The frail woman could barely be heard over the mike as the Rotarians at the Birla Mahagarh hall in Kolkata strained their ears to decipher what she was saying. Supriya Mandal, the mother of Vinod, a poor boy with a congenital heart disease whose surgery was done with help from Rotary Club of Calcutta Mahanagar, was asked to speak again, using another mike. But while her words did not register, her choked voice and the sobs she tried to control, told the story. That her child was healthy and normal thanks to the Rotarians of this Club.
The occasion was RC Mahanagar celebrating its 25th anniversary and recalling various milestones in its journey; 750 heart surgeries for poor children with help from famous Cardiac Surgeon Dr Devi Shetty and his team took the pride of place. Other achievements were providing 6,000 shelter kits with 52 items, helping 30,000 people in 20 natural disasters across India and Nepal; building 1,000 toilets in rural Bengal by the end of this year, setting up 100 e-learning centres in Government schools, 100 libraries, starting a bloodline project which has become very popular in Kolkata and for which a mobile app is now available, sending 500 children back to school this year, giving 150 scholarships under its iconic Udaan project and giving the City of Joy the Mahanagar Peace Park adjoining the Victoria Memorial.
Striking a nostalgic note at the meet, PRID Shekhar Mehta, a member of this club, recalled several of its milestones. He described how over 25 years the club had evolved … “we learned to dream big, scaled new heights of service, faltered and had setbacks and yet we came out triumphant, identified the needs of community and fulfilled them.”
He said a turning point in his and the club’s journey was his visit to RC Vapi, the club of PRIP Kalyan Banerjee, who was the chief guest for the celebration. “I found it to be an amazing club which then had only 54 members, but it showed me the power of what only one Rotary club could do. Seeing them, we learned to dream big, conceive projects which were beyond our capacity and capability. People derided us and said you’re building castles in the air but our members eventually proved them wrong. We said we will try. Chaley, girey, sambhalkar phir girey lekin, manzil tak zaroor pahunchey. (We walked, stumbled and fell, but recovered to reach our goals.)”
To honour club members who are no more, he announced scholarships in the names of Pradeep Tibrewal, Ramesh Khaitan and Prem Fatehpuria.
Indian RCs unmatched
Addressing the meet, PRIP Kalyan Banerjee said the milestones of RC Calcutta Mahanagar detailed at this “awesome event proves once again that the service that Rotary clubs do in India is totally unmatched by Rotary clubs anywhere else in the world. Our clubs are changing lives of thousands and thousands time and again.”
All praise for Mehta, who he had known since 1995 when both were in Nepal doing a Presidential Conference for RI President Herbert G Brown, he congratulated the club for its great work, and urged them to think of what they would do in the next 25 years. “But well before that, you are going to give RI a President whose roots are in Kolkata. The other day somebody in Delhi asked me ‘Kalyan, you are an experienced Rotarian, what does it take to become an RI President?’ I said sabse pehle shift to Kolkata, and I’ll tell you the rest later.” He added that all RI Presidents from India were either born in Kolkata or had strong links with the city.
As the incoming Trustee Chair of the Foundation, he would wait till the next fortnight to divulge his goals for total giving for the Centennial. These would be unveiled at the International Assembly in San Diego later that month. But the tremendous service being done by Rotary clubs in India, be it in WinS, literacy or so many other life-transforming projects, was giving India a terrific exposure at the international level. Lauding Mehta for the “tremendous leadership he has shown in the goal to make South Asia totally literate,” he said when he had espoused this cause as RI President in 2011–12, “I had no idea how we would make South Asia totally literate. But along came Shekhar from nowhere and took up the challenge, and has worked in a way that has surprised even me. There have been doubting Thomases and nay-sayers, just as we had in polio, but ultimately we did it … we eliminated polio from India.”
Thanks to Mehta’s initiative, drive and energy, today Rotary’s literacy programme was recognised by the Indian HRD Ministry. “We want India to be literate by 2017; it may happen or it may not happen. But let’s remember we had thought of making India polio-free initially by 2000, and then 2005, when Rotary was celebrating its 100th year.” Subsequently India became polio-free, and Nigeria followed very quickly, and Pakistan was on its way. “Don’t be surprised if Pakistan reports zero cases within the next six months. This might just happen. And after that Afghanistan cannot be far behind,” he added.
By 2016–17, “if we can make India 80 or 85 per cent literate,” it will be a centennial to remember. For this landmark year, he urged each South Asian club to take up at least one signature project during the year. “But it should be new and it should be big; finish it if you can during the year or else continue it the next year.”
Banerjee gave the example of a club in Belgaum which had taken up a traffic project mainly for the young as many youngsters were speeding on motor cycles without licences and causing several accidents. This project was making a huge difference to the community.
TRF targets for 2016–17
While he would announce TRF Centennial targets at the International Assembly in San Diego (the next fortnight), “some leakages” had already taken place, so he’d share a little secret, he said. At the GETS at the recent Jaipur Institute, “I believe the incoming Governors from India have decided to raise the total giving target to $27 million from India. I said ‘Wow’ because right now India is at $13 or 14 million. If this target is achieved we will become the No 2 giving country, only behind the US, and would have by far overtaken Japan which gives something like $18 million. This is something all of us can cherish.”
As for the future of Rotary, it could be what each Rotarian dared to dream. “For me, polio showed that we Rotarians can do anything, be it polio, literacy, housing. Thanks to polio, the Indian government today thinks Rotary can do anything, and now we’re working with it to make illiteracy history in India.”
So what next, he asked. “How about banishing hunger, or ensuring that every Indian family has a home? As chairman of TRF I am going to bring back low-cost shelters as part of Rotary’s programme in the coming year. How about making sure every young Indian has a job, whether in agriculture, technology, infrastructure or teaching?”
Urging the Club to plan for the next 25 years, Banerjee related the story of a brash young reporter telling Winston Churchill on his 90th birthday that he looked pretty healthy, and he hoped to see him on his 100th birthday too. “Churchill took out his cigar, looked him up and down and said: ‘I don’t see why not, you seem to be in perfectly good health!’ So when you celebrate your 50th birthday and call me, I am going to be there. Watch out for that.”
President of the Club Raakesh Jain thanked four other Rotary clubs — RCs Calcutta Mega City, Calcutta South City Towers, Central Calcutta and Calcutta Merlin — which had joined his club to celebrate this milestone. To mark its silver jubilee, RC Calcutta Mahanagar had started four new flagship projects this year and three more would be launched in the next 6 months, taking the “total value of the work done by us this year to Rs 6 crore,” he added.
Congratulating the club, DGE Shyamashree Sen urged other clubs in the District to “learn from this club how to do Rotary.”
Pictures by: Rasheeda Bhagat