When needed, I’m there… In a chat with Rotary News, TRF Trustee Sushil Gupta describes the various facets of his “chequered life”.

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He brought water “as a core area to the Rotary platform; from the early 1990s, I felt water will become a critical global concern, and started working in that area, and organised a mega water conference in Delhi in 2003.” A known water activist, TRF Trustee Sushil Gupta loves mountains, has visited the Gaumukh glacier several times, despairing at its degradation downstream, and has been Vice Chair of the Himalayan Environment Trust (HET).

Recently, under Gupta’s leadership, Rotary has signed an MoU with the Indian Government for an ambitious project to clean up the Ganga river.

“In the Rotary world, my interest in water is well known and after I became a TRF trustee in 2014, John Kenny, Trustee Chair Elect, knowing my interest in water, asked me to head the WASH in Schools (WinS) Committee. That’s how WinS, which is not just water, fell onto my lap. And, if I am given a job, I give my 100 per cent to it and remain totally focused,” says Gupta, in a chat with him and his wife Vinita at their spacious home in Shanti Niketan in Delhi, with a beautifully landscaped lawn lovingly nurtured by their son Sandeep.

Outside the Delhi Palam Airport in 1967.
Outside the Delhi Palam Airport
in 1967.

Early life

His life is a “chequered one”; born in Amritsar, he comes from a family of businessmen and freedom fighters with deep political connections; “I’d say ours is a very nationalist family.” Their ancestral business in hardware was started in the 1860s; after the Partition “we shifted to Delhi which took over Amritsar’s status as a big business district for Northern India, as it became a border town. Our major business was in Karachi and we lost all of it,” he says.

With mountaineers in the Garhwal Himalayas.
With mountaineers in the Garhwal Himalayas.

But later the family returned to Amritsar, where he continued his education. As a young lad he got curious about Rotary when he saw a sign in a hotel while visiting Mussoorie which said ‘Rotary meets here’. His desire to become a Rotarian was fulfilled when a fellow tennis player introduced him to Rtn Prakash Khanna and he joined RC Delhi Midwest, a new club chartered in 1975, which was looking for members. Striking a reflective note, Gupta says, “There is always a design in where life takes you. Being a small club, I became president in 1981–82 and DG in 1986–87. Had I joined RC Delhi, it would have taken me 20 years to become president, leave alone a Governor!”

With (from L) PRIP Carl-Wilhelm Stenhammar, President APJ Abdul Kalam and PRID Francisco Creo.
With (from L) PRIP Carl-Wilhelm Stenhammar, President APJ Abdul Kalam and PRID Francisco Creo.

A proud Rotarian, he has worn his Rotary lapel pin “every day without fail right from Day 1. I keep my pin along with my watch and ring, and wear it with great pride,” the advantage being that even in a crowd, other Rotarians can spot him.

Polio eradication

Gupta considers his work in polio eradication “the highlight of my Rotary career”, and was involved in it right from the beginning when the first national polio event, the ‘Banish Polio’ march from the Rashtrapati Bhavan, was flagged off by President of India Giani Zail Singh in January 1987 in the presence of the then RI President MAT Caparas and RI Director Elect ­Sudarshan Agarwal. When Rotary approached the Government of India “with a donation of $19 million for polio vaccine, it took me six months, but I managed to get the Hold Harmless agreement which waives Rotary’s liability, signed by the Indian Government,” he recalls.

At many crucial junctures, this TRF Trustee has ‘opened doors’ for Rotary in India, and TRF Trustee Chair Kalyan Banerjee often introduces him as one who ‘thinks out of the box.’ “Well, I happen to be in Delhi and hospitality business and my interest in sports — tennis and golf — has helped me do this,” he smiles. (See box)

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In 2005, as RI Director and Programmes Committee Chair, Gupta was instrumental in getting Rotary Action Groups approved by the RI Board. “There was a lot of resistance earlier, as it was thought these would compete with the Foundation. But they’ve now taken roots, and there are many active Rotary Action Groups today, the most active being in water and sanitation,” he says.

He met the late RI Director Manohar Lal Manchanda around 1978–79 and “He mentored me in my Rotary career, I learnt a lot about Rotary from him and Past RI Director Sudarshan Agarwal. In 1986, I met Kalyan (Banerjee) who became a great friend. In this journey of Rotary I have gained many friends, including many senior Rotary leaders, and am proud of their friendship.

The Himalayas have a strange attraction for me. I get a very strange feeling there… that I was here.

