Rotarians should be courageous, counter divisive activity

Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar has called upon Rotarians from both India and Bangladesh to fight the “divisive forces” that were trying to undermine the unity of their countries. He told Indian Rotarians “to be courageous and oppose the divisive activity happening in the country and counter it strongly. You must try and ensure that the unity and integrity of our people is maintained.”

Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar lights a lamp to inaugurate the International Conference Setubandhan. On his left are RI District 3282 DG Tayub Chowdhury and RI District 3240 DG Sunil Saraf; and on his right Bangladesh Railway Minister Mazibul Hoque and RC Agartala City President Dr S K Banik.
Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar lights a lamp to inaugurate the International Conference Setubandhan. On his left are RI District 3282 DG Tayub Chowdhury and RI District 3240 DG Sunil Saraf; and on his right Bangladesh Railway Minister Mazibul Hoque and RC Agartala City President Dr S K Banik.

Inaugurating the multi-district conference titled Setubandhan (building a bridge), in which Rotarians from RI Districts 3240 (India) and 3282 (Bangladesh) participated, he said first of all Rotarians from both India and Bangladesh have to assess the situation prevailing in their respective countries. Taking India first he said, “The situation prevailing in India is not good and turning from bad to worse. The secular fabric of our country is under severe attack and democracy is under peril. Divisive forces are trying to divide people of our country… particularly the downtrodden, working classes, who are rendered unable to solve their basic problems like food security, shelter, clothing, healthcare and livelihood.”

Sarkar said that unless we can sort out these problems “within our own country, what is the point of raising the slogan of friendship, bonds and bridges between India and Bangladesh?”

In both India and Bangladesh, divisive forces are trying to weaken the unity and integrity of the people. This is affecting the poor and the downtrodden the worst.
– Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar

Similarly, he added, “the situation in Bangladesh is not good too. Some of the forces there are not happy with the independence or liberation of Bangladesh and are trying to vitiate the atmosphere there by fanning religious hatred. They are trying to weaken the unity and integrity of the people of Bangladesh. Long hands are active in both these countries. So I appeal to the Rotarians of Bangladesh also to do your best to strengthen the unity of your people. Only then you can take necessary steps to build a bridge of friendship with India.”

CM made honorary Rotarian

RI District 3240 DG Sunil Saraf appealed to the Chief Minister to become an honorary member of RC Agartala City and he promptly agreed, and was presented the Rotary pin.

PRIP Kalyan Banerjee being honoured with a memento by (from L) Setubandhan Convener Baharul Islam Majumder and D 3282 DG Tayub Chowdhury, as D 3240 DG Sunil Saraf looks on.
PRIP Kalyan Banerjee being honoured with a memento by (from L) Setubandhan Convener Baharul Islam Majumder and D 3282 DG Tayub Chowdhury, as D 3240 DG Sunil Saraf looks on.

Addressing the meeting, Past RI President Kalyan Banerjee said he was very happy to see such a large contingent (660 of 800 delegates were from Bangladesh) of Rotarians from Bangladesh had come to take part in Setubandhan. He recalled the words of the former US President D Eisenhower, who had said: “If only the people will come together, so too will nations”, and that’s just “what you are doing today — bringing people together — not just in Dhaka and Kolkata but in smaller places like Agartala, where I can say that people are very warm- hearted. Indeed, smaller places build firmer, stronger friendships. They build lasting relationships.”

Another US President, “Woodrow Wilson, I think, said that if I could, I would start a Rotary club in every village and in every town and so ensure growth, prosperity, harmony and peace everywhere. And when you really think about it, it’s true, isn’t it,” asked Banerjee.

Now that I am a past RI President and past TRF Trustee Chair, I am really jobless in Rotary. Let me help you if you need any help.
I have plenty of time for you.
– PRIP Kalyan Banerjee

He said just one example from the plethora of things that Rotary does would suffice. “In the International Youth Exchange programme, students from one country stay in the homes of Rotarians in another country, living their lives, studying in their schools, eating their food. Believe me, it’s a life-changing programme. When they return, they are never the same. They now understand the world better, tolerate more, share your joys and your sorrows and for both, the students and their host families, host brothers and sisters, it is a life-changing experience. Try it out if you have not done so already.”

3240–3282 exchange programme

They could start, suggested Banerjee, by exchanging students between Districts 3240 and 3282 for a year. He told the parents in the hall, “Trust me, please don’t worry about your child losing a year in school. These exams do not matter, because your children will get an experience they can never get otherwise, no matter how much money you spend!”

And why confine the IYE programme only to two places, he said. “Let your children know the subcontinent of India — Rajasthan, Kanyakumari, Bhubaneswar, Mumbai, Pune. There is a wonderful, growing, changing world out there; let us become a part of it. And if you need my help, let me know what I can do. Now that I am a past RI President and past TRF Trustee Chair, I am really jobless in Rotary. Let me help you if you need any help. I have plenty of time for you.”

RI Districts 3240 and 3282 DGs and their spouses exchange gifts.
RI Districts 3240 and 3282 DGs and their spouses exchange gifts.

Banerjee added that both as RI President and then TRF Chair, one of his main focus areas was building low-cost shelters for homeless people… “a simple, 300 sq ft construction, with a tiled roof and a toilet. A small pump attached to an overhead small tank and you are in business. You have given a home… a shelter, which means security,” he said, recalling the low-cost shelters that had been built in Bangladesh, a country that has been pounded by many disasters — both droughts and floods. One of the worst cyclones the country saw was in 1991, in which 135,000 people were killed and thousands of homes were destroyed. Along with others, Banerjee recalled, Rotary also built low-cost shelters in the country. (In the Rotary year 1997–98, as many as 530 low-cost shelters were built and handed over to beneficiaries under matching grants received by 53 different clubs of the country. A sum of $636,000 was received from TRF by these clubs under matching grants.)

