How has been your year so far?
I couldn’t have asked for anything more; we have visited over 30 countries…
What did you enjoy the most during these visits?
Meeting hundreds and thousands of Rotarians across the world; first, thousands on zoom and then hundreds in person. There is of course nothing like meeting Rotarians in person. You can talk to them, understand their issues. They want to take pictures with you. The RI president is perhaps the most photographed person in the world.
Is the craze for taking pictures as bad elsewhere as it is in India?
The degree may vary but everybody wants a picture with the RI president! And you can’t say no, because I realise that 25 years ago, when I was 35, when the president came to India, I wouldn’t have had the courage to go up to him to ask for a picture. So why should I be pricey?
Seeing the projects was outstanding, especially those pertaining to empowering girls. There wasn’t a single place that I visited where they did not take me to a project to empower girls. It was really wonderful. I can never forget that hall in Nigeria where I saw hundreds and hundreds of girls stitching sanitary pads. Rashi sat down to sew with them. Then there was the project for skill development and training of girls in computers and other job-related skills.
There wasn’t a single place that I visited where they did not take me to a project to empower girls.
In Kolkata, in my own district, my own club (RC Calcutta Mahanagar) was doing the project titled Veerangana, where they have trained more than 5,000 girls. And when my club presented it, the Kolkata police picked up a few girls and said we will train them further and give them jobs.
In Egypt, on International Women’s Day, they showed me so many outstanding projects pertaining to empowering girls. And mind you these were women Rotarians working to empower girls. By the way, Egypt has one of the highest women’s membership in the Rotary world. They first showed us a place where they were making dolls. They presented us two stuffed dolls which were replicas of Rashi and I. The quality was so good that my first reaction was that they should be selling them at Harrods!
Then they talked about hygiene, creating awareness for girls; they took me to a kind of projects fair with 20-plus booths, all of them manned by women, and where women were demonstrating their talent.
In Singapore, had a very meaningful meeting with President Halimah Yacob and discussed issues ranging from mental health to empowering girls. She was so happy to partner with Rotary for such projects.
So, do you think finally women are getting traction in Rotary, both in service projects as well as membership?
Oh yes, through membership too. Growth has been there. Yesterday I was discussing membership growth with the district governors, and they have two sets of figures; the total growth and the number of women among the new members.
How well has the membership mantra worked out?
I am very happy, we started at 1.16 million. Today we are at 1.2 million; 38,000 new members have been added through the year. We still have the two most potent months left when there is heavy growth because of new clubs being added. The staff tell me these are the best months when the highest number of new clubs are formed and I too am not taking my foot off the pedal. The growth rate has been outstanding. India has been the shining star… the North star as it were as far as membership is concerned. They have till now, added this year 18,000 net members, I am sure the net growth will be 20,000 by the year end. Which means that in one year we would have achieved what we normally do in five years. Our growth over the last 10 years has been 40,000. This year we’ll add 20,000 net members against the normal 4,000.
What about membership growth in other parts of the world?
When I visited (South) Korea, they said we’ve already added over 6,000 members and we want to cross 10,000. Their goal was 17,000 but now they have reduced it to 10,000. Africa is doing the same, as well as Brazil, every zone is growing, except for one. On the Rotaract front too, the growth has been good.
That means the developing countries are doing much better in membership growth?
Yes, and that is because they can showcase the work that Rotarians do in these communities. It is also an aspirational thing… a very strong feeling, because people think ‘wow, I am going to be a part of Rotary.’ Add to this the opportunities for service, which are greater in our parts of the world. Here Rotarians do a lot of work and the local community and government agencies recognise that work.
Do you think this momentum will continue with RIPE Jennifer Jones and subsequent RI presidents?
Whether the mantra each one bring one is there or not, grow more do more is there or not, people have now realised that it is possible to have positive growth. And each one bring one has worked. In India 65 per cent of the growth has been thanks to each one bring one.
You and Rashi are both vegetarians; any interesting anecdotes regarding availability of vegetarian food during your extensive travel?
The very first place we went to was Cameroon. I had not expected vegetarian food to be available. We always carry some food with us, snacks and dehydrated packets that you get in domestic flights. But amazingly enough, we didn’t have to use a single packet because the Rotarians take such good care. The chairman of the institute ensured that all the table had fixed meals and a trolley came around for us with Indian vegetarian food, and the menu was different every day! She got in touch with an Indian friend who advised her what to offer us.
Interestingly, we got to savour really good vegetarian food and we had one of the best pizzas during the Rose Parade in the US. Food, fortunately, was not a problem at all, because Rotarians across the world took great care … they went out of the way to ensure this. For the last presidential conference in Venice, on all the days I was there, everybody on my table had to eat only vegetarian food.
So they didn’t serve any meat on the table?
But I’ve seen that you don’t mind meat being served on your table for other non-vegetarians.
Yes, I don’t mind at all, but this shows the respect and thoughtfulness of Rotarians. And they would find out before my arrival what I liked and there would be so much of Diet Coke wherever I went.
