You’re as much surprised to hear RI director Anirudha Roychowdhury say he loves to “gossip every evening with my friends for nearly an hour,” as much as to see him belting out and jiving to old western songs from the stage at the Lakshya training event in Kolkata. His wife Shipra tells you that a typical Bengali, he loves his rice and fish, and has made it his staple diet.
I sit down with him and Shipra in Chennai for a chat, and he candidly shares his views on the several challenges before Rotary, his priorities as director and resolve to do “all I can to attract more women members to Rotary in India. I will also strive to see how we can provide them leadership opportunities.”
Rotary can’t be seen any longer as a small-time service provider. We must be seen as nation builders working for the development and progress of India in collaboration with the government.
Anirudha’s father was a meteorological officer working for GoI, “and since he had a transferrable job, we lived in different and far-flung places. So from a very early stage in life, I was exposed to so many different cultures, regions, people, sometimes in godforsaken places! We have experienced severe tornadoes and that left an imprint of nature’s fury on my mind.”
He did his pre-engineering from Chandigarh, and as he was a good football player, he played football all over Punjab for his university. No prizes for guessing that his favourite football player is Lionel Messi. Later he graduated in electrical engineering from Kolkata.
On his early career, and how he joined Rotary, Anirudha says,“I come from a very middle class family and traditionally we Bengalis mostly have the notion that we should be in service, some kind of a secure job and not business. And at that time a bank job was regarded the most desired one.” After graduating in electrical engineering, he joined EID Parry, worked in Bengaluru for some time and then returned to Kolkata in 1980.
“But the spirit of entrepreneurship was within me… and I wanted to do some venture or the other.” One of his seniors from college, who was working with the Bengal Chamber of Commerce as the chief economist, gave him the idea “why don’t you do film processing? The new format of 16mm and 35mm had then come in.” The Janata government was in power and Kolkata was poised to be one of the centres for the processing of 16mm films, with 35mm films going to Chennai and Mumbai.
“I went in for 16mm film processing. But then the government, policy and technology changed; the 16mm film was gone and videography came in.” He had to change track and he shifted to processing and printing, but as a first-generation entrepreneur, he faced multiple challenges, including that of finance. However, the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation supported his business. “I started my enterprise; my brand is Zoom 16, as I had started with 16mm films,” he smiles.
Around this time, he was invited to join Rotary but being busy with his business, he didn’t act on it. “But then one of my colleagues insisted that people like you should join Rotary, so in 1994, I joined RC Calcutta Metro City as a charter member.
It took him another three years to really get engaged in Rotary activities. “Around that time Shekhar (Mehta) was nominated governor and he coaxed me to join his core team. As I was in the printing business, he made me co-chairman of his publications committee.”
Having tasted a leadership role, and succeeding in it, Anirudha went on to become club president in 2000–01, and district governor in 2007–08.
Asked about the highlights of his year as governor, he says that was the last year the district remained unified as RID 3290; it included nine revenue districts of West Bengal, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Nepal. The next year it was bifurcated into 3291 and 3292. “It was a huge district with 187 clubs and my objective was two-fold; visit and meet the members of each and every club in India and Nepal. I decided to spend three weeks in India and the fourth was dedicated to Nepal because Nepal was on the verge of going separate and I had to give them a lot of support to become an independent district,” he says.
Was becoming an RI director on his horizon at some point of time, I ask him. “Not at all. Becoming a director has never been on my radar. Every time Shekhar and others discussed the possibility, I always said ‘no, no’. I thought my age is catching up and extensive touring will be required, so it might not be the right fit for me. I might not be able to do justice to it. Because everything I undertake, it has to be done perfectly till the finish.”
But then several friends in Rotary pushed him, saying that since he had undertaken so many different roles, he should try for this position.
Priorities as director
Anirudha says his first priority as director will be to see that “Rotary should become free of all the negative things which are happening in India. It is doing extremely well in all aspects of Rotary. But this is spoiling our name.”
Prompted to define the negatives, he says, “Election complaints; any small matter is exaggerated and blown out of proportion and people are sending mails to the RI president, and creating a ruckus. By doing so, they are spoiling our good name, and the great work and service projects we do. Everything can be settled at so many levels, clubs, districts etc,… I have to work on this. Right now, directors Venky and Mahesh are dealing with this, and I am silently watching.”
He says that more than the club level, these disputes are taking place at the district level. “And it is all because of elections and positions. Human psychology is such that if I have become a successful leader, then I can continue to hold on to that power. So once the governorship goes, the person feels lost, and is reluctant to give up power.” But the structure and rules of Rotary are such that once your term is over, you have to step back and allow new people to take over.”
Is he referring to PDGs? “Of course, PDGs! I have seen PDGs, who behave in a diabolic manner which should not happen in a forum like Rotary. We have to sort it out.”
Focus on projects
The director will also ask the clubs to concentrate on projects. “I’ve always been a project-centric person, so I will try to escalate service projects. I will tell our club and district leaders to take up big projects. If you do good projects money will not be a problem; it will come from all sources, and new resources will open up.”
He adds that the Indian economy is thriving and many companies are interested in doing work for the community. “People’s psyche is slowly changing, they are becoming more philanthropic; if you ask for money for good work, it comes in,” he says.
But while CSR funds are available for community welfare projects, “we have to organise our clubs. Many clubs are not organised, their balance sheets are not proper. Today, for any CSR work, you have to give your annual report, so your records should be straight, you should be a registered body at the appropriate forum, a non-registered entity will not be entertained by corporates, as in all the banks KYC has become mandatory.”
I shall be working hard to bring in not only more women members, but also give them leadership opportunities.
