When a Rotarian donates a whopping sum of ₹100 crore or $14.7 million to The Rotary Foundation, the first question you ask him is how and when the idea was planted in his head. D Ravishankar, President, Rotary Club of Bangalore Orchards, D 3190, travels back over five decades to answer it. An important takeaway from his days as a young boy in a government school — a private school was beyond his reach — was the refrain by a senior teacher who’d say: “You should give till it hurts, because till then you are sharing your comfort, not everything that you have.”
While relating this, Ravishankar pauses, and says softly: “I think 90 per cent of the people didn’t like what I did, because I pricked their conscience. Anyway, I believe that beyond a point what you keep turns into poison… poison not for yourself, but your kids and their future.”
With a chuckle he adds that when a friend, who is an income tax commissioner asked him “why I gave away so much money, I asked him how much money a prominent politician took after passing away. If you can tell me, I’d like to store my money in that place.” His philosophy is simple: if you leave more than necessary money for your children, you’ll spoil them. “Whereas on the other side, it is required so badly; people are dying of hunger and are deprived of so many things. I believe whatever money I have belongs to society. I am just a custodian for a short while; I didn’t bring it with me nor can take it with me.”
I am only a co-worker; every Rotary club member is a leader. I can’t lead leaders, I can only work with them.
On this magnanimous gesture which was announced by Ravishankar at the installation of Suresh Hari as District Governor, the DG says, “Ravi is a wonderful soul and over the last two years specially he has evolved into a different kind of person.”
He adds that discussions with him had started about a year ago, while meeting the Presidents-elect of his district. In further meetings Ravishankar discussed his plans for a microcredit programme, building a Peace Tower at the Wagah border, an old-age home and a Rotary Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution in this part of the world. “And then he threw a shocker at me by saying he wanted to allocate ₹100 crore for his chosen projects during 2018–19. I convinced him to give to our Foundation which could initiate work on his pet projects.”
Congratulating Ravishankar for his generosity and setting a great example, RI Director C Basker quoted a verse from the Gita, which says, “A gift is pure when it is given from the heart to the right person at the right time and at the right place, and when we expect nothing in return.” The reality of our world was that while “in many countries there are masses who don’t even have access to basic day-to-day requirements, others have so much in excess, that if their wealth is shared, it would solve many problems related to health, hunger and conflicts in most communities all over the world.”
To understand Ravishankar’s philosophy of giving, stated simply, starkly and without much fuss, let’s travel back to his early childhood. His father Kamesh was a freedom fighter and influenced by Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement, gifted away all the land he had — some 7–8 acres. “He was in the final year of engineering and burnt all his books which were British and went to prison for about four years. He was given the Tamrapatra to recognise him as a freedom fighter.”
After Independence he got a job as an engineer and Ravishankar and his six siblings led a comfortable life during their early childhood. But when he was in Class 4, his father suddenly passed away, leaving his mother with seven children and barely ₹100 in the bank. “She really had to struggle to bring us up; a very proud woman, she refused to beg. But thanks to the goodwill my father had as the general manager of a company, both my brothers got jobs.”
Society, his father
From thenceforth, adds Ravishankar poignantly, “society took the place of my father, so giving back this money (₹100 crore) to my father was not a big thing for me.” On the face of it, this might sound hyperbolic but as you listen to his story, the depth of feeling with which it is stated sinks in. Though he ended up with a BA degree and a diploma in business administration and marketing management, it wasn’t a smooth ride. Never “a good student”, he failed in Class 10 not once but twice. “After losing my father, I fell into bad company, stealing things, black marketing cinema tickets, and so on.” But after failing in his high school exam a second time, “because I couldn’t see my mother crying, I studied enough to pass with the bare minimum pass marks!”
When Bill Gates contributes to TRF, we say it’s fine; but when someone like Ravishankar, literally a nobody, decides to give 70 per cent of his earnings to TRF, we have to say ‘Wow’.
– Paola Ravishankar
In 1972, he joined the Bangalore National College for a BA in Economics, with Sociology and Psychology. Here he was inspired by Dr Narasimhaiah, a freedom fighter, and an eminent educationist who went on to become the VC of Bangalore University.
But it wasn’t an easy ride: he recalls growing up on just rice and vegetables such as cucumber. “For proteins I’d buy groundnuts for 50 paise. If I felt hungry, I’d go to a friend’s house, ring the bell, and when his mother or grandmother opened the door, ask straightaway: Amma, I am hungry, can you give me something to eat? Not one person refused. Everybody would call me inside, make rotis or dhal and feed me. Society fed me… people whose hearts were so pure fed me. Were they fools? No, they had pure hearts; they are all dead and gone, but I have to give back.”
I have below average intelligence. You need intelligence to be a liar, thief or a crook.
When I comment he is philosophic in his thinking, he quips: “I’d describe myself as below average intelligent. If you are intelligent, you will complicate things. But if you are below average, you’ll think simple. If someone asks me to walk, I’ll walk straight and not do somersaults. You need intelligence to be a liar, thief or a crook. I am a simple man.”
