When over 43,000 people from 100 different countries and cultures converge in one place, wearing vibrant colours, speaking different languages and flashing smiles of hope and optimism, the resulting spectacle can be imagined.
The hi-tech city of Seoul, in its even more hi-tech Kintex facility, about an hour’s drive from the city centre, hosted the 2016 RI Convention of RI President K R Ravindran. It had promised to be a Convention with a difference. I met people from Africa, India and the US who proudly said this was their 9th, 15th, or even 19th Convention, but they all agreed that this was one of the best organised events ever.
As Convention Co-Chair and RIPN Ian Riseley put it, Korea is a “strong Rotary country,” a leader in technology and yet has retained its sense of history. The hosts had pulled out all the plugs in ensuring smooth transfer of the tens of thousands of delegates from their hotels to the convention venue. Coaches were arranged from hotels and these plied with a clockwork precision that reminded one of what they say about Swiss trains. Well, almost … because when a guest said “just one minute more, my friends are coming,” the request was allowed with a smile.
Even though a few halls of Kintex1 had to be put together for the inaugural and some other events, the opening session had to be done in two parts; one in the morning and another in the evening. For what hall can seat 43,000 people at a time?
An early bird for the first inaugural session, I was surprised to see Ravindran come to the venue well ahead of time, and go around the hall exchanging pleasantries with former RI Presidents and their spouses, former RI Directors, TRF Trustees and of course many, many friends that he had in the audience. “Well, that’s Ravi for you,” exclaimed PDG J B Kamdar from Chennai.
A visitor drops in
Even as Ravindran was making his opening remarks, there was a loud, and rather rude clearing of the throat … until you realised that this was done by a virtual visitor… Paul Harris himself! With the aid of technology, the Rotary founder was brought to the venue and the giant screen showed Ravindran engaging Harris in a conversation, and telling him: Look where the little organisation you founded over a century ago has reached!
The delegates were treated to a host of eminent speakers and world leaders. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean statesman and politician himself, who has hinted that he might make a bid for the Korean Presidency in next year’s election, addressed the opening and urged Rotarians to keep going till “Zero polio case” was achieved in the world. They had worked so hard, and needed to keep the pressure on their governments to ensure that polio was demolished forever from the world.
He lauded Rotarians for giving hope to so many people and for working to make our world a much safer place.
Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn applauded Korean Rotarians for working so hard towards polio eradication and for emerging as one of the “strongest per-capita supporters of The Rotary Foundation.” He congratulated Rotary for its service projects across the world.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe revealed the inside story – from the Government’s side – of the tremendous role played by Ravindran in ridding Sri Lanka of polio and ensuring “that we’ve had a polio-free Sri Lanka for the last 20 years” (Detailed report in the next issue).
He urged Rotary, and other service organisations, to play a much bigger role in supporting their governments, particularly in the social sector. Most countries were facing budget cuts in this area, and service organisations could help funnel in private funds and their expertise to help governments in areas such as healthcare, education, sanitation.
South Asia Reception
The colourful South Asia Reception hosted by RI Director Manoj Desai, displayed his popularity in the RI Board with most of the present senior leadership from the Board and TRF turning up. Surely it was more than love for the delicious Indian food that had been lined up by the organisers PDGs Ravi Vadlamani, Venky and TVR Murthy that drew them in.
Ravindran came with his entire family, including his granddaughter, 18-month-old Raika, who, according to his aide Barry Rassin, “is the only one who can completely manipulate her grandfather!”
President Elect John Germ and Judy were there too. It was a fine display of the Indian ethos of warm hospitality when PRIP Rajendra K Saboo, TRF Trustee Sushil Gupta and RIDN C Basker joined Desai and spouse Sharmishtha at the entrance of the banquet hall to welcome the guests as they piled in. While both Ravindran and Germ were honoured with the traditional Indian shawl and turban, the speeches were kept to a minimum with just the RI President and his successor addressing the guests.
I will be very happy to have my life back, to wake up in my own bed in my home, and to greet my granddaughter at breakfast every morning.
– RI President K R Ravindran
Ravindran said the South Asia region and the Zones (4,5 and 6A) could pat themselves on the back for doing a wonderful job whether in “membership or projects and emerging right at the top” of the Rotary world and helping to make a difference in the world. As he gets ready to hand over the presidentship to John Germ in “a legacy of continuity” at the Board, where he started with “many as strangers but who have now become very good friends,” he does so knowing he has done his best to discharge the tremendous responsibility given to him.
Budgets had been tightened to save money, processes streamlined and the perfect sync in which he worked with Germ and Riseley would ensure continuity of the efforts to make Rotary a great organisation.
“I am often asked, am I sorry to leave? No, I am not. I will be very happy to have my life back, to wake up in my own bed in my home, and to greet my granddaughter at breakfast every morning … and hope to forget about airports and aircraft for a very long time!” Wickremesinghe, who is a good friend of Ravindran, said at the Convention opening: “We’ll be happy to have him back in Sri Lanka.”
Germ congratulated Ravindran for “preaching and practicing continuity,” and had high praise for Indian Rotarians. “You used to be a receiving country and most of the grants would once go to India. But now you have become a giving country,” he said, and urged Indian Rotarians not to rest on their laurels but continue the great work they were doing.
Striking a sombre note, he said he was coming from a Rotaractor meet and found that “they don’t believe that Rotary respects them at all. They feel Rotarians look at them as labour and not equals. We should be embarrassed about this and make all efforts to treat them as equals.”
Walk for peace
Another highlight of this Convention, aimed at enhancing Rotary’s public image, was the 3 km Peace Walk, where senior leaders turned up in their traditional dresses. With huge numbers of Korean Rotaractors and Interactors turning up in traditional and colourful Korean costumes … with the yellows and the reds and blues predominating, and huge Rotary placards filling up the space at the Seoul Plaza and the Gwanghwamun Square, the message must have surely gone home to thousands of Koreans.
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat