It was quite a candid and peppery Q & A session that past RI director and incoming TRF Trustee Bharat Pandya handled expertly at the zone Institute Mahabs 21. It was promoted as a session where questions could be asked candidly, and the panel was expected to respond with equal openness. Pandya said most of the questions pertained to interference in elections, pressure being brought on district and club leaders from senior leadership in India and RI to meet goals, and so on.
While avoiding the questions being asked merely to raise a controversy, at the same time “I have tried not to sweep everything under the carpet to say everything is fine with Rotary.”
The panelists were past RI President K R Ravindran, and past directors Manoj Desai and C Basker. The question of the day was addressed to Ravindran: “I don’t know if I should even be asking it, but you can choose to answer or ignore it. The question is: We hear people calling you anti-India; you are seen doing things which seem to be anti-India.”
Pandya declined to answer Ravindran’s query on the identity of the questioner, saying it was signed but he was keeping all names out. Nonetheless saying firmly that he needed to answer it, Ravindran said he knew of no Sri Lankans in the hall or for that matter in his country who were anti-India. His own father came from India; his grandfather was a judge in Coimbatore and he had family in India. “I am an OCI cardholder, I own a business in Coimbatore and have a pretty large share of the Indian teabag packaging market. If you use teabags in India, the packaging probably came from me and so why would I be anti-India? That would be stupid.”
It hurts when people spread fake news. It is very easy for someone to pick up and throw a stone without knowing what the facts are. This is not good and we need to introspect on. It tarnishes the image of India in RI, when letters come without any basis.
– RI President Shekhar Mehta
But, he added, part of this perception might have come because he was often asked by the RI Board to investigate complaints of financial misdeeds both at TRF and district levels. This is how I work; “we don’t look into any anonymous complaint or one not accompanied by prima facie evidence of financial irregularities. I pick three PDGs at random from the Rotary directory from different parts of India — one an accountant, another a professional and a third a businessman. RISAO arranges their visit to the district/club at their own expense and without enjoying the DGs’ hospitality.” They investigate and pass their findings to him, which he passes onto the Board with recommendations. The Board may then choose to take punitive action, or not.
As RI president — Manoj Desai was on his Board — “we removed a serving DG from both India and Japan”. While he was “immediately dubbed anti-India”, senior leaders in Japan assured the Board that if the removed DG went to court as he had threatened, they would foot the legal fees.
Another time, the Board delisted both an Indian and a Russian district, The Russians did not say he was anti-Russian. When he was director the Board dechartered some 35–40 clubs in Pakistan as they were fictitious and created for elections. He was not called anti-Pakistan.
I run a business in Coimbatore and have a pretty large share of the Indian teabag packaging market. If you use teabags in India, you probably give me business. So why would I be anti-India? That would be stupid.
– Past RI President K R Ravindran
The past president concluded by saying, “Yesterday, listening to President Shekhar’s intro I felt very proud of what he has achieved, and it struck me that several positions held by him were appointments I had made! If I was anti-India, I wouldn’t have done that! And I did it not because he was an Indian but because he was competent and a professional who could do the job. I also supported him by defusing some individuals on the Board and staff when he started RILM. So I don’t understand this anti-India question. If you have the name of this person, please tell him I can’t be bullied and I can’t be bribed!”
(The next day, addressing the concluding session President Mehta graciously acknowledged PRIP Ravindran’s role in his Rotary leadership journey. “For Rashi and I, it’s been an outstanding journey. If I am here today, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants, two of whom are present today. Thank you, Ravi for your friendship. You’ve always stood by me. Yes, if I was the Strategic Planning Committee chair, on the Hamburg Convention planning committee, and when you sent me to negotiate the taking over of Shelter Box, it was all because of you. Thank you for doing that. Thank you (PRID) Basker for all the fellowship we enjoyed, all the discussions we have, (RIDs) Mahesh and Venky for the great support you give me on the RI Board.”)
