Frankly Speaking

From L: RI President Ian Riseley, TRF Trustee Chair Paul Netzel, PRIP Rajendra Saboo and PRIP Kalyan Banerjee.

We Indians love to complain and at the drop of a hat we shoot off a letter. Not only one letter, we send copies to everyone around the world. We should stop that as soon as we can. Though I do feel that overall the total number of complaints from India are going down. But I wish we’d stop marking everyone in the accusations we keep making. There is no reason why we can’t sort out our problems ourselves. Why does it have to go to the RI?”

And thus PRIP Kalyan Banerjee responded to a question addressed to him by PRIP K R Ravindran, moderator of one of the best sessions at the Kuala Lumpur Institute titled ‘Frankly Speaking’.

Ravindran had initially directed the question to RI President Ian Riseley on what was “the best and the worst” he had seen of the Rotary world during his year hitherto at the RI helm.

Juliet and I’ve seen the good work being done in the name of Rotary in India… after the floods in the north (Uttarakhand) we saw the building of schools. It was amazing work appreciated by the young beneficiaries.
— RI President Ian Riseley

Responded Riseley: “The best is easy; Juliet and I have seen a lot of the Rotary world and the absolutely fine projects and the work done in the name of Rotary… it is all so uplifting. The worst is the avalanche of emails I get from India where people accuse each other of being dishonest. And there is a lot of it… four or five a week.”

PRIP Rajendra Saboo at first quipped in a lighter vein: “I am glad that I am not president this year because I come from an era when the email wasn’t there.”

More seriously, he wondered why “we in India are so obsessed about positions. Most of the time such complaints have to do with some election dispute or the other. Though I am a past president of RI, the only thing I will never be is a “past Rotarian till I leave this world.” While joining Rotary, one has to understand “the spirit of Rotary, and not hanker after positions. I don’t know why we can’t sit down and resolve our issues. We have in our midst incoming governors; with that position comes the responsibility that change is continued.”

Unfortunately, added Saboo, the good work that Indian Rotarians do is lost because of such behaviour.

Riseley intervened to say, “I need to balance that; Juliet and I have had the opportunity to see the good work being done in the name of Rotary in India. For example, after the floods in the north (Uttarakhand), we saw the building of schools. It was amazing work and the reception from the young people to this work was amazing.”

DG G V Rama Rao presents a memento to RI President Ian Riseley as TRF Trustee Chair Paul Netzel, PRIPs Rajendra Saboo, Kalyan Banerjee and K R Ravindran look on.

He added, “I accept the fact that in Rotary we have cultural differences and that is the way this should be seen. But even if it is a legitimate complaint or otherwise, I don’t understand why it should be sent not only to me but every member of the Board, every Trustee and everybody else who has an email address! It baffles us and it gives those of us who are in some position of leadership beyond the subcontinent to believe that everything, as they say in Hamlet, is rotten in the state of Denmark! It gives us the impression that Indian Rotary can’t govern itself, which I am sure is not right.”

TRF Trustee Chair Paul Netzel added, “Let me echo the sentiments of President Riseley; I too have been inundated with emails along the same lines, but I have to point out that this is the superficial perspective we would get if we didn’t have the opportunity to visit India. But when you visit India, you get the absolutely amazing experience to see the fabulous work being done.”


Quality of membership

In another question directed to “the two big ones from India”, Ravindran asked: “In our zones, in the process of increasing members, are we dropping quality and bringing Rotarians who shouldn’t be in Rotary?”

Responding, Banerjee said that during the Institute’s inaugural session RI Director C Basker was “very optimistic about numbers from India, but when the (RI) President spoke, he had a note of doubt about how real are those numbers. And that is a feeling that I have heard expressed countless times in RI. How real are the numbers from India? I am afraid I have heard of clubs or districts where the total number of members might be 1,000 but the number presented to RI is 750 and the other 250 might be paying their dues but the information is not sent to RI.”

Where are the big doctors, surgeons, lawyers, professors? Do we have among the top 10 industrialists in India as our members? Perhaps not even the top 50… because we don’t ask them.
— Past RI President Kalyan Banerjee

The person who could rightly answer this question, he added, was Jatinder Singh from the South Asia Office in Delhi “rather than me! But apart from numbers, to me the quality certainly needs to improve. Where are the big doctors, surgeons, lawyers, professors? Do we have among the top 10 industrialists in India as our members? Perhaps not even the top 50. The problem is we don’t ask them.”

Banerjee expressed his displeasure that too often Indian Rotarians rushed to make dignitaries honorary members and “an honorary member is member only for one year. The man coming in doesn’t know that at the end of the year his membership means nothing at all. He doesn’t probably care. So why are we going through the gimmick of making honorary members? It means nothing to them at all. And we are missing out on the really big ones who could become members.”

This was not so in other countries; “I can tell you in Uganda, the Chief Justice, the Chairman of the Bank of Uganda, etc, were Rotary members. This doesn’t happen in India.”

On the avalanche of emails that Riseley receives, Ravindran asked Saboo if he is happy that as the RI President in 1991–92, “you didn’t have to face what Ian is facing. Do you believe the president of today has to have a different group of skill sets?”

RI President Ian Riseley and TRF Trustee Chair Paul Netzel.
RI President Ian Riseley and TRF Trustee Chair Paul Netzel.

