From Seattle to Kosi, Bill Gates' discovery of India

I had no idea I would be at the Kosi river in Bihar and talking to a woman about names of her seven children, said Bill Gates. In Pics: Bill Gates visits Bihar, adopts village

NEW DELHI: “I was 100% fanatically focused on developing software. I knew I could focus on that (philanthropy) later. But I had no idea I would be at the Kosi river in Bihar and talking to a woman about the names of her seven children.”

That was William Henry “Bill” Gates III — a name that once epitomised brute competition in the dog-eat-dog world of business —speaking to a small group of journalists in New Delhi on Friday, back from a four-day whirlwind tour of villages in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

The steady softening of arguably the world’s most famous nerd and Microsoft’s founder-chairman, a process that today takes him every other month to sub-Saharan Africa and the poorest regions of South Asia, began with a news article.

About a decade ago, Mr Gates and his wife Melinda came across an article about the tragedy of millions of children who die every year from diseases long eliminated in the US.

“We said to ourselves: ‘This can’t be true. But if it is true, it deserves to be the priority of our giving.’ We sent the article to Bill’s father, Bill Gates Sr, with a note attached that said, ‘Dad, maybe we can do something about this.’ And he helped us get started,” goes the Gospel, according to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s richest charity with a corpus of around $33 billion.

India biggest recipient of aid

Today, India is the biggest recipient of the foundation’s aid. And Mr Gates, 54, a permanent name in the world’s rich list for decades and whose personal wealth is estimated at $53 billion by the Forbes magazine, has committed $13.1 billion in grants for public health, including $1 billion for India.

Back in Delhi, after a high-profile tour of the deprived bowels of the country with Rahul Gandhi, Mr Gates obliged waiting shutterbugs with more pictures with his last travel companion. But, the tour and photo op over, he got down to business.

He has already held discussions with Indian vaccine makers to develop rotavirus vaccines at low prices in high volumes. Used to prevent diarrhoea in children, the vaccine is a monopoly of two drugmakers globally today.

Mr Gates said his foundation would focus on existing disease and healthcare concerns — women and child care, vaccination, eradication of polio, pneumonia, diarrhoea and tuberculosis.

The foundation has committed more than $700 million in funds on polio eradication programmes globally. Although India is among the only four countries, besides Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan, where the disease is endemic, Mr Gates praised India’s initiative to eradicate polio.


“The execution is very good. The Prime Minister was himself aware of the status,” he said, adding that while 2010 has been a good year so far, the next nine months were going to be key in the fight against polio. The foundation has initiated a new programme in 107 blocks in western Uttar Pradesh and some parts of Bihar where the disease is still prevalent.

A regular visitor to India, Mr Gates plans to visit the country again next year and mostly has nice things to say about Indian health policies. But he is not blindly in sync with it.

On the government’s recent decision to stop clinical trials of cervical cancer vaccines in India after reports of violation of ethical guidelines and exploitation of girls during the clinical trials, Mr Gates had a divergent view, saying he supports use of vaccines to prevent cervical cancer.

Philanthropy in the Gates household is mostly practised by Mr Gates and his wife, but the couple make it a point to sensitise their three children about it too. Mr Gates says they regularly share experiences about trips to India and other countries with the children He intends to take his three children to Africa next year.
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