When Kutch threw up a hero Meet the man who, through his hard work, dedication and skilful liaison with the Gujarat Government, helped Rotary make a deep impact after the 2001 Kutch quake.

With Indira Gandhi at the silver jubilee of the Tarun Mitra Mandal in Bhuj.
With Indira Gandhi at the silver jubilee of the Tarun Mitra Mandal in Bhuj.

We would stack about 20 bodies, one on top of another, get the relatives out of sight and pour petrol on the heap of bodies and set it on fire. There wasn’t enough wood for a decent cremation… our hearts had turned into stone. I worked continuously, day and night, like a man possessed,” recalls Mohan Shah, PDG of District 3050.

I am in Bhuj, to get a look, feel and taste of the 709 primary schools in 181 villages and over 1,000 houses that Rotary built in Kutch after the devastating 2001 earthquake. Describing the horror, anguish and suffering of the people, Shah recalls that doctors treating the wounded said they had no medicines. “So I said, break open the pharmacy shops, make a note of what you take, we’ll pay them later. During such crises, the courage somehow comes to do the right thing.”

I didn’t contest another election because I felt instead of riding a black elephant it is better to ride a white horse! At least in Rotary you can speak the truth.

Earthquakes, floods, famine and a typhoon… he has seen them all. “In fact I was born in 1940 in Balle village, the last village on the Indo-Pak border, bang in the midst of a horrific famine.” This led his parents to shift to Bhuj.

When the earthquake struck Bhuj on January 26, 2001, the District 3050 conference was on in Mount Abu; he could not attend because his son Jay Shah, also a Rotarian from the same club — RC Bhuj —, was to be married on January 30. “So many Rotarians, including the DGE Bharat Dholakia, were at Abu, having left their families behind. The first thing I did was to check the homes of all the Rotarians from Bhuj who had gone to the conference. Next I went to the Collector’s office. The Chief Minister was also there as he had come to hoist the flag.” Bhuj being a border town, and having a strong Indian army and BSF presence, they immediately contacted the armed forces, “but they said we are also heavily affected and can’t help,” recalls Shah.

With PRIP Kalyan Banerjee.
With PRIP Kalyan Banerjee.

With both telephone and electrical lines out, he suddenly remembered an earlier Rotary camp on ham radio, and located two ham radio experts. This proved to be the only mode of communication; a message was sent through ham to Delhi and help came soon after that. “Within days the senior leadership, led by PRIP Kalyan Banerjee, was in Bhuj and we started working in partnership with the government for rebuilding and rehabilitation of the worst affected people.’’ Around 168 NGOs worked for the reconstruction of Kutch, and the highest administrative cost by one NGO was 32 per cent, whereas Rotary’s administration cost was one percent.

 I insisted on Rotary clubs having their own meeting place, saying our religion is humanity and we need to build our own temple to place our bhagwan of humanity. In other temples they put the tilak, here we put pins.

When I exclaim how 32 per cent can be administrative cost in rehabilitation work, he says wryly: “Several NGOs operated from Ahmedabad, would commute in air conditioned cars, stay in Star hotels. But here, the office was mine; computers, telephones electricity, men and car were mine. And those who visited stayed in my house. We were clear — if you want to stay in a hotel, pay the bill.  After all why do people give money?”

With Narendra Modi, when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat.
With Narendra Modi, when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat.

Shah adds that Rotary was the rare NGO to claim and get back from the Government excise duty that had been waived on use of building material; all of Rs 75 lakh. “There was an audit query and I said if you want, we can return it! And then, with  that money we made another school!”

Useful experience

But then Shah has had experience in dealing with natural disasters, and has learnt to keep his head and think quickly on his feet when a natural disaster strikes. In 1998, he recalls, when the typhoon hit Kandla, “Rotary reached there in two hours. It was a terrible sight; children were hanging from electrical wires, telephones lines were washed away. We asked the administration for two new lines and they asked who will pay and I said Rotary will pay for it. Similarly machines were installed at Rotary’s cost to ensure drinking water for the people. Whenever public service is required, Rotary is there to help, our way of working is totally different, and for us in Kutch, money has never been a problem.”

As an LIC development officer I would scout the villages for insurance and 10 days of the month I would have to go 40 to 50 km
on camel back.

So when the beautiful green Hill Garden in Bhuj was built over 22 acres, Rotary partnered with the Gujarat Government; we gave half — Rs 70 lakh —, “it was inaugurated by Saheb (Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he was Gujarat CM) and Rotary is maintaining it for the last 12 years.” Shah has a good rapport with Modi, and when the latter wondered why Rotary had put Rs 70 lakh into the garden, “I joked with him that we are going to build Rotarians’ bungalows here,” he chuckles.

Political connections

Shah, a one-time Congress MLA from Bhuj (1980-85) has excellent political connections cutting across political parties, as well as personal friendship with many bureaucrats and a deep understanding of how the Government machinery works, and was roped in by senior leadership into the tremendous rehabilitation and reconstruction  work that Rotary did in Kutch, forming the  Rotary Gujarat Earthquake Rebuild Trust with PRIP Rajendra K Saboo as chairman, TRF Trustee Chair Kalyan Banerjee as Managing Trustee, the then DG of 3050 Bharat Dholakia and Shah as Trustees, along with past RI Directors Sudarshan Agarwal, O P Vaish, P C Thomas and TRF Trustee Sushil Gupta and PDGs Shashank Rathod and Prafull Bhatt.

At a house built by Rotary in Nirona Village, about 45 km from Bhuj.
At a house built by Rotary in Padhar Village, about 45 km from Bhuj.

But Shah did much more than liaise between Rotary and the Government. His previous experience in natural disasters helped. Recalling the horrific earthquake in Anjar in 1956 he says, “I was only 16, but we reached the town within two hours. There was pitch darkness, it was raining, which made things worse. We had to pull out people from the rubble. There was no food, so we took stuff from shops with snacks and savouries, saying we’ll pay you later. I had this kind of courage from a young age, that when there is a crisis, don’t worry about the consequences or who is before you. Act rapidly.” Later he attended the marriage of one person he had saved in Anjar!

Political career

During his political career he has been the president of the slum dwellers, and auto rickshaw drivers association. “Once a Collector had ordered the demolition of a slum; I reached there immediately and was told that a pregnant woman’s hut had been brought down. I gave the Collector an ultimatum: ‘I want that hut restored and covered with tarpaulin in two hours.”

So did he do it? “Of course,” he chuckles, “the man had to live in Bhuj.”

But, he adds he has done nothing for the slum dwellers compared to his late wife Jyoti, “who they called Amma. Even if a few drops of rain fell, she would collect clothes, bartan full of food from the Swaminarayan temple here and reach the slums to distribute both food and clothes.”  She was so popular that for his election to the Gujarat Legislative Assembly from Bhuj in 1980, “I did not have to go to a single hut; they all knew my wife and said why have you come. From 3 am they had queued up to vote for me.”

He did not contest another election “because I felt instead of riding a black elephant it is better to ride a white horse… here Rotary being the white horse! At least in Rotary you can speak the truth. I found Rotary work more satisfying.”

Another reason was that his political guru had a rift with Indira Gandhi, who he knew personally. “She had come to Bhuj in 1981 to inaugurate the silver jubilee of the Tarun Mitra Mandal which I had established.”

But his liaison and good relations with politicians continues. You name a Prime Minister of India, and he has known or met them all… beginning from Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira, Charan Singh. “As for Vajpayee, along with leaders such as L K Advani, George Fernandes, Madhu Limaye, he has had lunch in my house for a month when the agitation against the Kutch Tribunal awarding some land to Pakistan was going on.”

Rotary journey

Shah’s Rotary journey is very interesting. Though hailing from a lower middle class family, he had friends from rich and influential families — “sons of a minister, a Diwan, a Customs inspector and a barrister. The barrister was a Rotarian and in 1954, he himself would deliver Rotary meet circular to the Rotarians. So I took on that responsibility because at that time the richest and most prominent people in Bhuj were Rotarians. So I felt I should also join Rotary.” He was particularly besotted with Rotarians because “even though I was only a youngster, even to receive the ­circular, the Rotarians would get dressed properly… wearing a full coat, pagdi, etc, to come out and receive it… that is Rotary culture!”

Till 1961 he did a lot of work for Rotary, also bringing out club bulletins and running a night school. “The Rotarians needed a good worker like me and I joined the Rotary Club of Bhuj in 1962, when I was just 22.”