A question which PRID Desai was asked to answer pertained to “too much focus being placed on membership without any thought on new innovations or new futuristic ideas about where Rotary should be going.”
Desai said one of the main components of the Strategic Plan was to “support and strengthen clubs. We are static for the last 20 years in membership; something needs to be done and hence membership is our internal topmost priority.” The other two focus areas were TRF giving and public image. “We know that our TRF GGs have increased and because of the work we do, our public image has also improved. But membership is our priority, if we don’t put stress on it, we will become an extinct species.”
Next Pandya addressed a question to PRID Basker on hanky-panky involved in executing GGs, and how sometimes funds are taken from beneficiaries and palmed off as club funds. During his tenure as director, he had set up a committee; so what was its outcome?
Basker responded that India was one of the largest recipients of GGs; “as RI director I found that sometimes the DGs are very enthusiastic in doing global grants and drive the clubs to do them without understanding community needs and observing TRF rules laid down for such grants.” He also found that some clubs which don’t have the funds to apply for a GG, take money from the beneficiary and give it to TRF in the club’s name, and when the grant comes the money is donated in the club’s name.
“Some of these clubs did not know such practices were simply unacceptable to the trustees. We also found that some equipment given to hospitals through GG funds was lying unused for several years, and we received complaints from whistleblowers. Yesterday President Shekhar mentioned our people write to trustees complaining about non-utilisation or misappropriation of funds and this creates a very bad image of India. So during 2017, I discussed with then RI President Ian Riseley, Trustee Chair Paul Netzel and our own trustee Sushil Gupta and K R Ravindran, and set up a panel inviting eligible PDGs who could be deputed to oversee the grants and travel at no cost to TRF. I think this panel still exists. In India, such an oversight panel is absolutely necessary to internally monitor what the clubs are doing, how the money is being spent and reaching the beneficiaries and making a difference.”
The next question was posed to Ravindran on the major challenges in our zones “which are otherwise doing good work”, and how these can be tackled to take “Rotary forward in a spirit of harmony and cooperation.”
I am a surgeon and believe in the healing touch; it is very important that at this time when Rotary in our zones is poised to take off vertically, we apply the healing touch to whatever issues we are facing.
– Past RI Director Bharat Pandya
Ravindran responded: “President Shekhar addressed this comprehensively yesterday; in many ways we are on top of the world and other countries or zones can’t compete with us in the quality of the service that we give, in our membership, the kind of projects and programmes we do, the sheer number of the people we serve… not only India, but also Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and all the countries in this region. On membership, the numbers speak for themselves, so there too we are on top of the world.”
But “the area we have problems is elections. I’ve tried very hard to stop it; it didn’t work. This causes us embarrassment at the Board; people write to the Board and I suppose they don’t have a choice.” Earlier, this region had major issues with the Foundation and financial irregularities, but that has been settled by and large. “The only issue we have now which gives us a black mark is elections. My view is that when it comes to districts, PDGs should stay out; candidates might do a bit of their own electioneering, but it never reaches big heights if governors stay out. At zone elections, past directors and other big chiefs should stay out. If you just leave it to the candidates, and others just watch over the process, this might be brought down to a large extent. If we get these two right, we really have no peers in Rotary.”
While addressing the inaugural session the previous day, President Mehta had enumerated the amazing service Rotary does in our region, listing out the specifics. But, he had added, “it only hurts at times when people start spreading fake news even in Rotary. It is very easy for someone to pick up and throw a stone without trying to find out what the facts are. This is the only aspect we need to introspect on. It is not a good thing, if there is one thing that tarnishes the image of India in RI, it is when letters come there without any basis whatsoever. That is the only time that we have to hang down our heads in shame (sharam se sar jhuk jata hei), for no fault of ours. This is one thing we need to take care of. But that apart, what fills our hearts with joy is the amazing work that is happening in our zones.”
A major point of the Strategic Plan was to support and strengthen clubs. We are static for the last 20 years in membership; something needs to be done and hence membership is our internal topmost priority. If we don’t grow, we will become an extinct entity.
