Back in 1972, Kalyan Banerjee began his journey as a Rotarian in Vapi, Gujarat. Forty years hence, he has served as the 101st president of Rotary International, and is, at present, the International Chairperson of TRF. While every senior Rotarian has played a character in the story that sums up this triumphant journey, each one of them waited eagerly for him to enchant them with the details.
During the time he spent away from India, his work and efforts towards upholding the Rotary mission could only be appreciated through social media and online newsletters – which throws light on how the internet has made the world a smaller place. However, forty years of undeterred service cannot be given its due respect with just a cursory glance from a distance. So to finally have Banerjee back on the dias was like turning back the hands of time, back to when he was a regular at the Rotary meetings in Mumbai.
Just as St. Paul proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, our very own Mr. Paul George, ex-president of the Rotary Club of Bombay, proclaimed Banerjee as “one of India’s outstanding Rotarians” and ushered the speech of “the third Indian to occupy the prestigious office as the president of Rotary International.” Here, the audience was let in on some inside stories, the kind of stories that go on to mark a man for life: “Back in 2001, in the state of Gujarat, where Banerjee hails from, came a terrible earthquake, measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale. It occurred on the morning of 26th January…”
Those present, were glad to be narrated the entire story in the somber pitch that comes naturally to George, but in summary: The 26th of January, 2001, would find students in their school premises for morning assemblies and flag hoisting ceremonies. It was then that the devastating earthquake took place. Many towns and villages were affected; thousands died. In the town of Anjar, probably the worst affected, Banerjee was acquainted with an old lady, who visited the makeshift Rotary office several times to offer Rotarians her savings for Anjar’s redevelopment work. At one point, the acquaintance turned into a lasting friendship, when the lady “narrated her tale of woe.”
By the time the houses had been rebuilt by the efforts of philanthropic Rotarians, she had contributed over a lakh of rupees. Thanking the Rotarians for their efforts in rebuilding Anjar, she said: Two years ago her son and daughter-in-law were killed in a bus accident. She survived the catastrophe, only because she felt she had to stay alive for her granddaughter. And then tragically, on the 26th of January, her granddaughter went to school and never came back. Banerjee, who was among the Rotarians she was addressing, could not help but shed tears when she went on to say, “I gave you whatever I saved for my pilgrimage to Hajj, but today you have given me more than I have lost. I don’t need to go to Mecca. My Mecca is right here.”
“Paul George, my God! You remembered all those stories. But you know what? If you are coming to Atlanta, you will hear me tell that story again,” began Banerjee as the applause subsided. Since he is now the International chair of TRF, he proclaimed that he was glad to be back to his “most favourite Club in the world.” He went on to congratulate the President Dr. Mukesh Batra, for his successful year, that has included some “outstanding work with the youth.”
For the current year, Banerjee has set the optimistic target of raising 300 million dollars in order to serve the underprivileged. In this way, he is raising the bar from last year’s total collection of 230 million dollars. He urged Rotarians to continue making the impossible possible, especially considering that the Club is not far from its promise of raising a million dollars. The result of which, would be overtaking “Japan and being the number two country in giving to the world.”
It was indeed an invigorating start to his discourse on giving. He went on to invite Rotarians to the 101st anniversary convention in Atlanta, which occurs later this month. “It happens to be the largest convention in the history of the Rotary,” stated Banerjee. Incidentally, the venue is the same used for Arch C. Klumph’s initial speech when setting up the Rotary Foundation in 1917, “when World War 1 was raging.” The comparison does not seem too audacious because “Klumph was a dreamer of colossal proportions. But today Banerjee thinks the foundation can surpass even his most colossal dreams. He was proud to know that in its first hundred years, the foundation has provided 3.7 billion dollars worldwide.” And to think that the foundation began with only twenty six dollars and fifty cents.
The impressive numbers at which the Rotary is contributing was well summed up, by taking the worldwide Polio issue as an example. “16 million. That is the number of people walking today, who would have otherwise been paralysed due to Polio, without our Global Polio Eradication Initiative. The world is beginning to look more Polio-free than you can imagine.”
Surely, as the Rotary enters its second century, “The end seems to be in sight, and India, with the help from Rotary India, is on its way to fulfill literacy. Congratulations Rotarians!”
This proud moment in Rotary Club history was a quick overview of the power of giving by an old friend. But the Rotarians also made a new acquaintance last Tuesday…
Afroz Shah was also a part of the meeting. The UN has described his work as “the world’s largest cleanup in history, and the honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi has responded to his onceimpossible feat, stating, “It is our duty to protect the environment for our future generations. One of Mumbai’s dirtiest beaches, Versova, has been completely transformed into a clean and pristine beach. The entire credit for this goes to Versova Residents Volunteers (VRV) and their leader Afroz Shah, who began the cleanup in October 2015.”
It came as a surprise to many that they were going to be addressed by two speakers. It was a matter of great pride that Afroz Shah was awarded the Taru Lalwani Award for his environmental work, the audience did not seem to mind the minor interlude. On the contrary, Shah made a polite yet firm plea to all Rotarians to take out a few hours from their weekends to clean the beach nearest to them. In the words of Afroz Shah, “I stand here with a very selfish need. It gives me gratification that I do something for my planet, my country, and the marine species who don’t have their own tongue to speak for.”
A well-made audio-visual presentation was shown after a brief introduction to his cause. It undoubtedly drove the point home, quickly making his “selfish need,” the need of the hour. But since curiosity survives formal education, it was hard to get one’s head around the mystery of why a constitutional lawyer would use his hands instead of his power of analysis to fight for the cause of marine welfare. At least not until this revelation – “I love the constitution and I want to follow it in my life. But as we have certain rights, we also have duties: The same constitution under which you seek protection, tells us that we have a duty as well. It is a fundamental duty to protect our environment.”
That quite clearly explains why Afroz Shah chose to silently go about his duty of protecting the environment a year and a half ago. With time, two hands have become the many hands that form the Versova Residents Volunteers (VRV), yet the lawyer’s indomitable conviction was reflected in his concluding statement. “There are more than 18 million people in Mumbai, which means 36 million hands. If these hands were to pick litter, the job would be done in no time.” As he returned to his seat, he received a resounding applause – the result of 126 attendees, who put 252 hands together.