Within six years of joining Rotary, Shekhar Mehta, Rotary International President Nominee (RIPN), became the club president in 1991–92, DG in 1999–2000 and RI Director in 2011–12. He was only 38 when he became DG, and he got elected unopposed.
But getting these leadership roles wasn’t difficult at all. “I believe that you should take up leadership positions in voluntary organisations when other people want you to lead, and not when you want it. I said the same at the interview for the RI President’s post, when asked why I thought I was qualified for the post.” He answered that when he joined Rotary, he didn’t even want to be president of the club and later the DG or RI Director. “Only when people said why don’t you put in your name for DG, or Director or RI President… I did so. People around you should feel that you are qualified or fit for that post, and it should be genuine. When the groundswell is there, it’s the best time.” Perhaps that was why ascent to all the leadership positions he has held has “been absolutely smooth”. He is also one of the rare ones to get the RIPN position at first shot.
To what does he attribute this ease with which he got such top posts, I ask Mehta. “I’ve come up in Rotary because of my work, and seniors who supported such work. And probably an ability to take people along with me throughout.”
I experienced this the previous evening, when after the Ignite meet in Kolkata, he was crowded by a bunch of senior Rotary leaders, including PRIP Kalyan Banerjee, for hours in a small hall. I was marshalled to be part of that “think tank” and suffered long hours there on an uncomfortable chair, making little contribution and picking up back pain for a week. “This is how Shekhar works,” chuckled PDG Shyamashree Sen, who had to leave a pot boiling in her kitchen after suddenly being summoned by Mehta for an Ignite session. “He works for crazy long hours, and drives those around him crazy too,” she adds.
Earlier in the morning Director Kamal Sanghvi had described how Mehta had landed up at the hotel at 2 am to see if the arrangements for the event were spic and span.
Seated in his plush apartment in an upmarket area in Kolkata the next morning, after fortifying my aching back with a pain gel, I quiz Mehta on his ability to involve large numbers of people in any cause he takes up; the latest being literacy, in which at least 100 PDGs are involved. “Well, you have to do that. In a Rotary club with some 100–200 members, imagine the diversity; each person has a different viewpoint but to be able to veer them towards the same goal is a challenge but great fun too. And you can do this when the cause is good and serves others,” he says.
What about his reputation for making people work long hours and himself clocking some 16 hours a day? He grins and says, “There was a time when I did that, for literacy, which is not just any other programme of Rotary, it’s a mission we’ve undertaken to make India literate… a very big deal as every fourth Indian is illiterate. How many voluntary organisations can even think this big?”
When a Rotarian walks into any government office, the other person should get up, greet you and say we love the work you’re doing. Rotary’s image should be of people who work.
A chartered accountant by profession, he is also a cost accountant and company secretary, with an MCom degree to boot. “That was the maximum you could study then in the commerce field. I believe there are very few people who have done all four!”
He became a CA following the family tradition — “there are 30 of us in the family” — but “there is no family firm as such. We come from Jodhpur which produces the highest number of CAs in the world. They say if you throw a stone in Jodhpur, chances are it will fall on a CA!”
Mehta first joined RC Central Calcutta, RID 3291, where he made friends for life. Later he shifted to RC Calcutta Mahanagar, then called RC Calcutta Bada Bazaar. With only three members, “it was a shell club which met in a dingy place. Within a year we grew it to 40 members, changed the name to Mahanagar as Bada Bazaar reflected one of the not-so-clean localities, shifted our meeting venue first to Park Hotel and then Taj Bengal. Since then it’s been one of the stronger clubs in the district; we have done some outstanding projects and are 85-plus members. There is great friendship and camaraderie in our club and we’re ready to take up any challenge.”
When he was DG, at $250,000 TRF collection, the district was the highest; “I don’t mention the figure much as it is peanuts in today’s terms,” he laughs. Membership grew, many new clubs were started, and the focus was on big projects. “I always want to dream big and do big things, because if so many people are going to put together their brains, time and resources, we have to do something really big.” Setting up 500 row houses with the Rotary wheel and getting a 3H grant in record time were some highlights of his year.
In his new role, growing Rotary will be his top focus, “but when I say growth, our basic values such as diversity will remain. Fortunately, in India we do have diverse membership as our club members include the elderly, middle-aged and young, and women, and members represent all religions. We don’t even think in terms of religion or region in Rotary; it would be difficult to know if as Rasheeda Bhagat you are a Muslim, Punjabi or a Gujarati. If you are a Rotarian, you are welcome.”
Imagine the diversity in a Rotary club with some 100–200 members, each with a different viewpoint. To veer them towards the same goal is a challenge but great fun too!
Along with membership and taking projects to the next level, another priority is tapping CSR funds. “TRF funding is limited, because we are talking programmes which top over $1 billion. Global grants can’t bring in this kind of money; CSR is the answer.”