Hospitality business

So how did he get into the hotels business, I ask him. “I often say that we Punjabis have a flair for hotels, restaurants, film industry… we want to be part of glamour. So in 1980, when an opportunity came, I grabbed it, being very adventurous, as I had absolutely no knowledge about hotel business.” It was before the Asian Games and he joined two other partners to put in a bid and thus Asian Hotels was born.

But having taken the plunge, he worked hard to understand the industry, keeping to his life’s credo of ‘pehele mujhe samjhaiye’ (make me understand it first). “That way I am a very hands-on person. Ours was the first company in the private sector in 1982 to get the euro-dollar loan of over $11 million, and it was covered by Doordarshan News.”

Riding yaks at Tsomgo Lake, Sikkim, in the Himalayas.
Riding yaks at Tsomgo Lake, Sikkim, in the Himalayas.

That’s how the first Hyatt Regency was born, opening 200 rooms for the Asian Games, and then expanding to 520 rooms. “My motto is to always meet deadlines, fight for my rights and not compromise on values. Even when we opened the JW Marriott Hotel near the Delhi airport, there were a lot of difficulties. But I fought, telling the officers hotel to khulega zaroor, tell me what extra security measures need to be undertaken. Having learnt about the industry on the go (“jo kuch seekha hands on seekha”), when Gupta became President of the Federation of Hotels and Restaurants Association of India, he decided to get the CHA (Certified Hotel Administration) degree in 1997 from the American Hotels and Motels Association.

With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Trekking

With his father planting a deep love of the mountains in a young Gupta, trekking is a passion with him and he has trekked with the legend of mountaineering Reinhold Messner. With the desire to do something for the environment latent in him, he got involved with Capt Mohan Kohli, the famous mountaineer of India and Chairman of the HET of which Sir Edmund Hillary was Chief Patron, and together they started the Gangotri Conservation project. “There was so much of degradation of the forest there that people were using bhojpatra for log fire! We made many trips there, took LPG to that area, undertook many other afforestation initiatives and planted 20,000 bhojpatra trees at Bhojbasa, the base of the Gangotri glacier, through a Rotary project in the 1990s.”

Relationships in both sports and hospitality have been built over long years and helped me open doors for Rotary, more so in polio eradication.

The Himalayas have always fascinated him; “they have a strange attraction for me. I get a very strange feeling there… that I was here.”

Gupta and Vinita are AKS members and Gupta was given ­Padmashri in 2007 for social work and his contribution to Tourism.

Pranic healing

Gupta is also known for his prowess in pranic healing, which he has been doing since 1995. Averse to taking medication, when he got hypertension, pranic healing was suggested to him. It worked, he got hooked to it and formed the local chapter of the Delhi Pranic Healing Foundation. “I first did the basic and then advance course, and have since helped many people get rid of their ailments through pranic healing, including distant healing. Because of my close association with revered Swamis, many of my Rotary Governors during my tenure as RI Director referred to me as Swami Sushil Gupta!”

Riding a double-humped camel at the Great Wall of China.
Riding a double-humped camel at the Great Wall of China.

Centennial year

The TRF Centennial will be a unique opportunity to showcase ­Rotary’s work and “fortunately we can show the world our work in polio eradication, as we are almost there. It also gives us an opportunity to tell the Rotary story to both non-Rotarians and Rotarians. Very few clubs are involved in the Foundation; it is an opportunity to talk to them and raise more money for the Foundation. But the biggest thing is partnerships; Bill Gates is already there and now Google is on board to do virtual reality videos; one on polio eradication will be launched at the Convention.

Coming to WinS, Gupta says the main focus is not building toilets but ushering in a behavioural change. “When I was asked to develop this programme and then chair it, I didn’t think it would become this big,” he smiles.

Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat & special arrangement

At a glance

Food: I am selective about food, and I can’t eat just basic food. If I don’t like something, she (pointing to Vinita, who is seated near him) can’t make me eat it! Hospitality business has changed my appreciation of food; I like Italian and French food, but not many other European cuisines. President for many years of the Experience India Society, which promotes India as a tourism destination, recently when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was at Hannover, I took a team of 42 people and they cooked and served Indian food to 300 CEOs in Germany.We also did the food at the Make in India mega meet in Mumbai last year. My relationship with the industry is very strong.

Suddenly spouse Vinita perks up and says in exasperation. “Aadhi cheezey khatey nahi (he doesn’t eat half the things). He wants different colours on his plate! And when I ask him what he wants for dinner, he’ll say: ‘Woh bhi mai sochun? (I have to worry even about that?)’ Arrey, you are going to eat it, and not that he will eat anything that is prepared. Yeh bhi green, woh bhi green, he will protest and wants different colours on his plate.” Gupta demurs: “I must admit I am very fussy about my food.”