– Past RI Director Manoj Desai
Asked about the e-voting pilot that he had introduced, and concern expressed that “DGs, DGEs and even PDGs, sometimes for the sake of awards and other considerations, force the presidents to vote in front of them,” PRID Desai said that this was introduced during his tenure as the Board was getting many complains of manipulation. Once e-voting was introduced the complaints had diminished and even disappeared. “But the ingenuity of our people has proven over time that even e-voting can be beaten. I’ve heard that those who run institutions or computer centres, vote from different computers. It was effective when introduced, but then people have found ways to beat the system.”
Intervening, President Mehta said, “This is a very important point and as Manoj explained rightly, every time we bring in a new method, over a period of time we also find a method to beat that one! What was earlier being seen as a wonderful mechanism… I remember Ravindran introduced it, and Manoj brought it as a pilot and it was effective. But now I see and hear it is being rampantly misused. The DGs have to deal with it, and if it is becoming a bigger menace, it is better we take a relook at it and stop the e-voting pilot. Maybe the directors can find a way.”
When Pandya said the maximum questions were against this e-voting with voting at the district conference being preferred, Mehta said: “I agree with that.”
Basker was quizzed about district accounts, DGs not submitting them on time and the need for punishment of the offenders. He said while President Mehta and past president Ravindran, who were present, could discuss this, “my personal opinion is that in India we must scrap the collection of district dues for the simple reason that RI funds the DGs’ travel and other expenses. And all the events — PETS, conference, seminars — are self-funded. So where is the need to collect a hefty amount from each Rotarian again? They accumulate a large sum of money and there is no financial discipline.” The district finance committee doesn’t work, many governors don’t present and get approved the budget at the district assembly. “We all know that the governors are so busy, and finally when the year is over and they look at the accounts they find many flaws. I advise the DGEs that please don’t collect any money. If you don’t, then you aren’t answerable. My humble opinion — avoid collection of district dues.”
In an intervention, RI Director Mahesh Kotbagi said that a bylaw provision is that “accounts for any funds collected in the name of the district, the DG’s allocation and the district grants, have to be circulated in the stipulated time to the district clubs. Even when the panel members were directors, and such things were brought to their notice, no action was taken against those districts and DGs, whose accounts were not passed, were still given assignments at the institute, zone and even RI level.”
We are volunteers and each of us has our own profession; we are not retired people nor are we employees of this organisation. I always told my DGs that Rotary lives in the clubs and unless the president and the club’s office bearers enjoy Rotary, there will be no life in the club.
Taking on a question on “the reason I joined Rotary was to do service and for fellowship”, but now there was too much pressure from the top on many goals, so and so that “Rotary is getting redefined,” Basker said, “This is a very valid question. We are volunteers and each of us has our own profession; we are not retired people nor are we employees of this organisation. I always told my DGs that Rotary lives in the clubs and unless the president and the club’s office bearers enjoy Rotary, there will be no life in the club.” In pursuit of awards and recognitions “too much load is being put on the clubs to perform… and often PETS become like a corporate’s sales target — with questions on how many members you’ll bring, how much TRF money will you collect, etc. I find today that instead of the bottom-top approach, we are taking the top-bottom approach. We have to ensure that the clubs look at and address local community needs, so that the public image of Rotary grows and we get people to voluntarily join Rotary. But different layers of leadership, especially in India, give out different priorities and targets and everything percolates down to the club level. Sometimes we ruthlessly drive the DGs, club presidents and the fun part of Rotary goes missing. This has to be discussed, changed and we should build a lot of happiness in Rotary activities.”
In his concluding remarks Pandya said: “Yesterday Shekhar said there is an undercurrent of stress and tension because of various issues, but it is important to resolve these issues at the earliest. I am a surgeon and believe in the healing touch; it is very important that at this time when Rotary in our zones is poised to take off vertically, we apply the healing touch to whatever issues we are facing.”
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat