Atlanta is no ordinary city in the US. The first chord it strikes is that of Margaret Mitchell’s incomparable literary work Gone with the Wind, with its riveting characters Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara immortalised in the 1939 Hollywood blockbuster by Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh.
It is also the city of Coca Cola and CNN. But in Rotary International’s history, it has a very special place in that, 100 years ago the then RI President Arch Klumph dreamt of a humanitarian Foundation that would do good in the world through the contributions given by Rotarians.
Indian Rotarians can be proud that the largest contribution to that entity — The Rotary Foundation — from a single contributor has come from India — Rajashree Birla who heads the Aditya Birla Centre for Community Initiatives and Rural Development. Her contribution to TRF has crossed over $11 million.
So it was fitting that she was one of the principal speakers at the grand opening of the Atlanta Convention, where she announced yet another donation of $1 million to TRF, and was honoured with a crystal by RI President John Germ.
Addressing the meet, Rajashree came through as an unassuming, down-to-earth person, who lightly wears the label of being such a huge benefactor of TRF.
The largest contribution to TRF from a single contributor has come from India — Rajashree Birla — and her contribution has crossed over $11 million.
Describing herself as “a proud Rotarian”, she said, “today all of us Rotarians are on the threshold of creating history by eradicating a disease with such disastrous consequences such as polio from the face of the earth. For over 10 years I have been engaged with this organisation and your commitment, compassion and efforts to do whatever it takes to banish polio struck me deeply. Your clarion call across the world inspired me and I too began championing the Rotary movement.”
Sharing her personal experience with Vishnu, a polio stricken girl on the streets of Mumbai, she said that the CSR arm of her team spotted Vishnu “who sat desolately on the street; she was unfortunate not to receive polio drops in time.”
Rajashree referred her to the Rotary medical team fighting the polio virus. “They examined her and she underwent polio corrective surgery, and with physiotherapy and other medical treatment, she could walk again and was soon up and running.”
Five years ago, Vishnu got married; “today she has a healthy and chubby three-year-old child. Vishnu works on the farm to supplement her husband’s income.”
Quoting Vishnu, Rajashree said, once upon a time she was only three feet tall as her ailment compelled her to bend; but today she is a proud mother who had ensured that her child is properly immunised against polio.
Reiterating that in their group of companies polio immunisation is a focal area in the health domain, Rajashree recalled how she became “personally and increasingly involved in polio eradication right after my first visit to Evanston in 2007 at the behest of PRIP Raja Saboo and in solidarity with the cause of polio eradication I made a personal commitment and became involved. Unhesitatingly I went into the streets and slums of Mumbai and Delhi to administer polio drops to children from marginalised families.”
You are certainly an inspiration to all of us as we continue our action to eradicate polio.
— RI President John Germ to Rajashree Birla
But to be “socially responsible” is an aspect that is “embedded in our family DNA. Ours is a 150-year-old organisation. We in the Birla family were very close to Mahatma Gandhi and my grandfather-in-law G D Birla was a close confidante of Gandhiji. Both of them cared for the poor and were cut from the same cloth.”
In partnership with Gandhiji, the philosophy of giving became “part of our family legacy”, and her husband Aditya Birla zealously carried it forward. Her son Kumar Mangalam Birla has now taken it to “an entirely different height”. His vision is to be part of a generation that leaves behind a “safer, superior and more enlightened world than the one they have inherited”.
Rajashree added that service to society was “at the heart of our value system. Our group has immunised 10 million children against polio across 80,000 booths set up by us, besides supporting the immunisation of 80 million children collectively with Rotary International, the Indian Government and other agencies. Our group has been an ardent supporter of TRF and worked in step with it to make India polio-free in March 2014.”
She added: “I must applaud the Rotarians of India, particularly PRIPs Raja Saboo and Kalyan Banerjee and PRID Ashok Mahajan. Still, we have not reached the destination of a polio-free world. All of us in the Aditya Birla group join you in keeping the promise to the children of the future. The message has to be loud and clear. We will not arrive late now as we did for Vishnu or many other children. Our collective goal is for a polio-free world.”
Amidst thunderous applause and a standing ovation she presented a cheque for $1million to a visibly moved President Germ who said, “I am very seldom at a loss for words. But this is magnificent.”
In appreciation of her partnership with Rotary “in the largest public health effort ever undertaken”, he presented her with a Rotary crystal, saying, “A polio-free world will be a historical achievement thanks to the efforts of those such as yourself. You are certainly an inspiration to all of us as we continue our action to eradicate polio.”
A highlight of the opening ceremony of the 108th Convention was The Rotary Foundation Centennial bell, whose resounding clang marked the Convention’s official start. This bell was handcrafted in Italy by the Marinelli brothers.
Welcoming the 40,000-odd delegates, Convention Vice Chair Bob Hope, who has been named among the 100 most influential Atlantans, said, “All of you are part of a Rotary that is larger and stronger than Past President Arch Klumph could have ever imagined. We are here to celebrate not only a year of Rotary service but an entire century of doing good in the world through our Rotary Foundation. We have so much to celebrate!”
The End Polio Torch, which came all the way from Chennai, was received at the South Asia Reception.
Nathan Deal, Governor of Georgia, who is also a Rotarian, said there were over 200 Rotary clubs in Georgia, which had three Rotary districts.
“Georgia is the largest geographical State of the US, east of the Mississippi, and the eighth most populated State with 10.3 million people. We are now recognised as the No 1 place in the world for feature film production which is good for revenue!”