The first thing that strikes anyone who watches, or works closely with incoming RI President Shekhar Mehta from RC Calcutta Mahanagar, RID 3291, is that his dreams are king-size. His boundless energy is legend in the Indian Rotary world and those who work with him whisper: ‘But when does he sleep!’ RI Director Kamal Sanghvi, who put together the centennial celebrations of Rotary in India in January 2020 in Kolkata, shared that Mehta had landed up at the venue at 2.30 am to check on the final touches!
Senior Indian Rotarians have got calls from him at 2 am asking: ‘What are you doing’, before he plunges into the next big idea/project that is bubbling inside him. His planning is detailed and meticulous, the hours he puts into any project long and arduous, and the delegation is bang on. All this comes together beautifully in timely and perfect execution of the mega projects he undertakes and the events he organises. The South Asia Summit that he organised in Hyderabad in 2013 had nearly 6,000 participants. The literacy conferences, addressed by intellectuals, celebrities and senior politicians, followed. Under his guidance, Rotary celebrated its 100th year in India through the grand Centennial Summit in Kolkata in January 2020.
In our frequent chats, he has always told me: “A leader has to dream big. And he has to choose the right people to create more leaders.” Just as happened to him in his Rotary journey.
A physical meeting is impossible as India is battling a severe second wave of the Covid pandemic, so we chat over a virtual interview. So what prompted him to dream big and do mega projects, whether it is literacy, heart surgeries or building homes for the disaster-afflicted, I ask him. He smiles and says, “Initially it was a small nudge from a senior Indian Rotary leader and later it became a way of life. For instance, past director Sushil Gupta always prompted me into action with just a single question. When the 2004 tsunami devastated coastal India, he called and asked: ‘Shekhar, what are you doing about it?’ I said not much, and he said but Andaman and Nicobar is your area. That was all.”
Can you imagine an organisation not growing for the last 20 years? I cannot accept this status quo in our membership.
But before details of what that call triggered, let’s look at Mehta’s early Rotary journey. A chartered accountant, cost accountant and company secretary by profession, he was only 25 when he joined Rotary “and service was the last thing on my mind. I was born in a well-to-do family, where everything was taken care of… I often say, my life was ‘air-conditioned’, whether it was house, car or office. What did I know about the problems of people in the rest of the world? I joined Rotary to make friends and service was not really on the table.”
It was baptism by fire for the young Rotarian. Within a month he was asked to bring out a souvenir; it was a success because so many contributed, “but they gave me the credit, the best way to keep somebody going.” Next it was the club bulletin, which became a big hit and he got involved as club director, secretary, president and finally became governor.
I adjust myself extremely fast to changing situations, it takes me very little time to adjust my mind to anything in life.
With his mentor, PDG Chandramohan advising him to write down all his goals for his DG year, he drew up a list of what he called “millennium dreams”, as that was Rotary’s millennium year. “This habit of dreaming big came 20 years ago! When I shared these dreams, there were sniggers. Just as the famous saying goes… ‘first, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win!’ This has happened to me several times. But it didn’t bother me, I continued to work and dream big. Being a builder by profession, I thought — imagine building 500 homes with Rotary’s wheel on them for people who never had a home!”
He shared this dream at his PETS and soon enough, somebody donated land for houses for the poor. A 3H grant application, to his surprise, was approved at lightning speed. “Tears rolled down my cheeks when I came to know of this approval within the same Rotary year, and 300 of the 500 houses of my crazy dream were built!”
Over the years, I have built good buildings, earned money for doing so, but here were the most ordinary buildings I had built, for people I’d never met and probably wouldn’t ever meet.
This was like a miracle which taught him anything was possible if you put your mind and heart into it. With more leadership roles came “service activities of a large scale; that’s when the service bug became even bigger”.
Reverting to the tsunami, Gupta’s call propelled him into action and along with a team of six Rotarians, he went to the Andamans to build 500 homes in Hutbay, a remote island that could only be approached by a government-operated helicopter service. “We were never sure when that sortie would be available; it would drop us there, go to other islands and pick us up again as there was no place to stay the night in that island.”
Several trips to that island and fundraisers with the help of Steve Waugh and the Indian cricket team helped raise some ₹55 lakh. Add to that generous donations from many people, and 500 homes were built on that island.
His eyes light up and his face mellows as he recalls the day when the homes were handed over. “I was on the helicopter with the Lt Governor and others and as we circled for the landing, I could see the shimmering roofs. Over the years, I have built good buildings, earned money for doing so, but here were the most ordinary buildings I had built, for people I’d never met and probably wouldn’t ever meet. And yet the satisfaction and joy from seeing those buildings far outweighed the best of my professional work, because I was thinking of others more than myself,” says Mehta.