In 1980, he began working in a small company at a salary of ₹105. “I had to change three buses to reach office, leaving home at 5 am to reach at 8.30 am. I carried for lunch leftover rice or kanji.” And while changing buses he would buy a banana “for nutrition. It cost 5 or 6 paise, but the vendor would give it to me for 2 paise knowing that was all I could afford.” Another kind act by Society!
He worked in printing and designing and stayed here for a couple of years but “got fed up after some time… and mulled the idea of even joining politics where I could change lives or touch more people, but ended up in real estate.”
Success in Business
Ravishankar recalls the excessive red tape that dominated all sections of business in those days. “But when you grow up on the street you become street-smart. I knew how to talk and get things done… and go around government red tapism. When the supply is less, prices go up and red tapism reduced land supply. But I learnt how to circumvent this; even bad people would be nice to me.”
He got around the massive corruption in getting permits; “I’d simply stand before the people in charge, scratch my head and say if I pay so much, I can’t pay salary to my workers. My body language conveyed my sincerity as it was true, and my work got done.”
His confidence in himself soared after his marriage with Paola, a Goan Catholic. “In the early 1980s, I saw this really gorgeous girl in an evening college; she was beyond my reach as I was neither a Shahrukh Khan nor an Ambani! But when I could convince her to marry an idiot and a mad fellow like me, I knew I could fool anybody!” They got married in 1988 after a courtship of four years.
Slowly his business grew; “because my father was a freedom fighter, Ramakrishna Hegde (then Chief Minister of Karnataka) took a liking for me and helped me.” The builder then met BHN Hari, who worked for Mysore Paper Mills and later became his partner. “The name of my company Hara Housing comes from Hari and Ravi. I wanted somebody honest and straightforward and not a smart and intelligent partner who would one day cheat me because he would soon realise I’m a simple man!”
A buffet called Rotary
So why did he join Rotary?
“Well, around 1988, when I was already in my business, I found everybody around me obsessed about the (realty) market and I felt suffocated… with the kind of people I was mixing with. Everywhere, even in a toilet, people would ask: ‘Sir, how is the market?’ Whether it was a doctor, barber or a dentist, they’d talk only about business.”
My daughter said, “‘Nana, follow your heart, give whatever you want, don’t worry about us.”
When he met a senior Rotarian, Ramesh Chari, “I told him I am fed up and am scared I’ll end up with a habit like drinking. I want to connect with society. He said why don’t you try Rotary, and brought me into Rotary.”
Asked what Rotary has given him, Ravishankar says: “For me Rotary has been a learning experience. Rotary is like a buffet; it is up to you what you want to take from it. If you want to eat healthy, that is there, if not; the opposite is also there. For a recluse… and one who loves to chill out, it was a platform to connect with people and change lives. Rotary gives you the opportunity to do things.”
And the kind of “things” he has done from the Rotary platform are impressive indeed and range from building an old-age home in Karnataka to schools in the Northeast. He has also offered to build schools in rural areas in Lahore and Islamabad and has connected with the DGs in Pakistan, telling them he wished to do this “as we were all brothers before the Partition and share the same blood. When people connect, governments cannot separate or stop us. Even if I have to do it on my death bed, I’ll do it…because in the name of religion, we are complicating our lives.”
I’d knock on a friend’s door and ask: Amma, I am hungry, give me something to eat. Not one person refused. They’d make rotis or dhal and feed me.
A project he has on hand right now is planting one crore (10 million) saplings in Kolar and Chikkaballapur districts with help from Amar Narayan, a retired IAS officer passionate about trees and saving the environment. “I asked him can we work together; I always see myself as a co-worker, and not the president of my club. Every Rotarian is a leader: I cannot lead leaders, I can only work with them. He has agreed and we’re trying to rope in the State government. It’s a five-year project where we want to involve schools, donate plants and make the headmasters responsible for ensuring the trees survive.”
Ravishankar, who calls himself “a freaked out human being” says that when his daughters Ektaa and Samta were very young — 9 and 5 or so — “I’d always tell them I have taken so much from society, I need to give back. They said “Nana (father in Telugu), you do that. Don’t worry about us; we’ll study and stand on our own feet. Today they are 27 and 23.”
All my clothes are from Reliance. My friends wear Armani but I am not bothered.
So, are both married? He laughs and says, “No, they want to get married only when they can stand on their own feet.” The elder one, who has just left for her Masters course in Melbourne worked for a few years to save some money for her education and wanted to take a student loan. But on the counsellor’s advice didn’t do so and “wants to return the money she has ‘borrowed’ from her father by working part time there,” says her mother Paola.
Whether it is higher education or trekking in the Himalayas for which the younger daughter Samta recently needed to buy some trekking gear, they’re careful about the money they spend. “We’ve brought them up that way,” says Ravishankar, adding, “we follow a simple lifestyle and are middle class by choice. In life, you have to balance… wanting is not bad, greed is bad. I have come from such a bottom that I wanted to give something nice to my wife and daughters. But all my clothes are from Reliance. My friends wear Armani but I am not bothered. I had always lived in a rented house till my mother told me one day: ‘Ravi, your father didn’t own a house. I think I will die in a rented house.’ So I bought a house in 1997 to make her happy.”