But to get effective CSR funding, structuring and scaling up and standardisation will have to be done. “This requires tremendous focus, time, energy, a format and collating data which can be constantly monitored.”
His simple message to Rotarians is that instead of individual clubs asking corporates, CSR funding should be done through district or national-level. “If a club has an opening with a corporate, don’t just go and ask for ₹2 lakh or ₹5 lakh for a project. You are underselling yourself and the corporate can turn around and say I’ve already given money to Rotary.” Also, be specific and not vague; “literacy could mean anything, so ask specifically for 50 Happy Schools or so many E-learning kits. Giving pencils, erasers or benches doesn’t excite a corporate. You will have to do big, visible things such as schools or E-learning programmes that make a real difference.”
RC Mahanagar is a strong club; we have 85-plus members and done some outstanding projects. There is great friendship and camaraderie in our club and we’re ready to take up any challenge.
In India, says Mehta, Rotary is sitting on a volcano of talent; “we need to explore it for doing good. Our responsible membership needs to grow… not coming in this year and leaving the next. If you focus your energy, you will get results.” Also, the right training is very important. “We should learn this from the western world, especially Americans, who always know how to scale up. Look at their burger, it has travelled all over the world. But is a burger rocket science? The vada paav made in Mumbai is as tasty but hasn’t travelled from Mumbai to Kolkata, which the burger has done… thanks to standardising, training and skilling.”
In India, we have a diverse membership and don’t even think in terms of religion or region. You may be a Muslim, Punjabi or a Gujarati. If you are a Rotarian, you are welcome.
Mehta’s advice to Indian Rotarians, “who are already doing great”, is to now increase our pace and have structured programmes. “The literacy programme is the best example; in five years we’ve not had to tweak it. Why should we not replicate it in Health and WinS, environment or disaster management? If we did that, we would be in a different league altogether, as our projects will become replicable models for other countries.”
But, adds Mehta, if at all there was a flaw, which thankfully, was reducing, it was pulling down a person who was moving ahead. It had happened to him too but he wasn’t adversely affected “thanks to my work, which gave me many friends. But this doesn’t happen with everybody.”
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat
At a glance
Fitness: This is one area where I have failed; I am not a lazy person but on this matter (exercising), I am lazy! I do it in bits and pieces; right now I am exercising… walking and yoga, but not on a sustainable basis. My extraordinary travel makes exercising difficult as I want to make full use of my day. I take early flights going in and late flights coming out, leaving little time for a fitness schedule.
Relaxing: I am always relaxed; I don’t need to do anything to relax. I am passionate about my work and that relaxes me.
Food: Vegetarian, particularly street food which is outstanding in Kolkata. It’s always a South Indian breakfast while travelling. At home it is daal-chawal,
I love it.
Cooking: Fortunately for other people I haven’t tried my hand at it!
Music: I love music; mostly Bollywood music, both old and new Hindi songs, but my preference is for old songs. When I was younger, I loved western music too.
Reading: My favourite writer is Jeffrey Archer. His narrative is amazing; I love the way he can transform a simple story of a person’s life into a gripping narrative of 400 pages, I like reading different writers.
Religion: I believe in god; there was a time I didn’t, and strongly too, when young. But one day my father said ‘Shekhar if you don’t spend just five minutes a day thinking of god, this system will go out of our family. I started doing it, and when you start a good thing, it remains! Every morning starts with a five-minute prayer. I have faith in the powers that be. I am equally comfortable at any place of worship, be it a mosque, temple, church or gurudwara.
I am a strong believer in women. Give a woman a job and it will be done with greater sincerity, faster and better. It’s the way they work; I can see it right here at home. In our family everyone knows… your first impression when you entered our home was ‘Wow’. Yes, I made it but it is Rashi who maintains it. Can you believe this house is 20 years old? Women do an outstanding job of anything they take up. And Inner Wheel members do more Happy Schools than us! This is an untapped area and I will give a huge thrust to it.
A leader can’t say this won’t happen. If there is a good idea don’t tell me it cannot happen because if you give me 10 reasons why it can’t happen, I’ll give you 100 why it can!
Was RI President’s post his dream?
No, these are not dreams for me; and I don’t say it with a halo. I genuinely believe it. I’ve not yearned for this; it was at the back of my mind, or else why would I put in my name? My dream is a totally literate India, that RI gets the Nobel Peace Prize. That whenever we talk of service internationally, we think of Rotary. That Africa should have clean water, its children should get excellent healthcare and go to schools regularly. These are my dreams.
Rashi’s role in his journey
If I am the face, she is the back office, which is so important! The front would crumble if the back office was not there. She doesn’t like to come to the forefront; there is an average quota allotted to any couple to speak. Because I speak 80 per cent, she speaks only 20 per cent! But she is the one who nudged me to join a voluntary organisation.
