The one project in Chandigarh that RI President Barry Rassin showed a lot of interest in and spent some time interacting with the beneficiaries, particularly children, was a hands-on project being implemented in the poorest of poor areas of Chandigarh, a small pocket in Saketri.
Here the Rotary Club of Chandigarh, D 3080, is involved in a hands-on operation to dramatically change the lives of some 500 people living in a decrepit area with poor health and hygiene facilities. Till a year ago, the children had no opportunity to even decipher the alphabet in any script, but by the time President Rassin and Esther sat down for a performance by the children who are now being educated through special arrangement made by the Rotarians, two of the girls were able to make their first ever speech in English.
We saw a group of very disciplined children. I had the privilege of listening to two of the children making their first speech in English, and it was heartwarming.”
— RI President Barry Rassin.
It was with a lot of pride that the RI President videographed these speeches and talked about this particular experience in other events he attended in India. Later he said: “We had the opportunity to go to this project to see how Rotary is supporting about 150 families with health and hygiene, literacy, etc. We saw a group of very disciplined students when we went to a school and it was great to meet the children and see how they are studying. Clearly, they want to get an education and they are very hardworking. I had the privilege of listening to two of the children making their first speech in English, and it was heartwarming.”
The two girls who welcomed the RI President and Esther and other Rotarians in English were of course nervous, fumbled a little, laughed a lot and made a few mistakes. But the confidence they displayed made it clear that they have begun their journey into a magic world of letters and were excited about the prospect of laying it open layer by layer.
A holistic community development project
RC Chandigarh took up this project to make a difference in the lives of this pocket of 500 totally neglected and forgotten people — most of them migrant workers and their families — at the initiative of Usha Saboo. Accompanying her husband, PRIP Rajendra Saboo, during a bitter cold New Year’s Eve to distribute blankets to those who lived on the streets or huts, they chanced upon this colony in the Saketri region. She was particularly disturbed at the deplorable living conditions and mulled over the dismal future staring at these slum children in the face, with little or no access to any healthcare, basic hygiene and literacy.
The club members decided that they should launch a long-term project with a holistic view to provide a bouquet of well-planned professional services from various sectors — but particularly health and education — to change the lives of these people.
PDG Madhukar Malhotra explained that the club joined hands with SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) to oversee the project and the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan School, Sector 27, Chandigarh, came on board as a partner to “give us teachers for providing education after school hours. SEWA did a malnutrition study and found the children were severely malnourished.” Its volunteers have promised to work holistically with this neglected colony and its inhabitants on health, civic amenities, empowerment, education, poverty alleviation and bring in a behavioural change among the people. SEWA’s project coordinators visit the place every day.
With a $1,000 investment we were able to get a $75,000 jeep. Which investment banker can get a return like that? Our TRF can, by turning $1,000 into $75,000!
— RI President Barry Rassin
A five-year-old project, which will be reviewed and renewed at the end of that period, “it has got great involvement from the members of our club and gives us a sense of pride as Rotarians and is also in sync with President Barry’s slogan Be the Inspiration”, added Malhotra.
This ambitious project, which costs around $47,000 a year, is aimed at a whole range of things such as disease prevention, personal hygiene, waste disposal, special classes for school dropouts, skill-based technical training, career counselling, weight and height monitoring, balanced diet, information and awareness campaign on government schemes, developing local leadership, encouraging use of solar panels, etc.
President Rassin and Esther visited a periodic health camp where doctors and paramedics examined the patients and gave them medicines and further referrals. Hailing from the health sector, the RI President took keen interest and interacted with the health professionals giving voluntary service at the venue.
Rotary Peace Monument
President Rassin also visited the Rotary Peace Monument put up by Rotarians as Chandigarh was the second city in India to be declared Rotary Peace City in 2003; the first was Chennai. According to DG Praveen Goyal, the concept of Rotary District Peace Communities was conceived in Wagga Wagga, NSW, Australia by Rtn Tony Quinlivan, and that city became the first Peace Community in 1993. Since then, Peace Communities have been proclaimed in different parts of the globe.
PDG Malhotra added that when Vijay Wadhawan was the president of RC Chandigarh, under the guidance of PRIP Rajendra Saboo, the club planned a Rotary Peace Monument at one of the most popular and lush green tourist spots in the city, the Sukhna Lake. This monument has been designed by the architect couple Rtn Sandeep Luthra and his wife Suchita. The message sent out through this monument to the community is respect and dignity to everyone without discrimination or prejudice; rejection of violence, resolving conflict, freedom of expression and reconciling differences and pursuing cultural harmony and diversity.
A special dinner hosted by the Saboos
A grand dinner was hosted to mark Rotary’s First Couple’s visit to RI District 3080 by the Saboo family at the Hyatt Regency in Chandigarh, which was attended, apart from PRID Y P Das and Manju, district leaders and their spouses, by several senior bureaucrats and professionals of the city. Some of the non-Rotarian guests included Advisor to the Administrator, Parimal Rai, who is the seniormost person in the Chandigarh administration after the Governor; Home Secretary Arun Kumar Gupta; Finance Secretary Ajoy Kumar Sinha; Chief Principal Secretary to the Punjab CM Suresh Kumar; Principal Secretary to the Punjab CM Tejvir Singh; IG Arvind Kumar from the ITBP; DG of Chandigarh Police Sanjay Bainiwal; Additional Chief Secretary to Haryana Government Vijai Vardhan; leading judges, industrialists, surgeons, and editors of newspapers.
