As Rotary India embarks on an ambitious mission to join hands with the GoI on extending the reach of universal immunisation in India through Mission Indradhanush (MI), two senior Rotary leaders — both past presidents of Rotary International — Rajendra Saboo and Kalyan Banerjee — shared with a dedicated and passionate batch of Rotarians the background of how the TRF Trustees came on board to give their blessings to this programme.
For some time now, particularly after India was certified polio-free in 2014, Indian Rotarians have been asking what next. At a National PolioPlus Orientation and Planning meet convened in Delhi in August by PDG and India National PolioPlus Committee (INPPC) Chair Deepak Kapur, PRIP Saboo explained how with the help of PRIP Banerjee, who was then the TRF Trustee Chair, the Foundation approved the proposal of Indian Rotarians taking up immunisation, along with polio, of measles, rubella and other diseases.
Let me make it clear that CSR funds can’t be used for our meeting and eating; use the money for the actual work, awareness, and implementation of the universal immunisation programme.
— PRIP Rajendra Saboo
After a discussion with Kapur, WHO and Health Ministry officials, and Dr Jacob John, “who has played a pivotal role in Rotary’s PolioPlus programme, a note was prepared which Banerjee discussed with Kapur and Mike McGovern, Chair of the International PolioPlus Committee (IPPC), and he convinced Mike that the Indian universal immunisation programme is only an extension of the PolioPlus (PP) programme, which will continue to keep Rotarians active till we make the world polio-free,” said Saboo.
Convincing IPPC and TRF Trustees
McGovern was convinced, took up the proposal at the IPPC meeting, and as Trustee Chair, Banerjee wrote to every TRF Trustee, “explaining the salient features of this programme and its relevance and advantages to our PP programme, as none in RI or TRF wants to deviate from that programme. He opened all the doors and finally, all the Trustees came on board and now we are going to take up universal immunisation in India as a challenge,” Saboo added.
Addressing the orientation meet, Banerjee recognised Kapur, “an icon of PP in India, and his deputy, Lokesh Gupta, for their “tremendous contribution” in making India polio-free.
He said after PRIP Saboo’s initiative on this front, it was “easy for me as Trustee Chair to get this proposal cleared in time from the Foundation.” But now the ball was in the court of this small but powerful national committee to take up routine immunisation. He warned its members that often he had found lukewarm interest in the immunisation task of late with Rotarians asking “there are government people to take care of it, so why should we get involved, and how long can we do this. They say specific immunisation days are fine but routine is routine and what is our role. But when the GoI had undertaken as its mission to eliminate measles and rubella (German measles) by 2020, why can’t we join hands with them and get recognition,” Banerjee asked, adding, “After polio, GoI always recognises Rotary for its work, and we are their favourite partners. So we are in a happy situation.”
Lead this crusade
Urging Rotarians to lead this “crusade” Banerjee said unlike oral polio drops, these were injectable vaccines and would need “persuasion, follow up and your involvement, because these will attract more questions from those who resist and your job will also be to get the immunisation mechanism in place and working,” he said.
For long years Americans, Australians, Japanese and other Rotarians have been funding us. For all the immunisation in India we haven’t raised funds ourselves; TRF has given us enough and we should be ashamed to ask for more.
— PRIP Kalyan Banerjee
Saying that India’s statistics for routine immunisation are “ridiculous”, he added that in some areas the figure was ridiculously low at 10 per cent, so achieving a goal of 80 per cent was difficult. “But even if you can go up to 60 or 70 per cent in routine immunisation, you’d have done a great job.”
Asking Rotarians across India to remain vigilant as polio was still lurking around the corner in our neighbourhood, Banerjee said when he raised these points with the Trustees, “it was easy to convince them and they said go ahead and do it, we are all with you.”
Coming down to brass tacks, he told the freshly minted committee members and the DGs for 2017–18 who participated, that “TRF is not going to give us any more funds for organising a meeting like this, for which some funds could be managed. We have to do our own funding.” He suggested that instead of having national meetings, State or district-wise meetings on immunisation could be organised as for national meetings most of the money was spent on travel. “For long years the Americans, Australians, Japanese and other Rotarians have been funding us. For all the immunisation in India we haven’t really raised any funds ourselves; either the government has provided the vaccines free or Rotary has given us the funds. Of course we made India polio-free using our time and effort but not our money. So don’t you think the payback time has come? TRF has given us enough and we should be ashamed to ask for more.”
The DGs could also consider giving something from the district funds. And there was the possibility of a few generous foreign donors giving some money and “Raja (Saboo), Basker, Sushil (Gupta) and I will work on it and get something if possible. But that money would have to be spent on the actual work in the field and not on “our meeting and eating and having a good time,” he made it clear.