Journey in Rotary: Just outstanding, and transformed me completely. When I got inducted as an RI Director-elect in 2010–11, I decided and Rashi agreed, that if I’m giving so much of my time, energy and money in service of other people, the rest of my life will be devoted only for doing good in this world. My business can take care of itself. I am comfortable, rather extra comfortable, in life. I would like to live for other people. In future, if I am asked, I’d like to serve the country in a larger role, maybe in politics. I strongly believe that every senior leader in India at sometime or the other should be asked by the government to join politics, either in an honorary position or otherwise, as they have so much experience and can help others. A Rotarian might do a $1 million project, maybe once in a lifetime; for a minister, it’s probably two days’ expenditure. So Rotarians can do great good in transforming the country.
Leadership: In a voluntary organisation, a good leader should dream big and have a positive attitude. A leader can’t say this won’t happen. If there is a good idea don’t tell me it cannot happen because if you give me 10 reasons why it can’t happen, I’ll give you 100 why it can! Give me two ideas how this difficult thing can be accomplished. I take huge inspiration from our polio story. If somebody had said then we can’t eradicate polio, and Rotarians had agreed, today we wouldn’t be on the brink of eradicating polio. So dream big, have a positive attitude, discuss things with others, work hard, keep your ears close to the ground but be ready to take bold decisions and be ready to fail. That makes a good leader.
Role model in Rotary
Kalyan Banerjee, clearly. He was RI Director when I first met him. I’ve seen his cool and calm way of working, his simplicity… he is down to earth, soft spoken, humble and a very good speaker… actually, an outstanding orator. I’ve learnt a lot emulating him, seeing him, understanding him, but at the same time I am a different person from him, very different. But I like some of his qualities, I don’t imbibe all of them, because I am me. But he is my role model. I like the way he functions, is non-interfering, non- politicking, has a large vision which gels with my way of thinking. Also, to me, his humility is very important.
Public image of Rotary: To make a difference, we have to do big things. When a Rotarian walks into any government office, the other person should get up, greet you and say we love the work you’re doing. That should be Rotary’s image… of people who work, and not of people who want to take pictures. If there is a one thing we need to improve, it’s this habit of taking pictures with everyone. Within Rotary, it’s fine, outside, please don’t do it.
India is the Kohinoor in Rotary’s crown
To RIPN Shekhar Mehta, India is the “Kohinoor in the crown of Rotary… a rare jewel. I have respect for all countries; you asked me about India so I am responding to it. If you ask me about US, I’ll tell you its good points,” he says.
Today India is No 2 in both membership and giving, “but No 1 in projects. To me that is the biggest asset of Rotary in India. Whether it is heart surgeries or providing drinking water or building schools, India has done some outstanding work in all sectors and focus areas of Rotary.”
As one who has worked in the field for years, “I know what pains you have to take to do even one of these projects and what joy it brings to the beneficiaries. These are life-changing things. I can narrate 20–30 major projects which have left an impression on my mind and heart. Where else in the world is a single country doing so many service projects?”
He adds, “It is easier to write a cheque than to go 100 km away from your home, month after month, and ensure that people in that village get drinking water or open-defecation is now replaced with toilets in homes. That’s not easy.”
Extolling the “amazing, excellent leadership” that Rotary has in India, he quotes PRIP K R Ravindran who “say all the time that nowhere in the world has he seen such a concentration of senior leaders, who are there right on the job. Take PRIP Raja Saboo; every year he goes to 2–3 medical missions in Africa. Who else does such amazing service? Or Kalyan Banerjee… it was his dream to have a totally literate India and at his age he is there at every important meet on literacy; he doesn’t have to do it.”
He adds, “Think of water and sanitation, and PRID Sushil Gupta was there. After the Uttarakhand earthquake, Yashpal Das built some 32 outstanding schools in the hills. You want money for any project, tell Ashok Mahajan and at the snap of a finger, he will organise the money because he is sitting in the financial capital of India. PRID P T Prabhakar is actively working in WinS, look at Manoj Desai’s extensive corrective polio surgeries, and Sudarshan Agarwal, till his last breath, was working for Rotary, managing the Him Jyoti school and he set up an excellent blood bank in Delhi. It was the same with O P Vaish; he was the brain behind so many projects. Panduranga Shetty runs 27 educational institutions and he himself is an institution.
PRID C Basker who just finished his term, worked so hard; if any natural disaster happens Kamal Sanghvi rushes aid through Shelter Box. Bharat Pandya has introduced an excellent project on health. Hats off to all these people. India provides great leadership and we have outstanding partnerships.”
What ails Rotary in India? “Nothing… 7 or 10 people doing something questionable, is not the organisation. Everything is working great, if there were problems in Indian Rotary, how could such great work happen in service projects, contributions and membership?”