Also, to express his love for his family he bought a luxury car. “Yes, it is a Benz, which I don’t want to buy ever again. From now on it will be secondhand cars, because it is just not worth it. With the car money I could have built three schools in the Northeastern States.”
He has already built a few; one for 350 students in Manipur near the Myanmar border investing ₹27 lakh in two acres of land and a retired army colonel running an NGO is managing it. “The tagline of this Trust is ‘Peace through Education’; he wants to stop the children in the Northeast from being influenced by insurgents.”
Another school Ravishankar has built is for children of drug addicts who are infected with HIV.
So philanthropy is inbuilt in his genes, I comment. “No, no, please don’t use big words like philanthropy… it is just simple giving away,” he smiles.
The 100-crore figure
Next, I ask him how he zeroed in on the ₹100 crore ($14.7 million) figure and what was Paola’s reaction. He chuckles and says: “I am an emotional human being who is not getting younger. From childhood I have this trait; either I think big, stupid or impossible. My wife, being the mother of two daughters understandably had some insecurities, but my daughter convinced her saying, ‘Mama, he has taken good care of us all these years. And this is Nana’s yolo (you only live once) moment, so please let him do whatever he wants.’ And she told me: Nana, follow your heart, give whatever you want, don’t worry about us.” With those words, she brought her mama on board!
His younger daughter, who will also shortly leave for higher education in Australia, for which she also has been saving money, “doesn’t even want to inherit our house. She says if you leave it for me, I will sell it and build a school in Kashmir with the money,” smiles Ravishankar, and adds, “I was so touched and felt so blessed to have such a fine family.”
“Finally, the majority won, and my wife was on board. She is a wonderful girl; no jealousy, no greed, and has never asked for jewellery. Even when she wears artificial jewellery, she looks like a princess. Her smile is the best jewellery she has.”
When I say his is the second single largest contribution to TRF after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ravishankar says, “I didn’t think of any statistic, nor had a strategy in my mind. I simply decided to give.”
Quips Paola, “When someone like Bill Gates contributes to TRF, we say it’s fine; but when someone like Dakoju Ravishankar, who is literally a nobody, decides to give almost 70 per cent of his earnings to the Foundation, I guess we all have to sit up and say ‘Wow!’ I am still getting over the shock myself!”
It has been a roller coaster three weeks to say the least; I woke up on June 30 feeling very content knowing we were a simple happy family. We have two daughters — Ektaa and Samta — who are pursuing their Masters and we are a very close-knit family with simple pleasures and middle class values. What followed that evening (the meet where the couple were felicitated) was a real shocker; my husband Dakoju Ravishankar had donated ₹100 crore to The Rotary Foundation!
I had to pinch myself to realise it wasn’t a dream or hallucination when they called us to the stage to felicitate us. Ravi has always been a philanthropist in his own humble way; when I married him 30 years ago all he had was a Suvega (two-wheeler) and a rented house, but he had a heart of gold. In 30 years, he has built up his reserves by working hard. He has built an old-age home in Bengaluru in memory of his late parents who mean the world to him, which is run free of cost for people who are less fortunate. The quality of the home is unparalleled and the food and services fantastic.
He has also built schools with hostels in the Northeast where children don’t get an education due to lack of interest and rivalry between the tribes and families. Here too education is provided free or at a nominal cost with free boarding. These are only some of the avenues he has ventured into. But I know he has big dreams. Sometimes we wonder if he has worked all these years, and is still working, just to support these causes!
He is a workaholic and works almost 18 hours a day; he left last morning at 4 am for Malwan in Maharashtra via Goa. Came back this morning at 9 am and went straight to KGF (Kolar Gold Fields) where he is doing a massive tree plantation project on the Cyanide Dumps — to make the place liveable for the locals as the chemicals used in the gold fields have been detrimental to the health of the people there. He is trying to convert it into a green zone, facing health hazards himself going there as he was a chronic asthmatic. But his priority is to improve the lives of others.
Why he chose Rotary
On why he chose TRF to part with such a huge chunk of his money, D Ravishankar says, “I’ve grown up among cheats and frauds… I’ve seen society naked and can differentiate between a pure and an evil person. Rotary is a transparent and honest NGO. People don’t like to donate because most money is hard earned and we find every other NGO is a fraud and misuses funds. But Rotary I know is a genuine organisation.”
He touches on another sterling quality of Rotary when he stresses that he is an areligious person who doesn’t “believe in the artificial barriers that religion and caste create — I go to mass on important occasions. I have three sisters, two are Muslim and one Gujarati, and “all of them tie raakhi on me!”
He adds, “I’ve given this money blindly with my eyes closed because the DG, Suresh Hari, is an honest man and I trust him completely.” He has stipulated the core areas on which his money should be spent, and these are education, health, hygiene and sanitation, tribal improvement, microfinance and inter-religious harmony. “Basically, all the components of Happy Schools.”
On whether he would monitor how his money is used, he says emphatically: “Of course. I will keenly follow how that money is used because every paise has been earned through hard work; I have slogged, my father was not a minister. I am very particular about it and wouldn’t even mind leaving Rotary if it goes into wrong hands.”