When the Rajkot peda and bhamarda fetched Rotary a bounty

Chalo-Gujarat-Chalo-India-2018

In 2018, when a few members of RC Rajkot ­Midtown wanted to expand the diabetes prevention and management services that their club had set up in this Gujarat town, “the first idea that came to my head was that to raise big money, we should go outside Rotary and approach non-­Rotarians as we needed to set up a permanent diabetes care facility,” recalls PDG Deepak Agrawal from RI District 3060.

At present the RPIC of Zone 4 for two years, ­Agrawal says that realising that India is the diabetes hub of the world, and Gujarat is the diabetes capital of India, the club members wanted to establish comprehensive services for diabetes awareness and management in Rajkot. “We realised that there was a huge need in our community to provide services for those who have diabetes and complications resulting from it. The problem was that when somebody has a condition that results from diabetes, he goes to a doctor who first prescribes a blood test, and then next some other test if any organ has been affected.” By the time the root cause for the affliction was traced to diabetes, at least a few days have been wasted. “So we thought why not have a single detection centre where people get all the diagnostic tests related to diabetes detection and management in a single place, and where all the required tests can be completed in a short time… like one hour.”

In 2 1/2 days at Chalo India, ₹1.28 crore was collected.

Many years earlier, due to persistent efforts, they had managed to get a small diabetes facility running in two small rooms in a slum area in a property donated by a trust. But Agrawal and his colleagues thought what they really needed was a much more state-of-the-art facility. But big money was needed to set up such a centre, and “then the dilemma arises that while all Rotarians are rich, Rotary clubs are poor, so how to find the funds,” he chuckles.

In 2018, they decided to seriously look outside Rotary to raise funds, and “we thought we should do so by participating in an event called Chalo India, which is held in New Jersey every alternate year.” Earlier this event was meant only for Gujaratis and was called Chalo Gujarat. But the fee for putting up a stall at the New Jersey event was $3,000. “We asked for a free stall there, they said it’s not possible, so we went to our club Board and floated the idea which was rejected immediately. The response: ‘we cannot afford it’.”

But instead of getting despondent, Agrawal got enthused, “because I’ve always believed that if an idea is shot down immediately, it must be both original and brilliant because nobody would have thought of it before, and hence it is rejected.”

A dentist treating a patient at RC Rajkot Midtown’s Diabetes Prevention and Management Centre.
A dentist treating a patient at RC Rajkot Midtown’s Diabetes Prevention and Management Centre.

Four members from the club — Divyesh Aghera, Kalpraj Mehta, Atul Ganatra and Nilesh Chagnani — apart from Deepak Agrawal, came together and picked up the gauntlet of going to Chalo India, finding a sponsor for the stall fee, and raising the required funds. “We said we will buy our own tickets, stay in a hotel with our own money, and raise the $3,000 too.” But one thing was non-negotiable. The club would have to pay for the cost of the banners that would be put up at the Rotary stall in New Jersey. The club agreed and the budget — a princely ₹3,800 — was sanctioned. Agrawal explains this, saying, “We wanted our club to have some stake in this project, and then we also needed the duas (prayers) of all the 145 club members.”

The background story of how this club of 145 was started deserves a mention! Agrawal first joined Rotary in 1990, by becoming a member of RC Rajkot, one of the oldest clubs in the district started way back in 1965. But for some reason, within a couple of years, about 16 of the members, including him, got disenchanted with both the club and Rotary and decided to quit.

But they had enjoyed their fellowship and friendship enough to know one thing: they wanted to remain in touch and meet regularly! “There is a race circle in Rajkot and we decided that we will meet every Friday here with our families.”

80kg of the famous Rajkot pedas and 1,000 bhamardas worked their magic

Initially these meetings went well; but within a few years attendance dwindled and “we realised that we need an umbrella to hold us together.” In the mid-1990s there were already two clubs in Rajkot; for some reason neither could or would sponsor the new club, so RC Rajkot Midtown became that rare club in the world which was sponsored directly by Rotary International, he says. The club was formed with 25 members. A really vibrant club, it has thrived since then, and has done some wonderful permanent projects, including establishing the International Dolls Museum in Rajkot with the help of PRIP Kalyan Banerjee, also from the same district.

Returning to the Chalo India event, Chagnani, one of the five members of the core group, who raised the initial funds to set up the Diabetes Prevention and Management Centre, happened to be in the US at that time, and he managed to get the stall fee of $3,000 from a pharma company in the US.

But while preparing for the US event, in their internal discussion, “we thought when we put up the stall, why would anybody be attracted to visit that stall, because after all, how many people would have heard of or be interested in Rotary and what it does? We needed an idea to draw people to our stall,” recalls Agrawal.

Visitors at the club’s Chalo India stall in New Jersey.
Visitors at the club’s Chalo India stall in New Jersey.

It was then that a brilliant idea popped into this past governor’s head; “we decided to take the famous Rajkot pedas with us… it is a delicacy, and we were sure that those who visited the exhibition would love it.” So they ordered some 80kg, packing each peda lovingly in a liquid nitrogen packet so that it would stay fresh and edible for three months, and shipped it to the US.