Music: I enjoy Sufi music and old film songs, but not the film songs of today.

Reading: Mostly fiction, when I get the time. Anything that is historical interests me and transforms me to that era. Mentally I am there and the same happens when I go to places with a rich history… my mind goes back 1,000 or 2,000 years.

Movies: Not often; I am not interested.

Religion: I am very religious, but very open. I get the same feeling when I am in a church or a mosque, it doesn’t make any difference. I believe in God but don’t go to temples and am not ritualistic.

Fitness: I practise yoga and play golf every day.

Relaxing: (Smiles) Vinita always says kitna kuch karoge… idhar bhagogey, udhar bhagogey (how much will you do, how much will you run).

Interest in clothes: (Chuckles) Till my father was alive, I did all my shopping, picked up my suits, now she (Vinita) does that, and she always complains that you don’t have enough clothes. But I am not that fashion conscious. Kuch bhi pehen kar, kahi bhi ja sakta hu! (I can wear anything anywhere!)

Vinita chips in: “And when he does shop, he’ll go out and buy only clothes for golf… trousers, T-shirts and shoes. Now can he wear golfing clothes to parties? And he’ll ask: Kurta-pyjama pehen lu? (Shall I wear kurta-pyjama?)

Mentor/Friends: I met the late RI Director Manchanda very early in my Rotary life, around 1978-79; he helped me a lot in my Rotary career, I learnt a lot about Rotary from him and got many opportunities and got involved in leadership. In 1986 met Kalyan (Banerjee) and PRID Sudarshan Agarwal. And I have never compromised on my friendships ever; ek friend galat kaam kar sakta hei, par mei nahi karoonga, and he’ll still be my friend.

Philosophy: Never look back in life, live for today and flow with the tide.

Vinita’s role: She has supported me in all my pursuits; she has a very kind heart. She may not be very much involved in projects, but has played a very supportive role.

Important ethic: My father and mother were very strict on one thing: never tell a lie… at times I might have remained silent, which is also not right, but have always tried to be truthful and that I owe to my parents.


Golf helps during polio crises

Along with environmental concerns and pranic healing, Sushil Gupta is also devoted to golf, which he plays every morning. “Earlier I used to play tennis, but now it is golf, and it has given me great friends, just as Rotary has. Actually many of my Rotarian friends are golfers,” he says.

After 45 minutes of yoga and prayers, it’s a 9-hole game of golf. On sparing so much time in the morning he quips: “Time is a state of the mind; if you want to find time, you can do it.”

He has played golf for long years with Justice B N Kripal, former Chief Justice of India. “We played together every day for 20 years, and would always discuss environmental issues. He was the real green judge of India, and banned the cutting of trees in Assam and the Northeast. If I can open every door, it is thanks to golf and tennis, which have helped me tremendously, as also hospitality. Relationships in both sports and hospitality have been built over long years and helped me open doors many a times for Rotary, including in polio eradication.”

Gupta relates the anecdote of how in 2003–04, when he was RI Director, Rotary’s drive against polio faced severe obstacles. “We had a great problem, numbers had spread and it looked like polio would never end in India, and we were really struggling to get doors opened.” Things had come to a head in Uttar Pradesh where the interest in polio vaccination was lagging. But a golfer friend of his — retired IAS officer R K Bhargava — rang up UP Chief Secretary D S Bagha, “we went together to meet him and suddenly the UP government became active!” ­Bhargava was later appointed advisor to the National Polio Committee.

Another problem cropped up when the Indian Railways was not willing to transport the polio vaccines. “At the Delhi Golf Club you rub shoulders with the who’s who of Delhi, including senior bureaucrats, and over a period of time some of them have become great friends. I rang up another golfer friend of mine who had retired from the Railways and he rang up a member of the Indian Railway Board in charge of logistics, who immediately gave us an appointment and the work was done. Whenever we meet our WHO friends, we do remember such incidents and laugh over them… that was how we managed to get rid of polio from India.” As a ­Director, “I think this was my biggest contribution.”

Even in Bihar, another problem area, he approached Chief Minister Nitish Kumar through Buta Singh, the State Governor, who was well known to Gupta. “In those years Bihar was also crucial and we had to do a lot of leg work and I was a part of it all to rid India of polio. My work is varied, but whenever I am needed, I am there even if it is a railway platform!”

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