Incoming RI Director Bharat Pandya very obviously does not wear the power of his position on his sleeve. A soft spoken and erudite man and a voracious reader, he takes the trouble to note down striking lines/quotes from what he is reading. He engages his audience with such inspirational quotes so skillfully woven into his narrative that you can tell these are not pulled out from a Google search on memorable quotes!
I meet Pandya and his wife Madhavi, both medical doctors, at their home in Borivali in Mumbai, a simple and spacious space bereft of a glitzy interior or décor, but which makes you feel at home instantly. The other floors in the building serve as a hospital for the doctor couple.
I begin by asking him why the post of an RI Director is so alluring to senior Rotarians; it looks so glamorous but I’ve seen the grind, hard work and grueling travel involved… why did he want to get this leadership position?
If I don’t practice for sometime, my patients will suffer.
Pandya smiles, and says, “In my profession, specially in my practice, I have the chance to do some charity,”… he quotes a percentage of the patients he sees free of cost and another from whom he takes a modest fee…. both of which I am not allowed to quote! (“Please don’t; it embarrasses me, I do it by conviction and choice”, he almost pleads).
“But in this position I also get a chance to make a different kind of impact in much more diverse fields. A reason I continue to be a Rotarian is that it expands my horizon. He quotes former German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer “We all live under the same skies but we don’t have the same horizons”. I believe that Rotary has continued to expand my horizons.”
Coming to leadership, “before I became a club president if I was asked to make a speech to five people, my legs would have trembled even to speak five sentences.” But once he headed his club he decided he would never read out written speeches and work hard on them. “People say you have a perfect memory, etc., but nothing comes easy in life. You have to work for it. I have a cupboard full of written speeches with quotations.”
People say you have a perfect memory, but nothing comes easy in life. You have to work for it. I have a cupboard full of written speeches with quotations.
Gently brushing off the tag of an “erudite director”, he says that the quotes in his speeches are not “rattled off hand; when I read a book, I make a note, mark a page so I can come back to it, underline it if necessary, and write it down.” Unlike earlier, he no more writes down speeches for every event. “To connect with the audience, I put in a story or anecdote but it has to be relevant”.
Slipping in a cheeky question that many Rotarians are wondering about, I ask Pandya that except for once, India has always had one RI Director; this time there are two. So do Kamal Sanghvi and he have a plan of action to avoid a tussle for power?
Pandya responds calmly: “First of all, I see this as a position of responsibility and not power. And so does Kamal, I am sure. Coincidentally and fortunately, our wavelengths are similar; of course there are differences as no two persons can be the same. He is probably a little more outgoing and I am a little reserved. But neither he nor I have ever hesitated to pick up the phone and talk to each other if there is any issue.”
Administratively, Pandya will handle Zones 4 and 7, and Sanghvi Zones 5 and 6. “But that is purely on paper. We’ve told the DGEs that for any issues, write to both of us. We’ll talk to each other and respond. We have a smooth working relationship and I don’t see any issues there.”
He gives the example of the recent Disha training event for incoming district leaders where Sanghvi “took full charge. I never had to ask him for any slot or time but he ensured I was given my due slot. Even if some issues do crop up in the future, I am confident that we can sort them out through our personal relationship and dialogue,” he smiles.
For the first three years I was only a ‘Rotary club member’ but when the Polio immunisation began, a spark was ignited and I was transformed.
To determine what has shaped him into the human being he is, let’s go back to Pandya’s childhood, why he became a doctor and who influenced the values he holds so dear.
An only child, Pandya’s role model was his father, who as a medical student was deeply influenced by Gandhiji. It was customary for medical students to go to the wards wearing suits. Heeding Gandhiji’s call to boycott foreign goods his dad and a few students threw their suits into a bonfire. From that day he wore only white cotton shirts and trousers – including for his marriage – till his passing away in 1998. “He was a man of principles, and very ethical and displayed total integrity in what he spoke and did. That was a very strong influence on me. He worked very hard for his patients and while giving every injection said ‘Jai Shri Krishna (invoking God’s name)’. Not “a god fearing but a god believing man”, he inspired his son to become a doctor.
And a doctor with a difference too… a general surgeon, who does not turn away patients coming for fever or diarrhoea. This, Pandya explains, is because his father was a GP who had a large practice begun in 1949 when there was no medical consultation available in Borivali. “In 49 years he built up tremendous goodwill and when he suddenly passed away in 1998, the patients started coming to me. And I couldn’t turn them away saying that I am a surgeon and I can’t see you for small ailments.”
Hence, during various leadership positions in Rotary he has scheduled his Rotary responsibilities to ensure that his patients don’t suffer during his absence. And he plans to do the same during his directorship.
I comment that incoming RI President Mark Maloney has made it clear that by turning volunteer positions into full time commitments, Rotary is encouraging only retired persons to take up leadership roles and that he will devote 5 days a month to his legal practice during his presidency. Pandya smiles and says: “If the RI President can set aside 5 days for his work, then an RI Director can definitely take 15 days for his profession. I don’t plan to put hold on my medical practice for two years.”
I have made it clear that when the time comes, I will step back from the limelight and step away too!
He clarifies that income is not the issue here. “There are two aspects; one, the 30 plus staff who are dependent on me. Ours is a small and specialised gynaec and orthopaedic/general surgery set up. But the other more important aspect is my patients will suffer.”
Coming to the incoming Director’s Rotary journey, he joined Rotary in 1989, at the request of his father’s patient J P Saxena, who was starting RC Borivali. Just having begun his practice two years earlier, “I was hesitant but he was insistent, and I couldn’t refuse.” For the first three years he was “only a Rotary club member, going for the meeting because the President phoned.” But when the PulsePolio programme happened and prior to that polio immunisation began in 1991-92, “being the only doctor in the club, the president said you take care of it. We went to some really dark areas and slums, which were inaccessible… Borivali was very different then.”
Immunising the children door to door “ignited a spark in me, and slowly the transformation came.”
Around the same time Pandya’s club hit a rough patch with 15-20 members suddenly leaving and he was persuaded to become a reluctant president. This is where Madhavi’s role in his Rotary journey became important. (See box).
I ask Madhavi if she has ever resented Rotary taking away so much of his time; Pandya whispers to her in Gujarati ‘Speak the truth’! She responds: “Yes sometimes, when his Rotary schedule clashes with important family events I feel so, as our two daughters (both are training to be doctors) but we are also very proud of him.”
He adds that over the years Madhavi has been very supportive, during his governorship and later as membership coordinator, where a lot of travel was involved. Even as DG, he never lost focus on his medical practice and as his district comprised only Mumbai and Thane, “the maximum travel time was about 3-4 hours. Every night I could return home, sleep in my own bed and next morning work in the hospital for a few hours before setting out again. If I had to close down my practice, I wouldn’t have even thought of becoming a DG,” he says emphatically.
Asked to comment on why RI and TRF command so much trust – recently D Ravishankar from Bengaluru donated Rs 100 crore to the Foundation – he says, “Let me give you a background. In 2007 Bill Gates gave $100 million to TRF for polio eradication. In 2009, he gave another $255 million, while addressing the Governors Elect at the IA where I was present as a RI training leader.” Gates said they wanted to work for children and polio and “when we zeroed down on polio, there was no doubt in our minds that we wanted to work with Rotary and TRF because when money is given to Rotary it is used effectively, efficiently, transparently and only for the purpose it was given for and nothing else. Now that’s a very powerful endorsement of TRF.”
Another example Pandya gives is of Harshad Mehta, a diamond merchant and past president of a Rotary club in D 3140. “He is the first Indian to give $1 million to TRF when I was Governor in 2006-07, (In 2006-07 D 3140 contributed over $ 2 million to TRF, thus for the first time an Indian District – D 3140 became number 1 in TRF contribution in the entire Rotary world). When he and his wife Nainaben were honoured, she said that we are Jains who believe that what we own is not really ours, but only passing through our hands. And if it passes to Rotary we can be sure it will be used effectively. It requires a heart to give, and the conviction that we are giving it to the right organisation. Rajashree Birla also became AKS member in 2006-07 and has continued to contribute generously every year ever since.” People like these generous donors do believe that giving to TRF is ‘effective giving’ and I’m sure Ravishankar thinks so too
He adds that while US tax laws allow about 35 per cent of money collected to be used on admin, in “TRF barely 7-8 per cent is used for admin purposes. That is a very low figure.”
But what about the stewardship issues reported from our region?
“Yes, there have been such issues. But without defending those guilty of improper stewardship, I always say that Rotary is a reflection of the society we live. And if you see it from a positive prism, for the quantum of work being done these improper stewardship issues are a miniscule minority. But there is no excuse for misusing funds which are given with the confidence they will be used judiciously. And yes, action is being taken and things are being set right.” We are fully committed to fiscal discipline, prudence and transparency.
Ambition is not a bad thing, but how you handle that ambition is crucial. If we can learn to disagree without being disagreeable, many of our problems will disappear.
On how Rotary has influenced his life, he says, “It has helped me develop myself,
interact with people in a better way and really appreciate the good work that people do. I often talk about the three phases in our lives: learn, earn and return. Rotary has given me an opportunity to return even while I’m earning. I have no hesitation is saying that I have got much more from Rotary than what I have given to it in terms of my attitude, outlook and leadership skills.” My attempt in these 2 years will be to encourage our clubs to be better clubs and make ourselves Better Rotarians, so that we can make the world a Better place.
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat and Courtesy: Bharat Pandya
At a glance
Religious. In our family, Madhavi is the religious person, I am not religious in the sense of visiting temples regularly but I am not agnostic. I do go to temples but there are no hard and fast rules about this temple on this day. I believe more in humanity.
Food: I am a vegetarian, the food best suited to my palate is Indian food, and within that Gujarati food. I love daal-dhokli and aam ras. Outside Indian, I prefer Chinese cuisine.
Cooking: Making tea and coffee is as far as my cooking skills go!
Music: I like to hear old Hindi and Western English songs, one of my favourite bands is Abba.
Movies: I like comedy, action and thrillers. As such there is so much stress in daily life, that I don’t want to see any family drama or melodrama!
Relaxation: My best form of relaxation is reading a book. For light reading, it is fiction, suspense stories and thrillers, but for serious reading, I read leadership books.
Favourite writer: In fiction, PG Wodehouse. Have also read Alistaire Mclean but Wodehouse’s style of writing is something else.
Fitness: I have to work at it; I get up at 6 am every morning and start my surgeries around 7.45 am. But I do spend 30 minutes on the treadmill everyday.
Describe Rotary in 1 or 2 words: Hope and opportunity. Hope that the community has from Rotary and the opportunity that we Rotarians have to fulfill that Hope.
Younger members: While we should focus on Rotaract and under 35 persons, we should not lose focus on people between 45-60. That is our core group that is looking out to give back to society and are now reasonably well placed and with spare time. That is the population we should not be neglecting. A judicious mix of both is required.
Women in Rotary: The most important thing that women bring to Rotary is discipline in the clubs. Being multi-taskers, they have limited time so they like the meetings to start and end on time. And when women are present, offensive jokes, etc get reduced. And they work very hard; I’d say most of them are very committed to Rotary.
What ails Rotary in India: So many election issues in our part of the world; but there are two aspects – ours is a democratic organisation and more people vying for positions probably indicates that more Rotarians are active. Ambition is not a bad thing, but how you handle that ambition is crucial. If we can learn to disagree without being disagreeable, many of our election-related problems will disappear. At some point, we have to accept and say there will be another time. But Indian Rotarians do amazing service projects.
A point of introspection in Rotary: In Rotary when you are in the limelight, there is a lot of glamour. But the problem comes when the term finishes when we are not able to step back and step away from it all and still want to be in the limelight. I have made it clear that when the time comes, I will step back from the limelight and step away too!
Vision for Rotary in India and where it is headed: Rotary in India is doing some great work. Today we are sitting on a volcano of NCDs (Non-communicable Diseases); the five big ones being diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, chronic kidney and lung diseases and stroke. Rotary can create awareness through schools and colleges, camps, etc. In these camps we should have the tagline ‘one spoon less’ (of both salt and sugar) and weight, blood pressure and blood sugar should all be be checked, abnormal readings noted and the persons encouraged to go for treatment. My vision is to promote positive health. I am also keen on water projects, vocational training and skill development, specially for girls/women. Harmony between different sections of society and tackling hunger and malnutrition are other areas we must focus on. And of course literacy and education which is the key to everything.
Multiple role models
Incoming Director Bharat Pandya has several role models. While total integrity, ethics and compassion for the less privileged he learnt from his father, “from Raja Saboo I have learnt the importance of commitment and serving. Even at this age the energy he has to carry out so many medical missions across the world is amazing. From Kalyan Banerjee I have learnt how to be gentle, never overpowering and to be persuasive. From K R Ravindran the focus on integrity and values, and when I was Governor one of my focus areas was water and I was inspired by Sushil Gupta.”
From Ashok Mahajan he has learnt the importance of “grassroots connect to the community, because his connect with the Imams and mullahs was one of the turning points in our polio eradication journey. So different people have given me different insights…”
Striking an introspective note, Pandya said somebody recently asked him which role he had liked best in Rotary. “I said each role brought out different things in me; club president helped to sharpen my leadership skills which I used as DG in my district. … The role as Membership Coordinator to work with other Membership Coordinators and take India to the No 2 membership position after US. As an RI training leader, I learnt a totally different aspect of training, which is not lectures, but facilitation and ability to draw things out from people.”
Madhavi’s role and Madhavi speak
Bharat Pandya: When I agreed to become club president, I told Madhavi that without your support I can’t do this. She was gracious enough, as she has been through my Rotary journey, to take a step back from her Inner Wheel responsibilities. She withstood pressure to take on positions there saying, ‘He is busy, both of us can’t take up leadership roles.’ So she held the fort both at home and the hospital.
She is a leader in her own right; she was Inner Wheel District 314 Chairman last year; and her District in bigger than mine! (RID 3140 has split into 3141 and 3142). And as president, my club bulletin was brought out not by me but her. Except for my message as president, everything else was written and compiled by her, including the pictures!”
Madhavi: I am very happy and proud that Bharat has come to this position. He is very dedicated, committed and sincere and I’m sure he will work very hard during the next two years to make our organisation more robust.
You asked as a busy surgeon, how he’ll meet the demand on his time. Yes, it will be really challenging but he plans his schedule and travel in such a way, that his work and patients will not be neglected.