Unveiling his Presidential theme for the Rotary year 2021–22 — Serve to Change Lives, at the International Assembly which went virtual this year, RI President Elect Shekhar Mehta urged the incoming governors to make service and membership growth their mantra during the next 17 months. “As we all know, you, the DGEs, are the movers and I am Shekhar. Today is the most important step in your journey of service and leadership. The forthcoming 17 months will be the most amazing and fruitful period of your life. During this period I urge you to dream big, guided by our shared vision for Rotary. Plan your goals and reach them, and inspire your members to plan and reach goals to expand the reach of our organisation by increasing membership and the impact of Rotary by serving the world.”
Saying that they would play a “stellar role” in the coming months, Mehta encouraged them to do bigger and more impactful service projects.
“Membership continues to be our biggest challenge; for the last 17 years we have been at 1.2 million. Together, let’s change that during the next 17 months; you have the opportunity to make the biggest change in Rotary’s history by increasing membership to a level of 1.3 million. What we have not accomplished in the last 17 years, I challenge you to accomplish in 17 months.”
He added that they might say “it’s too big a dream. But then if I ask you to dream big, I have to lead from the front.” Quoting George Bernard Shaw, who said “You see things and ask why; but I dream of things that never were and ask why not.” The dream to grow Rotary’s membership to 1.3 million by July 2022 could be done by asking each Rotarian to bring just one member in 17 months. “To do that you have to lead by example and your presidents have to do the same,” he added.
Rotarians love challenges; a ship is safe in the harbour but that is not what ships are meant for. They need to go out to the high seas.
Mehta then went on to give a personal example of how the Rotary mantra of Service above Self had been etched on his soul… “it has taught me to care for others and share with others and think of others before thinking of myself.” His “Rotary moment” came soon after he had joined his club — RC Calcutta Mahanagar — and was participating in an artificial limbs camp conducted by his club. It involved the distribution of callipers, artificial limbs and hand cycles. Like every member he too was given a responsibility; his was to check if the beneficiary of the hand cycle had enough strength in his hands to operate the tricycle with his upper limbs. The Rotarian had to test the recipient’s strength by asking the latter to pull his hand.
The first recipient came crawling to him as he had no legs, and before Mehta stretched his arm to the beneficiary, “I will be honest, I was thinking about his cleanliness and my health. I did not want to hold his hand, but did it, and kept thinking of myself for the second and third hand I grasped. But after the sixth or seventh set of hands, my empathy for their plight grew. And soon enough, I could feel their pain, their challenges. I was suddenly thinking about them and not myself and it was at that moment that I became from just a member of my Rotary club to a Rotarian.”
As he started participating in more service projects and travelling to rural India, “I understood the true plight of my brethren. They had no toilets in their homes. The water they drank was from the same pond they bathed in. Their school was under the shade of the tree and the only blackboard they had was the wall of their school compound. And the nearest health centre was a few miles away with just basic facilities.”
Through his club, toilets and clean drinking water were given to these villages and the education system bolstered, and world-class health facilities set up “not only in my community or city but the country. Rotary kindled the spark within me to look beyond myself and embrace humanity. Service became a way of life for me and my life’s guiding philosophy became: ‘Service is the rent I pay for the space I occupy on this earth, and I want to be a good tenant of this earth’.”
Added Mehta: “I am sure all of you have found your opportunity to provide eyesight to the blind, food to the hungry and homes to the homeless. This might have been through large or small projects, but more than the size it is the attitude that defines service.” Giving an example from Gandhiji’s life, he said once while travelling on a train one of his slippers fell off and when he quickly threw out his other slipper too, his friend asked him the reason. And the Mahatma said: ‘What good will one slipper do to the person who finds it; so I threw the other.’ This was the definitive attitude to service, he added
Marvelling at the sheer breadth and volume of the work that Rotarians and Rotaractors do across the world, the incoming president said they had built thousands of schools, hundreds of hospitals, provided drinking water to parched villages, given dignity to people by constructing toilets, and given the gift of life to tens of thousands of children by getting their heart surgery done.
“One project in Nepal changes the lives of thousands of people. The family health programme in Africa has served millions of people. A water project in Haiti has changed the lives of over 10 million people. Back home in India, the TEACH programme of literacy and education has impacted the lives of millions of children.”
Saying that today the need of service was even more urgent in our world, he urged the DGEs to lead service projects that have sustained impact, form partnerships and do projects that change lives of people across the country and around the world. “At the end of your term you should feel that because of your leadership and inspiration to Rotarians and Rotaractors, the world has changed for the better because of the service done by them.”
Most important, he urged them to remember, “as we do service for others and change their lives, we change our lives too.”
Summing up the areas the incoming district leaders should focus on, Mehta said these included “ending polio, fighting Covid, working on large impactful projects and increasing our membership to a never-before-1.3 million. The task ahead should excite you. Rotarians love challenges; a ship is safe in the harbour but that is not what ships are meant for. They need to go out to the high seas. The biggest gift we are given is to touch a life and change it, if we can reach out with our hands, hearts and souls, the magic will begin to happen as the wheel begins to turn. Let us join together to move the wheel.”
Special focus on empowering girls
Incoming RI president Shekhar Mehta said that during his year in office, while Rotarians would reach out to all their children and work for better health and nutrition, schools and sanitation, “the focus during 2021–22 will be on empowering girls. One of our core focus areas is diversity, and we will work for equity, inclusion and diversity. It is important that we empower girls because in many parts of the world, the girl child is disadvantaged. We will do service projects for all children, but our focus will be on girls and we will try and mitigate the disadvantage that girls have.”
31 DGEs from India and Nepal get ‘lucky’
The International Assembly, a yearly training event for DGEs, was originally planned in Orlando, Florida, but was held virtually because of the Covid pandemic. But in the Indian capital of Delhi, 31 DGEs had the unique privilege of watching Mehta’s theme address on the big screen, as it was beamed by Rotary International, in the physical presence of both Shekhar and Rashi Mehta, RI directors Bharat Pandya and Kamal Sanghvi, and incoming directors A S Venkatesh and Mahesh Kotbagi.
The flavour of the International Night at the IA was also palpable as the earlier evening, the incoming governors, along with their spouses, dressed in the vibrant colours of Indian traditional wear, marched into the main hall, led by Mehta, Rashi, and other senior Indian leaders and their spouses.
The DGEs were reminded how “lucky” they were to have the incoming president for only 31, whereas at the international platform he would have had to be ‘shared’ by 500-plus DGEs!