A journey in philanthropy

PRIP Rajendra Saboo helps Rajashree Birla, chairperson, Aditya Birla Centre for Community Initiatives and Rural Development, administer polio drop to a child during an NID. Binota, wife of PRIP Kalyan Banerjee, is seen behind Rajashree Birla.
PRIP Rajendra Saboo helps Rajashree Birla, chairperson, Aditya Birla Centre for Community Initiatives and Rural Development, administer polio drop to a child during an NID. Binota, wife of
PRIP Kalyan Banerjee, is seen behind Rajashree Birla.

My journey as a Rotarian has been influenced by many people. Some gave me sage counsel, others helped with generous donations. When I look back at over eight decades of my life, I cannot help but notice how Birlapur, the place of my birth, continued to play a vital role in my life even as my work took me first to Calcutta and then to ­Chandigarh, my karam bhoomi.

I had the privilege of sharing a close and ­meaningful relationship with G D Birla, a renowned industrialist and freedom fighter. Being born in ­Birlapur and with my father’s position in Birla Jute Mills, I had the opportunity to connect with the Birla family. It was during my time at ­Hindustan Motors in Calcutta that I first met B M Birla, the youngest among the Birla brothers, who imparted invaluable knowledge of an innovative accounting system.

As I embarked on my entrepreneurial journey, I returned to Hind Motors and collaborated with Indian card yarn manufacturing. During this period, I had the pleasure of playing cricket with both Aditya Vikram Birla and Sudarshan Birla in Birla Park. The camaraderie we shared strengthened our bond as friends.


From Pilani and Calcutta to Chandigarh: A life of work and social service

Under G D Birla’s guidance, my father initiated the establishment of Hindustan Aluminium Ltd in Renukoot, UP, with Mandelia serving as the overall executive.

In 1960, when I established the needle factory, GrozBeckert Saboo, in Chandigarh, fate presented me with an extraordinary encounter. G D Birla himself visited the ­factory, accompanied by my ­father-in-law, Mandelia, and my father, Saboo. G D Birla showed a genuine interest in my endeavours beyond the Chandigarh factory. When I mentioned my involvement in Rotary, he candidly expressed his belief that I was wasting my time. However, his perspective changed when I informed him later of my appointment as a Rotary International Director, and he encouraged me to aim for the top.

The late G D Birla, inspired by Mahatma ­Gandhi’s concept of trusteeship, embraced a philosophy that extended beyond business profits. The Birla Group’s purpose was to develop untapped resources, promote education and contribute to building a new, independent India. As part of this commitment, a portion of the group’s profits was consistently reinvested in meaningful welfare activities for the betterment of society.

Rajashree Birla speaking at a meeting in the presence of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and PRIP Saboo.
Rajashree Birla speaking at a meeting in the presence of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and PRIP Saboo.

During my tenure as Rotary International President in 1991–92, I had the privilege of meeting Aditya Birla and his wife, Rajashree Birla, who continued to uphold the family’s philanthropic tradition. In 2008, she visited Chicago and donated $300,000 to The Rotary Foundation for educational initiatives. Following this, I requested her to consider a $1 million donation in memory of G D Birla for polio eradication, a cause she readily supported.

The announcement of Rajashree’s donation took place during a Rotary event at the headquarters in ­Evanston, with prominent Rotary leaders in attendance. The following day, a gala dinner was organised to honour her, where several Rotary leaders and distinguished guests gathered. The event symbolised the convergence of Rotary’s service ideals and the Birla family’s commitment to social welfare.

Rajashree’s dedication to social work extended beyond monetary contributions. She established the Aditya Birla Memorial Hospital in Pune, providing essential healthcare services and contributing to the well-being of the community. ­Additionally, her involvement in ­healthcare initiatives, such as conducting medical camps and administering polio vaccines, showcased her personal ­engagement and commitment to improving lives.

Through her actions, she exemplified the core values of Rotary — service above self and dedication to humanitarian causes. Her visits to slums in Mumbai, personally administering polio drops to children, highlighted the transformative power of individual efforts in addressing societal challenges.

Rajashree has been recognised for her exceptional contributions and tireless efforts to make a positive impact globally. She has been a leading figure in the fight against polio, donating a staggering total of $15 million towards eradication efforts. Starting with an annual contribution of $1 million, she continued her support even after India was declared polio-free in 2014, pledging to donate until the world is free from this disease.

As the chairperson of the Aditya Birla Centre for Community Initiatives and Rural Development (ABCCIR), she oversees numerous charity and community initiatives focused on education, employment, drinking water, ­women’s empowerment, and assistance to the rural poor and physically disabled. Through ABCCIR, she has made a significant impact, assisting around 7 million people across 3,000 villages worldwide, with notable presence in ­Thailand and Egypt. The organisation supports schools, hospitals, and provides education to thousands of students.

Rajashree’s philanthropic endeavours extend beyond polio eradication. She actively collaborates with organisations like Population First to combat female foeticide and works closely with Habitat for Humanity, serving on their Asia Pacific and Global committees. She also advocates for widow remarriage, challenging societal taboos in many Indian villages.

First published in The Indian Express.

The writer is a past president of Rotary International


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