Rotary honours a philanthropist par excellence

It’d have been the most important highlight of my year as Trustee Chair to be here and thank you personally. I am sorry I couldn’t make it due to prior commitments that I couldn’t get out of,” TRF Trustee Chair Paul Netzel said in a message read out by PRIP K R Ravindran at a grand meeting held in Mumbai to present a Rotary Crystal, RI’s highest honour, to one of TRF’s largest benefactor, Rajashree Birla, Chairperson of the Aditya Birla Foundation for Community Initiatives and Rural Development.

 PRIP K R Ravindran presents the Rotary Crystal to Rajashree Birla, Chairperson of the Aditya Birla Foundation for Community Initiatives and Rural Development, in the presence of (from L) DG Prafull Sharma, RIDN Bharat Pandya, PRIP Kalyan Banerjee, PRIP Rajendra K Saboo, RID C Basker, PRID Ashok Mahajan, TRF Trustee Elect Gulam Vahanvaty and RRFC Vijay Jalan.
PRIP K R Ravindran presents the Rotary Crystal to Rajashree Birla, Chairperson of the Aditya Birla Foundation for Community Initiatives and Rural Development, in the presence of (from L) DG Prafull Sharma, RIDN Bharat Pandya, PRIP Kalyan Banerjee, PRIP Rajendra K Saboo, RID C Basker, PRID Ashok Mahajan, TRF Trustee Elect Gulam Vahanvaty and RRFC Vijay Jalan.

She was being felicitated for her over two-decade support to Rotary’s battle against polio. PRIP Ravindran presented the crystal at the event attended by senior leaders — PRIP Rajendra K Saboo, PRIP Kalyan Banerjee and Binota, PRID Ashok Mahajan, RID C Basker, RIDN Bharat Pandya, TRF Trustee Elect Gulam Vahanvaty, and several AKS members from Districts 3141 and 3142. The event was hosted by DG Prafull Sharma.

Ravindran, who now serves as a TRF Trustee, said, “If polio eradication is a reality, it is because of people like you. What you have contributed and done far outweighs what we talk here and what we see in the media.”

The Aditya Birla group is the second largest corporate donor to TRF with “a total contribution of nearly $10.24 million. Viewed from a global perspective, this is stunning. We cannot equate the one dollar we (in South Asia) give to the one dollar given in the US or Europe. Your $10 million is worth a billion dollars in the West,” he added.

Aditya Birla group is anxious to see that every child pan India is safe from polio. We have administered 27 million polio drops through booths set up across the country.
– Rajashree Birla, Chairperson, Aditya Birla
    Foundation for Community Initiatives
    and Rural Development

The generosity of the Birla family over generations for community welfare was legendary, Ravindran said, giving out numbers. The Aditya Birla group spends ₹250 crores annually on philanthropy and charity, runs 56 schools, supports 5,000 villages reaching every year 7.3 million people globally. “The philosophy of the Birla group is very clear: They have plants all over the world. Instead of extracting the resources in the regions they extend the benefits of their investments to the communities they touch.”

He added that Rajashree’s support for polio eradication transcends conventional values. “Some may say, so what? They have the money. But I can show you several people who have all the money, but don’t give a penny for other’s welfare. So, more than the money, what is important is the heart to give. Generosity runs in the blood of the Birla family.” Her gifts have had a real and significant impact on making and keeping India polio-free. They have changed the course of India’s history and moved the entire country forward, into a healthier and more stable future.

PRIP K R Ravindran, PRID Ashok Mahajan, his spouse Nayantara with Rajashree Birla.
PRIP K R Ravindran, PRID Ashok Mahajan, his spouse Nayantara with Rajashree Birla.

But, warned Ravindran, the work is not yet over, as the virus still lurked in a few countries. To keep the world polio free, 400 million children in 60 countries have to be immunised. “We look up to you to continue your support. We owe it to you for helping us get double your contribution from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

PRIP Saboo recalled memories of his father’s employment with the Birlas in Kolkata and his own stint at Hindustan Motors, a Birla group company. “For me, the Birlas are synonymous with my family. Rajashreeji’s husband Aditya and I used to play cricket in the Birla Park at Kolkata.”

Some may say, so what? They have the money. But I can show you several people who have all the money, but don’t give a penny for other’s welfare. What is important is the heart to give.
– K R Ravindran, Past RI President

He remembered how in 2008, when she was to be inducted into the AKS Society for her contribution of $250,000 to TRF, he suggested she make the occasion more memorable with a contribution for Polio. She instantly agreed to donate $1 million and announced her intention immediately in her speech at the induction ceremony.” Not only that, she even prompted Usha Mittal, wife of steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, to contribute a similar figure.

“From 2008 onwards, not a single year has gone by where Rajashreeji has not given,” he said. Even after India was declared Polio-free, she continued her generosity and donated another $1 million at the Atlanta Convention, “for us to work for a Polio-free world.”

Referring to the theme of the evening — Giving is Living — Saboo said that Usha and he had almost made these words the theme for his Presidential year, but “perhaps it was meant to be for this day,” he added.

PRIP Banerjee recalled how, in the early 2000s, when PRID Mahajan and he approached her to help Rotary address polio that was very much rampant then, Rajashree had readily contributed a very huge sum. “And she gave it with so much faith in us, and I find that faith has not diminished one bit in her. Thank you, Rajashreeji, your support to polio eradication in India has been unmatched by anybody else.”

Underlining the trust the corporates and individuals have in TRF, he recalled how an Italian Rotarian instantly gave a cheque for $1million for relief work in Kutch, Gujarat, after it was devastated by the 2001 earthquake. “He never asked me how his money was spent nor did he visit India. It can happen only in Rotary because of the trust people have in the Foundation and the causes we espouse.”

“While we Indians are known in the Rotary world as a receiving nation, here we have Rajashree Birla who is second in the world in giving,” said Director Basker. He quoted a couplet on giving from the Tirukkural, saying Rajashree understands Tamil. (She has done part of her schooling in Madurai)

RID C Basker, PRIP Kalyan Banerjee, PRIP Rajendra Saboo, Rajashree Birla, PRIP K R Ravindran, PRID Ashok Mahajan, RIDN Bharat Pandya and TRF Trustee Elect Gulam Vahanvaty at the felicitation event.
RID C Basker, PRIP Kalyan Banerjee, PRIP Rajendra Saboo, Rajashree Birla, PRIP K R Ravindran, PRID Ashok Mahajan, RIDN Bharat Pandya and TRF Trustee Elect Gulam Vahanvaty at the felicitation event.

He said that her partnership with Rotary has helped to wipe away the tears of 16 million families. “In 1988 when we set out to address polio, there were 350,000 polio cases from 125 countries. Today we have just six cases and with the support of large-hearted people like Rajashreeji, we will very soon reach the zero mark,” he said.

Pointing out that every Rotarian of District 3231 has contributed a minimum $10 for the Polio Fund, the RI Director urged the audience to never shy away from asking for a good cause and made a reference to the late US President and a polio victim Franklyn Roosevelt, who launched the March of the Dimes to raise money to fund the research programme of Jonas Salk, the discoverer of the injectable polio vaccine.

He complimented DG Prafull Sharma and B M Sivarraj for organising the event to honour “the biggest partner of Rotary’s End Polio campaign” in India.

The Rotary Foundation India was determined not to be left behind when it came to supporting the programmes of the Foundation and “it has always been that extra donation from Rajashreeji that has made us go past the goal post and claim a place in the top two slots worldwide for giving,” said PRID Mahajan, adding that thanks to her support, TRF is no longer passive in India today; it is dynamic and full of life.

“Many people were not absolutely sure if a band of volunteers can change the world. The skeptics, who had no idea what a service organisation could do, got the confidence that great things were possible when they saw you donate generously to the Foundation,” he concluded.

An Italian Rotarian instantly gave a cheque for $1million for relief work during the Kutch earthquake. He never asked me how his money was spent nor did he visit India. It can happen only in Rotary.
– Kalyan Banerjee, Past RI President

In her response, Rajashree said that with her long association with Rotarians she was struck by their selfless service. The philosophy of philanthropy is deeply rooted in the DNA of the Birla family, she said. Congratulating the great work Rotary is doing world over in eradicating polio, she added that the Aditya Birla group is anxious to see that every child pan India is safe from polio. “We work collectively in urban sites and railway stations. We have administered 27 million polio drops through booths set up across the country.”

Besides polio, her organisation has tied up with Rotary for addressing diabetes and has reached out to 100,000 people. “We are also backing Rotarians in treating thalasaemmia patients in Mumbai.”

Speaking about her great-grand- father-in-law G D Birla’s association with Mahatma Gandhi, Rajashree narrated how Gandhiji regarded Birla as one of his mentors and “Daduji, as we affectionately called him, would in turn say that he was the Mahatma’s follower. Both of them developed a special bond.” Birla, she said, “bequeathed to all of us a legacy of caring and giving for those in need. As for me, giving is a measure of a life well lived. Only a life lived for others is a life worth living.”

RIDN Bharat Pandya, proposing the vote of thanks, remembered Albert Sabin’s magnanimity when he refused to patent his invention of the oral polio vaccine, with the historic reply, “Can you patent the Sun?” He thanked Saboo and Mahajan for being the link between Rotary and the Birla family. “Gulam and I experienced the warm hospitality of the Birlas when we visited their home to meet Rajashreeji’s son Kumaramangalam Birla. Just like their generosity to give, they are lavish in their hospitality too. They are rich not because they have but because they give… to causes they believe in and because they want to change the world.”

Pictures by Jaishree

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