Ask him what Rotary has given him and Shah says — as simply as sincerely — “Rotary has given me my whole life; it has changed me totally as a person, and developed leadership qualities in me.” Above all, he says, as a Rotarian he has been able to help so many people. He became District Governor in 1994-95, and a highlight of his year as DG was “telling all Rotary clubs that you must get your own building to meet. Your club’s meeting place is manavta nu mandir (a temple of humanity), our religion is that of humanity and we need to build our own temple to seat our bhagwan of humanity. In other temples they put the tilak, here we put pins.”

The result of his persuasive talk was that out of 68 clubs in D 3050, about 30 made their own premises on land which was either bought or got from the Government. “In Gwalior, 5 to 7 clubs were struggling to find their own premises and, they managed to get land from Madhavrao Scindia and now they meet there. In Bhuj we have our own place where all the five clubs meet.”

Deep knowledge of Bhuj

His service mindedness (he is Vice President of the Vishwa Gujarat Samaj), knowing the entire Bhuj district like the back of his hand, prior experience in dealing with natural disasters and a way with politicians and bureaucrats that is collaborative in nature, along with his continuing contact with Congress workers… all this jelled beautifully in helping RGERT do reconstruction work on a war footing in Kutch, that left a permanent impact and sent Rotary’s public image soaring.

For instance, points out Shah, as he accompanies me to the homes Rotary built in Padhar, about 45 km from Bhuj, or the school it built in Nirona, “We reached areas no other NGO was willing to go, and often for good reason. Because, if you want to build a couple of schools or some houses in a remote village, no contractor will come. It will not be feasible for him.”

There was also the problem of storing building material; “I made effective use of Congress workers in the villages where we built homes and schools, to guard the material — steel, cement, sand and bricks.”

First LIC crorepati officer

If Shah is extremely proud of his Rotary journey, it is with similar pride that he recounts the story of how he became LIC’s first crorepati development officer. Just before writing his BA final examination, in 1960, he got a job “in LIC as a development officer at a salary of Rs 100. And a couple of days later I got admission in a journalism college in Nagpur, sponsored by a media house. But my mother said you already have a job, why go for a course.” So the dye was cast.

As a development officer he would scout the villages for insurance; “10 days of the month I would have to go 40 to 50 km on camel back.” But he soon realised that small policies and making agents wouldn’t take him too far. “I required a push, so one day I went to the house of the chartered accountant of His Highness of Kutch Maharao Madan Singh. He said get me a scheme that will save his tax, which was then 98 per cent income tax and 8 per cent wealth tax. Which meant that for an income of Rs 100 he was paying a tax of Rs 106!”

The year was 1963-64, and Shah started working earnestly to find such a scheme, even though “I thought he said so only to get rid of me; after all he was the taxation advisor to the Maharao!” As providence would have it, he forgot his pen in the CA’s house, went back for it and met his wife, who turned out to be Shah’s classmate. “So I promptly made her an agent, thinking he’d take me seriously if I worked out something.”

He finally dug out an insurance policy, a 20-year money-back policy where the Maharao could save huge money, getting it back every five years. But the seniors in LIC shot it down saying such relief was not possible. The crestfallen Shah, and the CA, who had gone to the LIC office in Bombay, said anyway they would consult eminent jurist Nani Palkivala, who was the Maharao’s tax adviser.

Palkivala sought a day’s time to go through the scheme, and “next day when he met us asked who had made that plan. I had to of course say it was the CA’s idea, and he said this is absolutely tax-free!”

The elated duo returned to Bhuj and then went to the LIC office and gave “a cheque for a premium of Rs 94,82,608. The amount was so big that the GM insisted on signing the receipt! That was the first time that an LIC development officer had done Rs 1 crore business. And the CA’s wife — Bhuvaneshwari Anjaria became a crorepati agent!” He broke his own record in 1967 with a policy of Rs 2.22 crore, once again from the Maharao, “who was so impressed that from then onwards he did not take any major financial decisions without consulting me.”

It was his good knowledge of insurance that helped the people of Bhuj claim insurance after the earthquake, where he gave two of the offices on the ground floor of his house in Bhuj to two insurance companies, who promptly rejected insurance claims for the damaged/destroyed houses saying that the earthquake was not covered! “But I knew that in Bhuj we pay extra premium for earthquake, so I told them you fill the forms and send to your head office. Next day they shut shop and left!”

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RI Director Bharat Pandya is Treasurer for Rotary International for 2020-21, when Holgar Knaack will be RI President, JohritaSolari will be the Vice President and Stephanie Urchick, the Executive Committee Chair.