But the consignment of pedas had an interesting companion, the ubiquitous, colourful bhamarda (spinning top) made from wood by hand for which this area in Gujarat is famous. They identified an artisan in Dhoraji, about 100km from Rajkot, who was renowned for making beautiful bhamardas. Each handcrafted toy was packed attractively, with a short poem on the label. About 1,000 of these, each costing ₹62, were made and packed in specially ordered boxes, and shipped to New Jersey. The Rotarians were now ready for their fundraising.

The exhibition started on the afternoon of Aug 31, 2018, and the Rotarians patiently waited for footfalls. They had decided to give a free peda to every visitor, and a bhamarda to those who made a donation! But in the first few hours, hardly anybody visited their stall. Obviously, they knew little about Rotary, and cared even less to find out! Out of choice, the Rajkot Rotarians had not contacted any Rotary club in New Jersey or the US for that matter; their mantra was to approach non-Rotarians for funds to do a community service project.

The goal is to raise a corpus of ₹10 crore for the diabetes centre.

The event would barely last another 48 hours, so the group decided to act. They started giving out free pedas to even those who were passing by the stall. Naturally, and more out of politeness, the recipients stopped, looked at the display material on the walls of the stall and started asking about Rotary, and the cause for which they were seeking funds.

But more than Rotary, or the display material about the work it does, what attracted their attention were the colourful bhamardas, begging to be picked up! “So they asked us, what are these, and when we explained, they said can we buy them. So we said: ‘Sorry, these are not for sale. You’ll get one as a gift and a goodwill gesture, only if you make a donation for our cause!”

Slowly word of mouth spread and “we had more than 100 people visit our stall the next day and by lunch time, there was a queue of people waiting at our stall! People realised there was something called Rotary, learnt about the huge problem of diabetes in India/Gujarat, and why a diabetes centre was required there. We explained that India is the diabetes hub of the world and Gujarat is the diabetes capital of India. We said we needed help to put up this centre which would create awareness about prevention and provide treatment, specially to the underprivileged. You will be surprised to know that in two and a half days of that event, we collected ₹1.28 crore though donations, both from NRIs and Americans,” beams Agrawal.

Above:  From L: Atul Ganatra, Kalpraj Mehta (third from L), PDG Deepak Agrawal (sixth from L), Divyesh Aghera and Nilesh Changani with media team at the stall in New Jersey.
From L: Atul Ganatra, Kalpraj Mehta (third from L), PDG Deepak Agrawal (sixth from L), Divyesh Aghera and Nilesh Changani with media team at the stall in New Jersey.

The Rotarians at the stall were deeply touched when suddenly a woman walked in with a lot of home-cooked food and juices carried by her helper. “She said I heard that my brothers have come from Gujarat and they must be hungry. So from now on, food will come for you from my house.” She later talked to her husband, a doctor, and the two donated ₹7.5 lakh for the diabetes centre to be put up in Rajkot.

The whopping collection at Chalo India only confirmed his belief that “we should go outside Rotary and ask for funds for our projects. And when I became RPIC for Zone 4, I thought every Saturday, why not talk about Rotary and the work we do to people who visit popular places, such as the Hanuman temple in Rajkot.”

As the club had its own trust (RC Rajkot Midtown Charitable Trust of which Agrawal is chairman and managing trustee), they were able to bring the ₹1.28 crore collected in New Jersey to India without any hassle. “The Municipal Corporation of Rajkot had already given us some land for our centre, and with the money raised, we constructed a 5-floor hospital with 14,500 sqft carpet area, and equipped it with all the necessary staff and machines required for diagnosis and treatment of various disorders associated with diabetes, including dental and eyecare,” adds Agrawal. The centre, inaugurated by the Gujarat Chief Minister, became operational in April, 2021. About 40–50 people visit it daily for diabetes diagnosis and treatment, so every month nearly 1,500 locals benefit from it, most of them getting medicines at discounted prices and even free when somebody is too poor to afford to pay anything.

Their fundraising efforts have continued, and till now this club has raised ₹6 crore for this diabetes project alone. The club has done two global grants for their diabetes project; the first grant had for international partners two clubs from the US (RID 6000) and UK (RID 1200); the second one was supported by two American clubs from RIDs 5495 and 5170. This March, it received its first CSR funding from a pharma company called PAR Drugs which has given ₹11 lakh.

As for the future, Agrawal says that their objective is to have a corpus of ₹10 crore, so that this centre can be run efficiently from the interest income from the corpus. They’ve already collected ₹4 crore towards this goal. They look forward to participating in any future Chalo India events — one is due next year. Agrawal also hopes to try his luck at the Atithi Diwas that the GoI organises in Ahmedabad regularly for NRIs, as well as other major exhibitions held outside India. As one who regularly tracks FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, 2010) data on foreign donations, he says, “You’ll be surprised to know that the maximum donations for the voluntary sector in India come not from the US, but Germany, so Germany is another place — especially the book exhibition — we are going to focus on in the future.”

He is sure he will find some connection there too; after all “isn’t Rotary mainly about two words — ­connection and donation.”

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