Saboo quipped, “I don’t know about that but I feel I was really busy that time also! At that time the fax was the fastest mode of communication and as president elect I wanted to have a fax machine, as on the 18th floor there was only one fax machine. And I was told: ‘It is so expensive that it will not be covered in your budget.”

He then went on to relate how he had to send fax messages on all kinds of issues in advance, including “Usha and I being vegetarians… nobody understood what a vegetarian is.”

Riseley quipped in an aside “Nothing has changed!”

Saboo recalled he had requested his wife Usha to make a list of vegetarian dishes and how to prepare them. On one occasion, prior to their visit to Brazil, his secretary faxed 22 pages on vegetarian dishes with their recipes. During the visit when food was served, “they brought a dish which had fish on top of it. Usha said but this is fish. And the man serving it said: ‘Take it out.’ So the RI Director said, ‘this man did not read any of the 22 pages you had sent!’ That was the kind of communication we had. Yes, life was different; maybe the pace was slow, but there was enough work!”


Why not elect Trustees

Next Ravindran asked Netzel why couldn’t TRF Trustees be elected like Directors rather than the President simply appointing them.

Netzel felt the current system whereby an independent committee reviews nominations of potential trustees and then makes recommendations to the President Elect, who then sends it to the Board of Directors, “is okay. But it misses an important ingredient. I feel this system is deficient in not having representation from all the parent zones in the world.” So the election of Trustees in the future was an option.

If elected, the Trustees will come with their own authority and there will be two parallel bodies and I fear that RI may get relegated to the second positon because TRF will have all the money!
— Past RI President Rajendra K Saboo

But Banerjee disagreed and said that what shouldn’t be forgotten is that TRF is an arm of Rotary International, and “if we keep the two as ­independent bodies, we are likely to run into uncomfortable situations. After all the President Elect and nominating committee may recommend names, but it is the RI Board which finally okays the list of Trustees. I think it is doing alright. But the audience might not like it, I can understand the reason why!”

Saboo agreed with Banerjee and added, “If the Trustees are elected then they come with their own authority and there will be two parallel bodies and I fear that RI may get relegated to the second positon because TRF will have all the money.” It was better to have one supreme body which was the RI Board; “and if all the zones are not represented, then increase the number of Trustees but go through the same process.”


“Unofficial formula” on RI President

Ravindran then posed a question on the prevailing “unofficial formula” that while one RI President should come from the US, the next two should be from outside the US. Riseley said such an understanding of a revolving basis did exist; “I don’t like that for two reasons. First, it is an unwritten ­understanding; second, it is the responsibility of the nominating committee to select the best possible person for the role.” He had recently discussed this with the Board of Directors and they had agreed with him that the very concept of an unwritten understanding was outdated. “So I have written to all past directors to suggest that if they proposed to be on the nominating committee, it is their responsibility to choose the best candidate, irrespective of the nationality.”

He would also be suggesting to the next CoL through the RI Board on a limitation not to have a president from the same country for two successive years. “We should free it up as much as possible because the nominating committee should choose the best candidate for the job.”

Netzel too agreed this was the correct way to go; as the current system was outdated and needed to be changed.

Saboo and Banerjee were not in sync; they felt that if the system was reversed there could be a stream of ­presidents coming from the same country.

Ravindran quipped as an aside “I was hoping there may be three presidents in a row from India”! Shot back Riseley: “And the next 10 from Australia!”


Institute in a foreign land

Ravindran next quizzed Saboo on his well-known views on holding major training events like a Zone Institute or MDPETS and PETS/SETS outside the region in foreign locations. “I strongly disagree; having this Institute in ­Malaysia is a lot cheaper than in any of the Indian metros,” he said.

Saboo’s response: “Let me be very frank and this is not against anyone. But rupee to rupee value… I feel it is unfair to have the Institute outside the zones for many reasons. We think it is cheaper, but you have to look at the sponsors from whom the money is being collected… sums of ₹10 or 15 lakh or even more. And some of them are giving that money in return for some favour!”

The Institutes were meant for PDGs, current DGs and incoming DGs. But some of the DGEs returned from such Institutes to hold their PETS and SETS in places like “Dubai or Hong Kong, where they go for fun and there is no element of training at all. Now we in India are wanting to have a Convention and people say you don’t have a place in India for an Institute and you want to have a Convention? These are some of the questions we have to ask.”

Saboo added that the justification for MDPETS (of which, he suggested, Ravindran was a strong proponent) was that the RI President gets to meet and interact with so many club leaders in one place. “Well, this is in his interest, but not in the interest of the districts, the DGs or the club leaders.”

Ravindran responded, “I am the moderator so I can’t debate with you but let’s see what Paul has to say about that.”

Netzel disagreed with Saboo and said, “The MDPETS started in my zone some 30-plus years ago in California. I have been exposed to a dozen and there is nothing that prevents the governors from meeting with or working with their club presidents, which is critical. And in such a large audience it is possible to get the RI President, RIPE and other Rotary dignitaries. In how many district conferences of PETS is this possible? So I am in favour of MDPETS.”

Ravindran summed up the session saying it had been tailored to give the Institute participants an idea of what and how the RI Board and the Trustees operate. “How people at the highest level debate. They don’t always agree but they disagree in an agreeable manner and this is what gives strength to Rotary; the ability to extract diverse opinion and arrive at the best conclusion. And this is what we lack often in our zones… it is like either do it this way or no way!.”

Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat


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