Coming to the areas where Rotarians in India need to work more, Anirudha says that in basic literacy and education we have done well, but we have to do much more work in the area of water. He is a member of ESRAG (Environmental Sustainability Rotary Action Group), and will be concentrating on projects focused on the environment. “This is a vital area today and one where you can keep your entire club engaged. Participation and engagement of members are very vital for Rotary. This is not happening and people leave because they don’t get any opportunities to do good work. In environment, there is so much you can do.”
He gives the example of a small tree plantation drive; every member of a small club with just 30 members can plant one tree every month and look after it. In a year they would have planted 360 trees; something that will give the members “a tremendous sense of having done something good.”.
Rotary in India
Coming to Rotary in India, he says, “There are so many positives here; the biggest is our enormous human resources and the huge talent pool we have. But the real potential of this huge talent pool is yet to be realised. In this area, we have only touched the tip of the iceberg. If we can really tap this massive resource, Rotary in India will blossom to its full potential.”
Many clubs are not organised, their balance sheets are not proper. For any CSR work, you have to give your annual report, so your records should be straight and you should be a registered body.
He points out that Rotary has grown so much as an organisation that today it “can be a very effective partner to any government — state or at the centre. Rotary can’t be seen any longer as a small-time service provider. We must be seen as nation builders working for the development and progress of India, in collaboration with the government.”
At RI too, maintains Anirudha, India is looked upon with respect. He gives the example of a Board meeting that he had attended in April 2023, where the finalisation of the venue for the 2029 Convention was on the agenda. “I found that the name of New Delhi, which we had proposed, giving all details of a large convention centre coming up in Dwarka, was missing.” He took up the matter and got the assurance that Delhi will feature on the list of possible venues for the 2030 Convention.
“India is doing so well economically, we are the second largest contributor to TRF and No 2 in total membership. We are a huge force, there is no doubt about it. And when small places like Lisbon and Hamburg can have Rotary conventions, why not India,” he asks.
Coming to women’s membership, Anirudha is concerned that in this aspect “things are not satisfactory. Worldwide, women’s membership in Rotary is 23 per cent, but in India, it is only 19 per cent. RI’s target for women members by 2025 is 25 per cent, so we will have to work extensively in this direction and towards this target. I shall be working hard to bring in not only more women members, but also give them leadership opportunities.”
Only the previous day, “at the RI district 3211 PETS, I was so happy to note that Tina Antony had been nominated DGND and will become the first woman governor in that district.”
Another aspect that worries this director is the “tendency to think in Rotary along regional levels. My cardinal principal as director will be to tell everyone to think of the organisation in its entirety.”
Challenges before Rotary
Spelling out the several challenges before Rotary at the moment, Anirudha says the first one is its declining membership, continuity in leadership, adaptability in getting used to new systems which is not happening, regionalisation of which we have been talking for a long time (the RIBI pilot has not worked, he says), and the identification of the next big project after polio.
These were issues that demanded the leadership’s total attention. “Why are we losing membership in the western hemisphere, particularly in the US and European regions?” He believes that’s because these countries eradicated polio many decades ago, and “have no great cause that they can take up or relate to. There is little scope for hands-on work, so the fatigue comes in. RI leadership must have a plan ready on ‘what after polio’. Even while keeping our focus on total eradication of polio, we have to get our next big programme ready.”
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat and special arrangement
At a glance
Music: Sufi music is my favourite; I started really liking it from 2010 onwards. I find the lyrics as well as the tunes have such a soothing effect, as the music transmits the philosophy of life. I also like old film music. I don’t care much for hard rock… I love melody.
Food: Shipra chips in: Homemade food, mostly rice and fish… that is his staple and favourite!
Cooking: I am a big zero there!
Religious: I go to temples but am not dogmatic about religion. I go to temples to offer my prayers and respect; I’m a god-fearing man but there is no rigidity that I have to go to Tirupati for this or some other temple for that.
Reading: Oh, I used to read a lot, particularly before going to sleep. But these days don’t find too much time. When it comes to books, I believe that there is no end to learning and each one of us has infinite potential to learn. I prefer books that deal with self-improvement and technology that changed human life. My favourite author is Jack Welch.
Travel: I don’t have much fascination for foreign places. I believe there are many exotic and historical places in India which can offer a variety of locations. Typically, I like places with serenity and pristine nature, as I live in a concrete jungle. I love Jaipur because of its colour and vibrancy, I find it fascinating. Ooty is another favourite… my grandson was studying in Lawrence School and I love it. (Shipra: We like going to Puri, once a year.)
Relax: By seeing good movies. And also gossiping, at least 45 minutes to one hour with my friends in the evening!
Fitness: I follow a 45-minute fitness regimen daily; mostly yoga and walking and a few other exercises.
Movies: My liking for cinema has changed from decade to decade as I evolved mentally and emotionally. I like short films with a strong message, which are now available on the OTT platform. No action films for me.
Mentor in Rotary: Basically two persons; first one was my trainer Anjan Kumar, he was Shekhar’s trainer too. And PRIP Shekhar Mehta.
Asked about his spouse Shipra’s role in his Rotary journey, RID Anirudha says: “Shipra has always been very quiet and shy, she doesn’t speak much, but she was always behind me, giving quiet but strong support from behind. While I was so busy, she took care of the children and our home. Without her support I would not have been where I am today.”
Shipra adds that she is “proud… very, very proud that he has reached this position of director. I know the next two years will be very challenging for him, but I will be with him. I also know for sure that whatever he does, he always tries to do it perfectly. He plans to the last detail and executes it well.”