A WinS project and Blood Bank
A comprehensive WinS project done by RC Chandigarh Midtown at the Government Model School, Manimajra, that President Rassin visited, and spent some time in personally inspecting the quality of the toilets constructed, has an interesting history. PDG Shaju Peter explained that a conference the club had two years ago was attended by Rtn Jon Deisher from RC Alaska. “He was a regular visitor to India and was fond of attending the NID programmes in India. Kanan Diwan, the spouse of PDG Yoginder Diwan, was the President of the club, and Deisher said his club would like to participate in a joint project with our club. His only condition was that the project should be related to girls in schools and he wanted to make and distribute low-cost sanitary napkins with a technology he knew was used in Kenya,” recalls Peter.
That project didn’t come through, but Kanan mooted the idea of building separate toilet for girls in schools; Deisher came on board and a joint project to build toilets in 10 girls’ schools was conceived with a grant of $42,000. Along with toilets, handwashing stations were built too and Rassin and Esther joined the children in a music and song filled handwashing session.
The first couple also visited the blood bank run by Rotarians in Chandigarh, an iconic project in this city. DG Goyal explained that this blood bank — Rotary Blood Bank Society Resource Centre — was started when he was president of RC Chandigarh in 2000–01, in association with the Blood Bank Society, through a 3H grant. The entire project cost about ₹3.5 crore.
At an intercity club meet President Rassin struck a few light and emotional notes when he looked back to the “January of 1991, when I had hair on my head, my wife looked like a teenager… she still does… and we attended the International Assembly in California. We had just got married less than two months earlier so this was like a honeymoon, and we had this awesome meeting where we met RI President Raja (Saboo) and Usha. I learnt that week what it takes to be a great President. If I could do anything as close to what this wonderful couple has done, I would feel we have succeeded. I thank you Raja, for being my mentor, my leader.”
Referring to the video played earlier by DG Goyal which listed an impressive array of projects — PRIP Saboo’s medical missions to Africa; the MoU signed with the Himachal Pradesh Government by all the Rotary clubs in the State to do a joint project on Happy Schools; providing healthy and wholesome meals to the underprivileged at ₹10 a meal; an eye donation project; providing umbrellas with Rotary logo to elderly cobblers sitting under the harsh sun; RC Dehradun forming 12 Interact clubs; RC Ambala Industrial City forming a Rotaract club with all the members being visually-challenged, and many more, — Rassin expressed his utter surprise. “On seeing the video, I asked your DG that has he been doing all these projects before July 1, and he said no all of it has been done after July 1. You are doing an amazing job and you should feel proud of all the local projects you do.”
But as an organisation Rotary should never take its eye off the big projects, one of which was to eradicate polio from the face of the earth. “From 350,000 people a year, this year we’ve had only 18 children contract the polio virus but still it’s 18 children and we must remember the promise we made to the children of the world to eliminate polio.”
A transformational project
Urging Rotarians to be proud of the work they do and the lives they touch and change, President Rassin related the story of how after the Haiti earthquake “we did 105 projects worth $6.5 million, with 60 countries supporting that project. That’s what Rotary can do because Rotary gets together to support a project or a community.”
During that time, in a maternal and child health project, a group of midwives told the Rotarians that they weren’t able to help as many mothers as they’d like to in rural areas for lack of transport facilities. “So we said we’ll help you. First, we got the local Rotary club to give us $1,000. Clubs in Haiti don’t have too much money, but they knew this project was important so they gave us $1,000.” Next the clubs in his district matched the amount, and then other districts and countries — 54 different districts — came on board and a global grant of $75,000 materialised. “That’s how our Foundation works; with a $1,000 investment we were able to get a $75,000 jeep. Which investment banker can get a return like that? Our TRF can… turn $1,000 into $75,000!”
I call Barry and Esther an outstanding couple, because they are hands-on Rotarians; people who have rolled up their sleeves and gone to Haiti and other places, facing tornados and hurricanes.
— PRIP Rajendra Saboo
The jeep was acquired, painted with a pink Rotary wheel and given to the midwives. A couple of years later, when a team went to Haiti to inspect each and every single project, “we stopped by the midwives and they told us: ‘We believe we’ve reduced maternal and child mortality rates by 50 per cent, thanks to the jeep you gave us.’ Just think of that!”
Rassin congratulated Indian Rotarians for their numerous community welfare projects; “you have shown the fastest growth in membership, the fastest growth in Foundation-giving and I believe you can become No 1 in Foundation-giving. You have a strong Rotaract movement too.”
But, he added, “we still have weaknesses, so we have to look at ourselves very closely and ask how do we change? How do we become a Rotary club that is more representative of what we should be, more relevant to the younger population, to the recently retired and to all races and all segments of our society? Our clubs have to ask: Are we relevant to today’s world and to all sections?”
An outstanding couple
In his address, PRIP Rajendra Saboo said, “It is a big privilege for us to have Barry and Esther in our district, whom I call an outstanding couple, because they are hands-on Rotarians. They are the people who have rolled up their sleeves and gone to Haiti and other places, facing tornados and hurricanes, and worked there not only for rehabilitation but during relief work too.”
A replica on Rassin’s theme in rich tapestry was presented to the first couple. DG Goyal introduced members of the newly chartered all-women’s club RC Saharanpur Waves.
The Rotary Highway
President Rassin attended Rotaract meeting in Chandigarh and urged both Rotarians and Rotaractors to ensure that there was a 100 per cent conversion of Rotaractors to Rotarians. If that happened everywhere, as it has happened in his home club, “we wouldn’t be worried about a declining membership and would have Rotaract clubs that would continue to feed our organisation. I tell Rotaractors and Interactors whenever I meet them that they are on the Rotary highway and they may get off at the exit when they finish their course but they can come back to the university to join a Rotaract club and then get off after university to join a community-based Rotary club. They have to keep coming back on that highway so they can continue their Rotary journey for the rest of their lives.”
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat