Not all Rotarians in India would be aware that one of their biggest triumphs — winning the battle against polio — began in a major way in India with the vintage and prestigious Rotary Club of Madras in 1989. This happened when the then RI President Hugh Archer said “we’ll give you $4.6 million for polio immunisation for five years,” recalls S L Chitale, who completed 50 years in his Rotary journey this July.
As a cub reporter in The Indian Express who regularly covered the immunisation work done by RC Madras in the late 1970s, I recall the
impeccably dressed gentleman in white who passed on his infectious enthusiasm and passion for protecting children against debilitating diseases and getting good coverage of this Rotary programme in Madras.
Recalling that journey with stars in his eyes while seated at his office Chitale and Sons, an architectural firm started
by his father in 1932, he explains the background of their initial work that got the eye and confidence of the RI President.
Chitale’s Rotary journey started in 1965 — earlier he was a Round Tabler — when he joined RC Madras. In 1979, the golden jubilee of the club, its president “V Chidambaram said let’s do a big project which will be remembered for a long time.” It also being the International Year of the Child, they zeroed in on vaccination for measles, then the biggest killer of children.
The Club struck a collaboration with RC Whitby of Canada, which agreed to gift
the Indian Rotarians 65,000 doses “which were sufficient for only Nungambakkam or Mylapore, and not Madras,” smiles Chitale. But this partnership gave RC Madras its biggest benefactor and Chitale, a dear and lifelong friend in Ken Hobbs, who came down as a volunteer and got so hooked to the Madras Rotarians and the immunisation project that he would later come down every year
with his wife for the next 30 years. With CMC Vellore’s eminent microbiologist and past president of RC Madras, Dr Jacob John, too being part of the team, measles immunisation work was in full swing.
“We partnered with RI, Ken Hobbs worked very hard for us from Canada and eventually the vaccination warriors of Madras managed to get 5.2 million doses of the measles vaccine. The number swelled due to
these dedicated Rotarians’ efforts, but the next big hurdle was “how to bring the vaccines here, who would pay the Customs and other duties and where to store them … we couldn’t keep them in our drawing rooms!”
After a flurry of activity by the Rotarians, meetings with officials, they got all duties waived. “We could convince government officials that we were only helping them in their work in child health.” The vaccine, to be stored at minus 8 deg C was transported by Air India from New York to Madras.
Government support vital
“For five years; AI flew free of cost 650,000 doses every six months. And we got the King’s Institute to store the vaccine for us. I kept telling my fellow Rotarians that if you want to do a project of this magnitude, you need government support and you should make it your partner, because it has all the infrastructure and facilities; we can only throw in a few inputs.”
Well, Chitale is modest; what the Rotarians did was much more than contributing a “few inputs.” They shored up the cold chain required to store the vaccine doses at the requisite temperatures by spending Rs 40 lakh … a huge sum 35 years ago. “Otherwise we would have been administering the children only distilled water,” he says.
Slowly, the measles immunisation programme grew from a single club to a district (then 323, the 0 was added later to make it 3230) project and that too over five long years. Chitale gives credit for the success of measles vaccination to the team who “did an excellent job … Jacob John, Venkat Subbiah, PDG Purushottaman from Salem, Vishwanatha Reddy, Saravanan, R K Swamy.
Meanwhile, much earlier and in 1979, RI had begun its polio vaccination initiative with Philippines. “While there it remained more of a government project, Indian Rotarians got wholeheartedly involved in polio immunisation and Tamil Nadu was the first State in India to be declared polio-free,” says Chitale proudly.
He recalls that though the Rotarians’ job was to make available polio and the government staff administered polio drops in hospitals, “wherever there was some deficiency and our services were required, we pitched in. We also conducted camps to administer the vaccine.”
The Ken Hobbs magic
Chitale cannot thank enough the interest, passion and hard work done by PDG Ken Hobbs in making such a huge success of their immunisation programmes. “He was a wonderful man and came here every year, at his own expense, for 30 years, all the way from Toronto. Much later, in 2002, when he got the Order of Canada, “which is like our Bharat Ratna,” responding to Chitale’s congratulatory note, Hobbs replied: “You were the catalyst that made it happen, without you it would never have happened. I feel so fortunate to have you as a trusted friend for the last 23 years.” Hobbs passed away in 2010.
Childs Trust Hospital
For the Childs Trust Hospital in Chennai, a private and prestigious children’s hospital Chitale helped set up along with his close friend and eminent paediatric surgeon Dr M S Ramakrishnan, Hobbs helped raise a total of $700,000. “That was the kind of wonderful and generous friend he was,” adds Chitale.
His close involvement in the immunisation programmes for children and the hospital, says Chitale, was related to his difficult childhood. “I lost my mother when I was only 8, had no siblings, and always wanted to do something for children.”
Though he grew up in Chennai, his forefathers came from Maharashtra and “were all temple priests. Even in Round Table I worked for the Pallipattu (S S) Boys Home, and I carried this passion into Rotary.” With Dr MSR he started Childs Trust, because Madras then had only one children’s hospital — the Government Institute for Child Health. “And if doctors have to look at some 2,000 to 3,000 children a day, what attention will they be able to give to the patients? MSR did the medical portion and I did the building and publicity.”
So why did such a premier and vintage club such as RC Madras, one of the oldest and founded in 1929, lose the importance and halo it once had, I quiz him.
“Well, we’ve returned centre stage with the polio flame,” he replies quietly.
On what he enjoyed most about being in Rotary, Chitale says it was forming a team and forging great friendships. “Ken Hobbs became such a dear friend, the way his and my chemistry worked was amazing. But for Rotary I wouldn’t have even met him.”
On what has changed in Rotary over half a century, Chitale muses for a moment and says, “I think the involvement, friendships and participation were much greater in those days. In any project that Rotary did, we became personally and passionately involved. I am afraid today it is more chequebook charity, and not so much personal involvement. It’s like I sign a few cheques and have made my contribution. But in those days, when we would ourselves go to camps with our ladies and do all the work … taking down names, maintaining records …”
Today much more money is available in India with Rotarians and others for charity; how did they manage in those days where financial resources were lower, but travel and other expenses had to be borne?
“Oh, where was the money for all that? We used our own funds. The money that came … the $4.6 million we got from RI had to be used only for vaccines … and the cold chain.”
As for professional work suffering, he says they were too professional to neglect their clients. “Simple, we worked overtime, to accommodate both.”
To get an idea of the brilliant architect he is, let us go back to the auditorium he constructed for the Venkateswara University 40 years ago. Chitale joined the J J School of Architecture in Bombay in 1947; “there were only two such schools in India then, now we have 400–500!”
After graduating, he joined his father’s firm that has completed 84 years. On his table lies a recent issue of RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) magazine, with the cover picture of a prize winning shell-like building. A smiling Chitale points to the picture of a strikingly similar building pinned on his drawing board behind the table. “I designed and built such a structure 40 years ago. And I sent them a picture of it, saying so, but there is no reply!”
That building was an auditorium built for the Sri Venkateswara University. “The VC, Dr D Jagannatha Reddy was a very forward looking man and wanted something really good, not an ordinary structure where you just put a false ceiling and call it an auditorium. So I created this unique concept; that of a saddle-back shell made of concrete which is 160 ft long and can seat 1,500 students, and is 1.5 inches thick, otherwise it will become too heavy as the whole thing is made of concrete.”
As he traverses his professional and Rotary journey, Chitale can look back with satisfaction on his work … measles and polio immunisation; Childs Trust Hospital, renovation of 36 temple tanks in Chennai, rainwater harvesting 20–25 years ago, work for the Worth Trust in Vellore for handicapped children. In June 1992, when Rajendra K Saboo was the RI President, Chitale was among the first 50 in the world to be given the RI Service above Self award.
So what has Rotary taught him and what advice would this vintage Rotarian give to his younger colleagues?
“That you should devote time, think your project through carefully, give it your full attention. Person-to- person contact is the most important; I don’t believe in this chequebook charity concept at all. Only when you get fully involved, your project will benefit people. Most important of all, work always as a team. No single man should say … I did it!”
Also, he adds, his team was lucky to have Dr H V Hande as Health Minister and Dr Kapali as the Director of Public health and they understood the importance and value of Rotarians’ work. But he cautions that vigilance on polio immunisation has to continue. “There is danger of polio coming back; measles has come back because we stopped; it was sad to see it return after we had worked so hard. So we have to be vigilant on polio.”