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The Rotary Club of Calcutta became the first Rotary club chartered in India on 1 January 1920. Today, more than 3,000 clubs operate throughout the country, including the Rotary Club of Vapi, home to 2011-12 RI President Kalyan Banerjee.
R.J. Coombes is credited with starting India's first club. But Canadian James Wheeler Davidson is largely responsible for Rotary's growth in the country.
As a member of the Rotary International committee that explored extending the organization into other countries, Davidson departed in August 1928 to help establish clubs in Asia and the Middle East. His trip turned into a two-and-a-half-year odyssey that resulted in the chartering of 23 clubs in 12 countries.
Only two clubs held charters in India at the outset of Davidson's journey: Calcutta and Lahore (in present-day Pakistan). The clubs were more than 1,000 miles and a 40-hour train ride apart, Davidson noted in reports back to RI.
Arriving in Bombay in February 1929 with his wife and daughter, he was intent to start a club there.
"It was not an easy task to organize a club in this big city of 1,200,000," he mused. Three attempts had failed prior to his arrival. But in March of that year, Davidson successfully formed a club in Bombay that would receive its charter on 8 May.
He organized a club in Delhi next, before visiting Rotarians in Calcutta, where Nitish C. Laharry was serving as club secretary. Laharry would become the first RI president from India in 1962-63.
On to Madras
On 23 April, Davidson boarded a train in Calcutta for a 1,032-mile trip to Madras. He had been advised to travel by sea to avoid the excessive heat common at that time of year, but opted to go by rail to see the countryside.
"It was a real delight to watch the change as we passed from north to south, from the temperate zone into the tropics," he later wrote. "Not only did the vegetation change, but the buildings altered some and the people appeared to take on a different appearance, the tendency to dress in white at Calcutta changed to red as we worked south."
Two days later, Davidson convened a committee in Madras, which organized a club on 10 May. (It received its charter on 19 July).
"With the organizing of the Madras club, my plans as originally formulated, have been carried out," Davidson noted. "We now have a club in each one of the main geographical divisions in India and further extension work should now be carried out by local Rotarians. I consider that the five clubs that now exist firmly establishes Rotary in India."
Today, Rotary has grown to include more than 115,000 Indian Rotarians. In addition to Banerjee and Laharry, many Rotary leaders have called the country home, including 1991-92 RI President Rajendra K. Saboo and more than 10 RI directors.