Another big dream materialised with the shelter kits project. “Shelter kits has now become an iconic national project. Wherever there is a natural disaster in our region, whether Kerala, Uttarakhand, Odisha, Nepal, Bengal, or Bihar, Rotarians rush shelter kits comprising 52 items to the affected area. In most of these disasters I have personally been there and served hands on,” he says.
He is a team player and works absolutely selflessly; people love to work with him, and stand by him because of his love for them, and the passion he has while working for others.
– Rashi Mehta
This happened with the paediatric heart surgery programme too. “I soon felt that my role was to take up service projects at all-India level.” Once again Gupta provided the trigger with a call: “Shekhar, can you please take a look at the heart surgery programme? In the North-East so many children require heart surgery.” Mehta didn’t even know “the left ventricle from the right one or what a hole in the heart meant!”
But when good is destined, things fall in place miraculously. The incoming president of his club, Dr Ram Pal Vidhawan, wanted to do heart surgeries for kids. “His goal was to do six operations that year; we ended it doing 66!”
A new service bug had now bitten our president-elect: “Like a Pied Piper, I’d say at installation meets that we have to save a child’s life, and 30 hands would go up. And we also did several fundraisers.”
Once 66 operations were done, the next year 100 more children’s hearts were healed and soon enough it became a district programme. Eventually the heart surgery project was taken to cities across India and till now Rotary has done over 20,000 heart surgeries on children, with over 2,500 operations done directly through his office. “The children would come to my office every day; my day began meeting their parents.”
“Now that I will be RI president, the goal is to do 20,000 heart surgeries in the next five years. When this target was known, Rtn Vivek Gour met me in Delhi and said for each of those five years, I will sponsor 3,000 more surgeries. So the five-year goal has increased from 20,000 to 35,000 heart surgeries! This is what scaling up is all about. I believe that once you find the goals, the means will follow, as Gandhiji said,” he says with a glint in his eye.
Mehta has also taken up immense work in eye operations and has helped set up 15 eye hospitals across India.
An audacious 1.3 million dream
Mehta’s most audacious dream is to get Rotary’s membership up to 1.3 million by the end of his year. He has a simple formula to achieve this. “Each one bring one. The response I get from across the world makes me optimistic about achieving this goal.”
He is extremely proud of the Covid relief work being done by Rotarians across the world. “In India, so much was done in both waves of the pandemic; in the first wave, monetary contribution upward of ₹100 crore ($13.7 million) and grassroots projects worth ₹150 crore ($20.6 million) were done. In the second wave, the response has been equally swift and even bigger.” Thousands of oxygen concentrators, hundreds of ventilators and over 1,000 special Covid beds have been set up.
I have no airs, nor do I see myself as an ‘RI president’. I see any high position as an added responsibility and I do the work required willingly.
“And the work continues unabated. A big thank you to Rotarians across the world who have rallied around India at this difficult moment. If ever the need arises, god forbid, Indian Rotarians will not fall short in reciprocation,” Mehta says.
Looking at the very scale and breadth of the work done by Rotarians, he is certain that this pandemic will not have an adverse impact on Rotary’s membership. On the contrary, he feels, Rotary’s very visible work will draw people to join it and boost membership “as people see the immense opportunity Rotary offers to help those in need.”
“But it is very important to keep members engaged right now. Those clubs which are not meeting virtually face the danger of losing members,” he adds.
The same form of thinking and bold new ideas, and large goals are required for TRF at a time when people realise that they need to be generous in order to help others. “I am sure that the trustees are thinking along similar lines,” he says.
Another big dream of his was getting RI nominated for a Nobel Peace. With a twinkle in the eye, he shares that this has been accomplished. “Now let us keep our fingers crossed. But it’s not for any glory or fame. A Nobel will take us one step closer towards Rotary emerging as one of the topmost service organisations in the world. Today it is nowhere there.”
A Nobel will take us one step closer towards Rotary emerging as one of the topmost service organisations in the world.
I quiz Mehta on his once saying ‘yeh zoom pe milna bhi koi milna hota hei’; so how badly is he missing the fun and thrill of physical meetings? He says: “I adjust myself extremely fast to changing situations, it takes me just very little time to adjust my mind to anything in life, however difficult it might be. I take these things in my stride, and have no regrets.” Though 50 per cent of his two years has gone, “I still have the other 50 per cent! Anyway, the first year for the incoming RI president is more about planning and less about meeting and inspiring people, because that is the job of the president.”
