage.

But the pandemic laid bare the lacunae in healthcare, which made Premji deliberate on the foundation’s entry into the sector with half a dozen of his trusted lieutenants.

Finally, late last year, APFD agreed to make a change in its constitution.

“It is proposed to amend the objects of the memorandum of association of the company to broad-base the objects clause to include education at all levels, work in healthcare and other humanitarian relief activities and also to include the objects incidentals or ancillary to the attainment of the main objects/matters which are necessary for the furtherance of the objects in main objects,” read a filing made by APFD to the ministry of corporate affairs in November last year.

“The foundation’s vision is to contribute towards a just, equitable, humane and sustainable society,” said Behar. “While strengthening public education has been our core focus, over the years, we have been working on diverse issues of human development that affect India’s most vulnerable communities, including marginal farmers, Adivasis, people with disability, children in need of care, issues of gender justice, and urban destitution, to name a few. We do this through our operations, partners, and programmes at our university.”

But the biggest adversary for Premji is his age. At 77, his oversight of the foundation to make a meaningful impact in both education and healthcare will not be easy.

Last week, Premji made a rare public appearance at an event to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Karnataka Employers’ Association in a five-star hotel in the central business district of the city. As he took the stage, Premji was visibly in discomfort from what appeared to be a stiff back and neck—he is recovering from a three-year-old injury to his head after he fell in a ditch while on a walk in the forests in Yercaud, a hill station in Tamil Nadu.

However, Premji remains much loved and revered by people. At the end of the two-and-a-hour event, as Premji slowly and carefully walked out of the hall – without any minders or security personnel – he was approached by many for selfies. When a young girl approached for a snap, Premji’s face lit up spontaneously, and he posed for a photo with a smile.

It is to these hundreds of thousands of young in the country that the Azim Premji Foundation wants to offer better healthcare and education.

Premji, who has donated about 92% of his wealth to the eponymous foundation, declined to speak. LiveMint

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