Interestingly, we had very good quality Indian vegetarian food in the best restaurant in Bahrain! We were in Sao Paulo and they took us to an Indian restaurant being run by a Gujarati couple, Lucky and Hansa… the food was great. So vegetarian food was no problem. And the food at the latest meet — the CoL — was excellent. I organised many receptions for the RI Board, one for the Trustees and others, and every time we offered Indian food, and they loved it.
In the remaining time you have, what is going to be your focus; anything remains undone?
Focus continues to be on membership; we’ve got new members, now we will have to retain all the additional members, and not let them slip out. If we can ensure this, it will be a huge victory. That is one, keep adding, grow more clubs and try hard they don’t leave and even if someone is leaving, try and convince them to stay back. Coming to the ‘do more’ part, keep doing all that you have been doing to empower girls and women.
How was life in Evanston? At home you are used to so much domestic help, but in the US, you have to do all the work yourself! How big a challenge was that?
(Smiles) Well, during the last leg, Rashi wasn’t with me; this was the only time Rashi didn’t go with me because after the Board meet and the CoL, we both had to come to India for the Hyderabad presidential conference. So, for first time in my life, I had to make breakfast for myself.
What did you make? Don’t tell me you had cornflakes!
Not much; I made cold coffee and toast with some avocado spread. It was the first time that I operated a washing machine. I didn’t know what to do. Even now I have not used a dishwasher. These were new experiences and opportunity for new learning and I was ready to learn. Rashi, whenever she was there, liked to cook. We would buy our grocery and she would cook. But we really didn’t stay in Evanston for too many days. For the first year we weren’t there, and the first year involves staying in Evanston, planning and discussing your year with the staff, meeting and inspiring people.
Looking back, if you had this opportunity all over again, is there one thing you’d do differently or more passionately?
(Shakes his head). No, I would do exactly what I’ve done. I am very happy with the results, the biggest bonus which I had not expected was my meetings with the various heads of state. That was absolutely unique as well as the fact that in every country we went, to meet the president or the prime minister, we had something to offer on behalf of Rotary. That was absolutely great. For example, when I met the president of Albania, the first thing he said was ‘Tell me your excellency…’ which was very interesting…he calls me excellency!
But that’s because an RI president is almost like the head of a state… a kind of country or community of 1.2 million people!
Let me give you some interesting data. If you google countries with population and you stop at 1.2 million, which is now what our membership is, you’ll find 40 per cent of the countries have less population than Rotary!
You got so much respect and attention wherever you went; of course as RI president, but do you think it was also because you’re an Indian, because I believe Indians are generally liked and India is getting new respect around the world!
(Shakes his head) No, it’s mainly Rotary. But I am so happy that before I left, I met Prime Minister Narendra Modi. That was an excellent meeting and I didn’t expect it to last so long. His opening statement was very informal and cordial and one of the best compliments I got from him was when he said: Shekharji jaiye, desh videsh ki seva kijiye, aur ho sakey to desh mei poshan ka kaam kijiye (Go and serve the world, and if you can, work on the issue of better nutrition for our people). That the prime minister wants Rotary to work on something was really wonderful to note.
When I met the president of Albania, he asked what is it that my country can do for your organisation, and by the time we finished, he shook my hand and said thank you so much for agreeing to do so much for my country!
What kind of promises did you make on behalf of Rotary, and how will you ensure they are followed up?
Each of these promises we made, building a hospital here and a blood bank there and promise of so many heart surgeries… they are all being followed up rigorously. The first set of children from Uganda have already come to India. At Seychelles I promised we’d do 50 paediatric heart surgeries. Next day I posted it in governors’ group and I got an immediate response… Ramesh Meher of RI District 3030 said we’ll do all of them. They also wanted nurses and asked can you ensure their training for palliative care. When I was in London, I asked the Rotarians is this something you can do and they said we want to do it.
Things are getting done; at the Copenhagen climate meet, at one roundtable meet, we said we will set up mangroves in seven countries. After that I visited Bahrain and Mauritius, which were not in that list. But they too needed mangroves and we are helping them too; 10 countries in all. In another three months, the work will begin in these countries.
For me, every promise has to lead to action.
How exhausting was your year? Everybody knows you sleep very little, but even then, this would have been another level.
It’s a backbreaking job but I wasn’t tired for one moment; we’ve been travelling from country to country, city to city, taking flights at odd hours, sometimes managing sleep only for 2–3 hours at a stretch, but touch wood, I’m not tired one bit. And best of all, Rashi matched me step by step. She went to almost every project… just missing maybe two or four.
Will it be a relief to get back home?
While I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of my job, I am looking forward to July 1, to return home, not to rest, but to start the work we have promised. With each step you take, you learn so much, the vision becomes broader, thinking becomes bigger, your horizon expands. So I am waiting to come back and begin the work.
Jennifer Jones is going to be the first woman RI president; what strengths do you think she will bring to the job?
She is full of ideas and a very warm person and that’s what Rotarians need. When she goes anywhere, she will go down from the podium, meet and greet everyone… Rotarians want that, they don’t want you to be in an ivory tower. She will do well.