Yes, he did miss out on a physical International Assembly, “a dream event for any RI president. But even more than that, I was to address, in America alone, 24 MDPETS in 30 days, meeting some 8,000 presidents. I could have sent a taped message for the virtual meets, but I got up at 4 am or 5 am, to give a real-time speech at each of those meetings.” The result is that he has spoken to nearly 15,000 out of about 35,000 changemaker presidents across the world. “I strongly believe the work of Rotary happens at the club level. And the governors and club presidents play the biggest role.”
He had also addressed MDPETS in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. “There is no doubt that physical presence makes a lot of difference, but the silver lining is that physically I might not have managed to speak to 15,000 presidents. We never know what tomorrow will bring, so let’s wait for the borders to open, and work together to grow more and do more, as we serve to change lives,” says this diehard optimist!
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat and from Shekhar Mehta’s archives.
I am a good emulator and a quick learner; I don’t want to reinvent the wheel; I am ready to learn from others. I have learnt a lot watching PRIP Kalyan Banerjee and so many others. I saw how these leaders, plan, organise, speak. I learnt to achieve excellence in whatever I undertook. Add to that the support of my father in my Rotary journey. He never ever stopped anything I did for Rotary. Ours was a family business and suddenly I’d leave office at 2 pm. Never ever did he say that I was giving too much time for Rotary.
Mehta takes great pride in initiating and motivating Indian Rotarians to work for the goal of making India totally literate. “This was such a big challenge, but with the TEACH programme (developed after painstaking research) we seem to have hit the bull’s eye! Our e-learning programme is being viewed by millions of children everyday over TV channels as well as on one of the largest education e-platforms of the world, Diksha, being run by GoI.
State after state is now approaching RILM for implementation of different programmes under TEACH. The new adult literacy programme of GoI is in fact designed on the white paper provided by Rotary to the education ministry. We’re raring to go all out to make the difference in the total literacy canvas of India by taking the literacy rate to 90 per cent. This is a herculean task… making literate nearly 20 crore Indian adults in the next five years, but Rotary is ready to take 50 per cent of the burden, and work shoulder-to-shoulder with the government.
I had once told you that while I am the face, she is the back office; this has been even more relevant in the last 12–18 months. In 35 years of planning and doing Rotary projects, I could do so much because I didn’t have to look at so many other things. I know only by colour, and not name, the medicines I have to take. When I travel, she ensures my suitcase is packed. Rashi ensures that everything I plan and undertake comes together without any snags. And above all that, she is also present by my side at all meetings and events, listening to my same speeches again and again! The first response I seek, and value, is hers. She knows exactly what is happening or has happened. She’ll say: ‘Shekhar, today you spoke too much, or it wasn’t that good, or very nice or excellent.’
I ask Mehta what is it that makes him so approachable; so that any Rotarian can just pick up a phone and call him, despite his seniority in Rotary. He smiles, and says: “To me the biggest quality of a leader is humility. I admire this in leaders and have tried to imbibe it, and I suppose that makes me easily approachable. I have no airs, nor do I see myself as an ‘RI president’. I see any high position as an added responsibility and I do the work required willingly.
I ask Rashi Mehta what quality of her husband she finds most endearing. As he perks up his ears, she smiles and says: “He speaks from the heart to everybody and for everything. He is very emotional but also very practical. He connects very easily to people because he makes heart-to-heart connections. He is a team player and because of that people love to work with him, even if that work stretches from the night to the morning and beyond. They work with him, and stand by him and that must be because of his love for them, and the passion he has while working for others. And he works absolutely selflessly.
In his Rotary journey he has never looked for a position and worked for it. It has always been the other way around; he has worked very hard, passionately and tirelessly and then the positions came to him. We could see the love showered on us during our visits across India when he became RI director and then president. I believe all that was spontaneous and not due to these positions.
All this doesn’t come just like that. It is your inner intrinsic nature which touches people… you can act for some time but such spontaneous affection and love don’t come unless you are genuine. He is also very frank and honest. If he finds something is being done the wrong way, he immediately says it, but the manner in which he does so makes the other person understand.
He is a total family man, in all our family gatherings everybody loves to have him around because he is very fun-loving, and has a great sense of humour.”