There was nothing like giving a home to a family who didn’t have one, or had lost it in a natural disaster. “So, go and build homes. Having a home gives a new meaning of life to the homeless,” he said, urging the Rotarians to also ensure that they put an end to the practice of open defecation by putting up toilets. Having family members go out in the open to relieve themselves had all kinds of dangerous possibilities, he said, and related the story of a leopard recently having attacked a child in a congested city such as Mumbai, in the Aarey Milk Colony.

I got the idea why not make the Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar an honorary Rotarian. We asked, and he agreed.
– DG Sunil Saraf

Low-cost schools

Banerjee looked back with satisfaction at “one of the last things I could do, as Chair of TRF last year. That was to get the Trustees to approve the construction of low-cost schools — 2–3 classrooms, village schools in places where there are no schools.” In such places, children either had to walk or cycle for miles to go to the nearest school. “And, if they are girls, they have to miss out on going to school altogether. That’s not acceptable. Not in this day and age. Not in modern India nor in Bangladesh. So get together, get some Government or idle and free land, and build a school. It will be the most satisfying thing you can do.”

He told the Rotarians that now they can use TRF Global Grant funds for school construction, but of course, adhering to the guidelines that had been given. (See https://rotarynewsonline.org/now-global-grants-low-cost-shelters-simple-schools/, August 2017 issue of Rotary News). These guidelines could also be got from RI South Asia office; “or you can write to me. Let’s make India fully literate,” he added.

A literate India

While bringing total literacy to India was a daunting task and it was often asked can it be done through Rotary, “as I have always said, thanks to PolioPlus, the world discovered Rotary, and more importantly, Rotarians discovered themselves. Just think about it. We know we can do whatever we set out to do, whatever needs to be done. Someone once described Rotary as having the tenderness, the softness, the kindness of a parent and the strength of a Government. Indeed, it is my experience in my years in Rotary that’s exactly what we are.”

From R: RI District 3240 DG Sunil Saraf, RI District 3282 DG Tayub Chowdhury, Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, Bangladesh Railway Minister Mazibul Hoque and RC Agartala City President Dr S K Banik.
From R: RI District 3240 DG Sunil Saraf, RI District 3282 DG Tayub Chowdhury, Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, Bangladesh Railway Minister Mazibul Hoque and RC Agartala City President Dr S K Banik.

Banerjee concluded leaving a final thought with the impressive gathering of over 800 Rotarians. “We talk a lot about our fourth avenue of service — of International service, of cooperation, understanding and peace.” RI also had its “much-promoted peace programmes and peace scholarships. But I have often wondered, is the world any more peaceful because of our programmes and scholarships? Are we making a difference or bringing in peace? And I don’t feel satisfied with what we are doing. Are you satisfied, let me ask you,” he said.

Rotarians have to reflect if what they were doing was fine or it needed tweaking, or they should do something different. “I often think we need more peace nearer home — maybe in our own homes — than in the world. Peace between Nagaland and the rest of the country. Peace in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, among our students when they go to other parts of India and where they are not treated properly. Should those not be a priority for us Indian Rotarians and our neighbours,” he asked, and quoted the English saying, the gist of which is that it’s not difficult to care for the whole wide world; it’s that fellow next door who is the real problem!

Someone once said Rotary has the tenderness, softness, kindness of a parent and the strength of a Government. In my years in Rotary, I’ve found that’s exactly what we are.
– PRIP Kalyan Banerjee

An immense challenge

President of the host club, RC Agartala City Dr S K Banik said that even though theirs was a small club with only 40 members, they took on the challenge, “for the first time, of having a conference, and that too an international one, where over 800 delegates were registered. Finding rooms, and organising transport and other facilities for the 660 delegates from Bangladesh was indeed a big challenge, but our Rotarians worked as a team to organise this Setubandhan.”

He said that recently he was taken aback when he was asked at a school that “when the GoI itself is doing Swachh Bharat, what can Rotary do.” But he had the presence of mind to quickly reply, “Whatever the government cannot do, Rotary will do.”

Saying that Tripura had very good human index indicators, he explained that while literacy was 100 per cent in this tiny North eastern State, maternal and infant mortality rates were much lower than in the rest of India. “And we have a maximum number of institutionalised deliveries; I should know because I am by profession a gynaecologist.” And for somebody from a city like Chennai, it came as a pleasant surprise to find the city so clean and green.

Dr Banik added that the club’s motto was to do projects that were sustainable; “we have some unique projects and one of these is a dialysis centre where low-cost dialysis facilities are available, in Jorhat, which was inaugurated recently.” And now his focus was on “formalising some sustainable joint projects with clubs from Bangladesh”.

DG Saraf said District 3240 includes nine States, parts of West Bengal “and geographically, it is one of the largest districts in the world. When I took over as the DG, we had 87 clubs, now we have 88. Most of the clubs are focused on upgrading the infrastructure in the schools. And I am so happy to find, from my visits, that the Rotarians are upgrading schools and providing clean water to the community.”

DG Tayub Chowdhury from D 3282 said he and his Rotarians were very happy to plan and execute joint projects with Rotarians from D 3240. Bangladesh Railway Minister Mazibul Hoque delivered the keynote speech.

A colourful and impressive rally that began its march from the Rabindro Bhavan, where the conference was organised, served its purpose to raise the public image of Rotary.

Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat

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