NEW DELHI — Billionaire philanthropists Bill Gates and Warren Buffett urged India's tycoons on Thursday to give up some of their newfound wealth to help the country's hundreds of millions of impoverished people.
The pitch was similar to one they gave in September in China, where they had little success in sparking a charitable movement among the country's growing number of first-generation tycoons.
But Gates and Buffett said they were optimistic about their meeting Thursday with about 70 people representing India's most wealthy.
"There was a positive spirit and energy," Gates said of the meeting, where the two Americans discussed what motivated them to give, and listened to Indians exchange ideas on how giving could work best in this vast country where 800 million — three-fourths of the population — live in poverty. He predicted, "there will be more philanthropy."
But he insisted the meeting was meant only to inspire a continuing dialogue in India, and he could not say whether it specifically would lead to new charitable pledges. "Anything these people do will be exactly their choice," the Microsoft Corp. co-founder said.
Corporate foundations have multiplied in India as the economy has barreled ahead with nearly 9 percent growth in recent years, making it the second-fastest-growing major economy after China.
Forbes counted 65 billionaires in India this year. And there were at least 126,700 Indians with at least $1 million in 2009, according to a study by Merrill Lynch and the Capgemini consulting firm.
But charitable giving in India has lagged, with individual and corporate donations making up only 10 percent of giving in 2009, compared with 75 percent in the U.S., according to a Bain & Company study last year. The rest comes from foreign organizations and government.
Gates and Buffett said they expected that to change as Indians started to share ideas for how to spend their wealth to make the biggest impact.
"The people in that room tonight I think even sort of drew strength and conviction in hearing the others talk, so, the number will be going up. I think we hope it goes up in the United States as well," said Buffett, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate.
In the United States, where tax structure encourage giving, Gates and Buffett have helped persuade 59 super-wealthy American families to sign what they call the "giving pledge" to return at least 50 percent of their fortunes to society.
Analysts have suggested the lag between corporate earning and giving in India may come down to the simple fact that the country's wealth is still young. The economic boom began from reforms in the early 1990s, while philanthropy in most countries takes decades to mature.
Gates suggested new money was no obstacle to giving.
"Both here in India and the United States and in other countries, really the biggest givers are those who are receiving first-generation wealth," Gates said.
There are already countless aid and civil society organizations in place, being funded mostly by foreign groups and the government.
And Gates and Buffett seem to be inspiring followers among India's rich — long criticized for shirking responsibility toward the country's struggling masses.
After meeting Buffett this week, Chairman G.M. Rao of GMR infrastructure group pledged $340 million toward education and vocational training, according to the Indian Express. And last year, India's third-richest man, Azim Premji, shifted shares worth nearly $2 billion in his software services giant Wipro Ltd. toward funding education for the poor. It was the country's largest lump-sum donation in modern times.
Premji, who attended the tycoons' meeting Thursday, said it had been "an excellent opportunity for us to discuss the part we can play in contributing to equitable and sustainable development of India," according to a statement released after the event.
India's second-richest man, Mukesh Ambani — known better for building a 27-story home than for his social vision — started a foundation in 2009, and his Reliance Industries pledged to double the foundation's initial $110 million endowment.
This week, Gates and his wife Melinda visited villages undergoing disease vaccination campaigns, while Buffett planted trees and held court with business leaders in Bangalore.
The global Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the biggest health care philanthropies in India, working in partnership with local governments and organizations on campaigns to fight scourges like polio, tuberculosis and infant mortality.
Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, which includes several major U.S. insurers, recently opened an insurance distribution unit based in Bangalore. New customers who bought policies from the Indian business were invited to a reception with Buffett.