Banerjee added that India had been polio-free for several years. “We did it at a time when nobody thought India could do it. And for the first time we raised $20 million for TRF last year, and my congratulations and compliments to all of you. It’s incredible, we were No 2, leaving Japan far behind at around $17.5 million. So if we want to do it, we can!”
Shoring up polio contribution
RI Director C Basker said he and his trendsetting DGs had decided that “this year the contribution from India to the polio fund will be the highest in recent times. The DGs are ready to put in their best efforts for measles and rubella vaccination and we will continue till we meet the goal. They’ve been very generous in supporting all the training programmes initiated for the first time in our zones, and have been using their district funds to ensure the training of important leaders from the districts so they are empowered to do their job better.”
Basker requested Kapur to give him “a definite plan, the budget and the money to be raised locally by the DGs. We also need to appoint somebody at the District level to coordinate with the national committee on this programme,” he added.
Freedom from polio in India taught us so many lessons… that we can look beyond just donating sewing machines.
— INPPC Chair Deepak Kapur
The session concluded with PRIP Saboo sharing the good news that now that the TRF Trustees have cleared the idea of channelling CSR funds into Rotary’s humanitarian work, senior Rotary leaders in India were confident of raising through CSR funds in a couple of months Rs 37 lakh — Rs 1 lakh for each district — for this immunisation project. “But let me make it clear that CSR funds can’t be used for our meeting and eating; use the money for the actual work, awareness, and implementation of the programme.”
Taking a cue from Banerjee’s speech that many districts overseas have surplus funds, Saboo said if the committee members or the DGs could get an idea of these districts and the kind of surplus money they have, “they can also be approached through common friends for this programme.” He also urged the DGs to involve their successors in this programme so there would be a sense of continuity.
Kicking off the opening session, Kapur beautifully summed up the mammoth effort put in by Indian Rotarians in the polio eradication programme through a single sentence: “Freedom from polio in India taught us so many lessons… that we can look beyond just donating sewing machines… can motivate political leaders of all hues and win recognition from government, that top bureaucrats can include Rotarians in their team!”
Innovate ways to raise money
For partnering GoI in Mission Indradhanush or universal immunisation, Indian Rotarians cannot accept any more funds from TRF, and will have to think of innovative ways to raise money, PRIP Kalyan Banerjee told at an orientation meet on PolioPlus held recently in Delhi.
The district governors would have to think of fundraising events, musical concerts or charity dinners; “America does it all the time; they do $1,000 per person dinners, here you can get Rs 5,000. He recalled that as RI President when he was attending an Institute somewhere in the US over the weekend, a charity dinner aiming to raise $1 million in a night was being held some 2,000 miles away. “The DG, a lady, asked the RI Director in charge of that Institute if he could spare me for a day. He asked me and I said I am willing to go if you can spare me but I am 2,000 miles away, how do I go? He said don’t worry, they will arrange it. The DG sent an 8-seater chartered airplane. She was clever enough to sell the remaining seats to those Rotarians in her district who wanted the privilege of travelling with the President of RI for two hours!”
This is what people are doing elsewhere to raise funds, and “you can also think of such innovations,” he added. He himself had attended such a big-ticket dinner in D 3011 last year where a lot of money was raised. “It is difficult but not impossible. You will get credit for eradicating measles and rubella from India; the government will do it anyway, but Rotary will be there as a partner.”
An early rubella warrior
As Indian Rotarians brace up to become an integral part of Mission Indradhanush (MI), an ambitious universal immunisation programme to rid India of measles, rubella, and other preventable diseases, the efforts of Nalini Prabhakar, former Chairman of Inner Wheel District 323, and spouse of PRID
P T Prabhakar, on rubella prevention deserve mention.
“When I visited a school for the hearing impaired, about 17 years ago, the correspondent of the school explained to me about rubella and its dangers, saying that 85–90 per cent of the children in her school and similar schools for special children anywhere in India or the world lose their hearing because the mother was affected by rubella during her pregnancy. If only she had been immunised against rubella much earlier, today these kids would have normal hearing,” recalls Nalini.
Rubella vaccination has to be given to girls before marriage; this one act, “the teacher told me, will prevent such congenital disorders in newborns”.
Deeply moved by this experience, over the years Inner Wheel has been working on rubella, has prepared pamphlets, and spreading awareness in school and college girls. “In the last couple of years we’ve managed to immunise 10,000 girls in our district. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. We have a long way to go; if Rotary and Rotaractors join hands with us, we can really cover a lot of ground.”
She is confident that as rubella now features significantly under MI, “we will eradicate it soon.”
Nalini adds that the Kerala government has made rubella immunisation mandatory long ago. “Many marriage halls in Kerala ask for rubella vaccination certificate for the bride, when the wedding hall is booked,” she smiles, adding, “other State governments need to do the same.”