A petrifying moment
I ask Rashi about the most dangerous moment she has faced while going to natural disaster areas with Mehta to deliver relief material. “Yes, sometimes it is scary, but when you see your help making such a big difference, it is so satisfying. One unforgettable experience was after the Kashmir earthquake. We were going beyond Uri to Lal Pul near the Indo-Pak border, where nobody had gone with relief. An 18-year-old Rotaractor was driving the jeep. It was a narrow, treacherous mountain road with a 3,000ft-gorge on one side and suddenly our drive had to come to a halt because a landslide had just started. It was so scary; all of us were holding each other’s hands. Two other Rotarians with us said we should go back. But then we all know Shekhar! He said: ‘No, we have come this far and think of all those people waiting on the other side for this relief material. So, we have to wait and then move forward.’ A landslide was also happening behind us! And Shekhar said to me: ‘Rashi, this is life’s real rollercoaster ride.’ As the landslide in front was cleared, we moved forward, totally unaware how we were going to return. But that did not stop us, we went, not knowing if this would be our last day on earth!”
Five priorities for presidential year
- Membership: Can you imagine an organisation not growing for the last 20 years? I cannot accept this status quo in our membership. For almost two years, I have been asking each member to get one member. It is possible and I have got commitments from across the world for this.
- Flexible, hybrid clubs: When we focus on each-one-bring-one, and bring new members, we will also retain them by having flexible clubs such as cause-based, hybrid clubs, etc. My club has already become a hybrid club; we have virtual meetings and that is the way to go forward. This will also get us young members… when a youngster doesn’t have to drive through traffic and can comfortably log in from home, munching on his samosa, and even attending to a child for a few minutes by switching off the video, they’ll be attracted to join Rotary. Also, elderly members say that young people are not willing to join our club. Okay, form a satellite club with 15 people; when it grows to 25, form a separate club. Or, by that time they may want to assimilate and join your club. Have cause-based clubs; people around the world interested in water and sanitation come together, do water projects in Ethiopia this year, India the next, followed by Bolivia, enjoying worldwide fellowship. Zoom has shown it is possible. The speed with which we can interact is the biggest advantage emerging from this pandemic.
- Empowering girls (see box)
- Presidential conferences: Seven across the world, including one in Hyderabad, India (May 3–5, 2022), on the different focus areas of Rotary.
- Rotary days of service: To showcase the work done by Rotary at the local level by observing heart days, literacy and schools, water and sanitation projects, etc. Let’s make Rotary trend on social media at least twice a month.
From ₹12 crore to ₹300 crore Covid relief projects
When asked how proud is he about individual Rotary clubs raising crores of rupees and even more to help the community and the government fight the Covid pandemic, RIPE Shekhar Mehta says: “I am immensely proud of the work done by Rotarians in India. Two mega projects have been brought to me by PDG Olivannan and RC Madras North President Venkatraman recently. In the first, a corporate with headquarters based in Singapore wants to do a ₹12 crore ($1.65 million) CSR project to provide testing equipment for 100,000 Covid tests in Delhi. They will bring and install it, but they cannot give directly to a hospital and hence Rotary.”
Another project for ₹300 crore ($41.3 million) has also been finalised, “again through their initiative. A group of Indian American philanthropists want to give 50,000 oxygen concentrators in India. Again, these can be transported, “but proper deployment and usage, and speedy and effective execution requires a partner in India. The pilot has already started in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. They realised that Rotary has the capability to do such mega projects; we have a legacy that goes back not one or two years but 35 years, when it comes to our hard work in polio eradication.”
Under Shekhar Mehta’s leadership in 2021–22, “our overarching theme will be empowering girls. World over there is discrimination against the girl child. It takes different forms in different places. In our zone, a big percentage of girls drop out by Class 7 or 8. Can we ensure that we send back such girls to school; give scholarships to retain them? Many states are giving girls bicycles to ride to schools and back home. How about giving them solar lights where there is no electricity so that they can study at home. A girl educated is a family educated. And after completing their education, let us give them skills which brings economic empowerment.
“Let’s take care of their nutrition, especially of pregnant mothers, also teach them self-defence techniques. Surely rapists around the world need to be taught a lesson! Then there is water, sanitation and MHM. The movie Padman has shown this subject — reusable pads and menstrual cups — can be discussed freely without inhibitions. Just for ₹300 ($4), a girl can be given five reusable pads for two years. There is no environmental hazard and social enterprises run by women can get this project started.
So many girls/young women face domestic violence. They need a helpline, with somebody to counsel and solace them in the local language, and get them help. Child abuse, which comes in school education, can also be handled here. There is so much we can do to empower girls and make them equal partners in making this world a better place.”