A Community Man

Sitting at the Dandenong Indian Museum, Vasan Srinivasan is in a reflective mood. For Srinivasan, who has made Melbourne his home ever since he arrived in 1987, watching the Indian community grow and being a part of its growth story has been special. He feels the pulse of the community and his motives are altruistic. This year he is buzzing with excitement and hope as a long-time dream is about to get fulfilled (more on that later).

Srinivasan has weathered many careers in his life but he finds the joy of serving the community unparalleled. Where and how that passion stemmed from goes back to his roots in India.

Born in a tiny village Veeriyan Kottai in Tanjore district 350 km away from Chennai, Srinivasan grew up in an idyllic setting among the paddy fields, coconut and mango farms and just 13 families making up the entire village. It was another life far removed from the vagaries of the world. “There was no school but my father was the village head and he brought a retired teacher to the village who taught us under the tree. There were no blackboards, just the sandpits upon which we wrote,” he recalls.

By the time he was nine, he and his other four siblings were packed off to Chennai to complete their education. Srinivasan went on to complete his Diploma in Mould & Tool Design, Mechanical Engineering, after which he got a job with the Birla Group of companies, an Indian multinational conglomerate. The office was in Delhi and he moved base.

Unfortunately, after three months the company relocated to Jaipur and he found himself jobless. Interestingly, he found benefactors in the forms of strangers and acquaintances. Take, for instance, the friendly Punjabi paan (beetle nut) shopkeeper just outside his rental accommodation, who concerned by his struggles, took him to the gurudwara at Bangla Sahib, Delhi. It would change the course of his life.

For three months, he volunteered at the Bangla Sahib day in and day out and was nicknamed ‘Madrasi Sikh’. Srinivasan believes working at the gurudwara taught him life skills but he also made connections and met many Sikh leaders from all over the world, who offered ‘sewa’ (service) in anonymity. One day one such anonymous volunteer asked him to go to a certain factory with a hand-written note.

On reaching the so-called factory at Faridabad, Srinivasan realised it was a big company by the name of American Universal Electric (India) Ltd.  The guard who was shown the hand-written note gave him a salute as the man he was about to meet happened to be none other than the proprietor.

There were more surprises in store. Inside, one of the doors had his name affixed on it with the designation ‘Toolroom Engineer’. Srinivasan thought it was his namesake. After a tour of the factory, his benefactor pointed to the door and said, “Come into your office”. This is God’s gift, his first gift of working with charity, Srinivasan thought. It is a story he shares with the world.

For the next three years, Srinivasan worked at the company but he never left the gurudwara and on the weekends religiously toiled there. During one of his official tours abroad, he was on his way back  to Delhi at the Doha airport when an American at the coffee lounge who he got talking to asked him, “If I offered you a job in Singapore, would you come?” He was the General Manager of Panduit Corp, which was setting up its largest electrical and electronic wiring accessories manufacturing unit in Singapore.

Srinivasan ended up taking the offer. With Panduit, Srinivasan went places taking charge of 16 countries. He enjoyed his work. But life took another turn.  It was 1987, the GM of Panduit Australia wanted to poach Srinivasan who he felt was technically sound, had marketing skills and product management knowledge’.

Panduit invested 20 million US dollars in Australia. In ten days Srinivasan got his permanent residency too and moved bag and baggage to Melbourne. Although he had a cushy job and was a workaholic, he was nagged by the urge to resume charity work.

He joined the Rotary Club and also got involved with the Hindu Society of Victoria and as vice president was instrumental in bringing in masons and idols from India.

In 1989, with the then consul general of India Dr Jana Rao, Srinivasan brought 12 community organisations together to establish the Federation of Indian Associations of Victoria (FIAV) of which he became the president much later. By then he had also switched professions and started his own printing business.

It was around this time too that he got involved with political organisations.  Michael Kroger of the Liberal Party was one such person who was impressed by Srinivasan’s involvement with community works and he invited him to be a part of the Liberal Party.

In 2006 when India decided to hold the Commonwealth Games in Australia, Srinivasan got a call from the then India’s Minister for External Affairs Natwar Singh’s office in Delhi and he was appointed the attache to oversee the closing ceremony of the Games. Overseeing 3,500 guests and 1,100 performers from India was a massive challenge and a task that he along with the others involved accomplished well.

In 2009, Srinivasan decided it was time to do something for the community in a big way. He became President of FIAV. Along with John Brumby, former Victorian premier, George Lekakis, who was chairman of Victorian Multicultural Commission (VMC), and Michael King who was director of Places Victoria, he worked towards the revitalisation of Dandenong. “And that’s how Little India started,” he reflects. He also successfully negotiated for the relocation of FIAV office to Dandenong.

In 2010, he established the Federation of Indian Music and Dance Victoria, which just celebrated its tenth year recently. He also went on to set up the Federation of Indian-origin Multi Faith bringing together 65 organisations.

In 2013, Srinivasan was also involved with the official launch of the Pravasi Bhartiya Divas in Sydney. During this time, he had a conversation with retired psychiatrist and collector Dinesh Parekh for the setting up of an Indian museum in the precincts of Little India. Museum India was inaugurated in August 15, 2014. Today Museum India’s 100-plus paintings, etchings, photographs and sculptures are in themselves a snapshot of Parekh’s 2000-work collection held in trust for the art space.

In the past three years, Srinivasan has been involved with two projects. One is an ethno specific Indian age care in Victoria, the proposal of which has been approved by the federal government. Supported by the Australia India Charitable Trust (which he also set up) and MiCare, an aged care facility or community services provider, the project received planning permit at the start of this year and construction work will begin soon.

The second project is the setting up of a community centre. Srinivasan took it upon himself as a challenge the past 18 months and lobbied hard for it. With the support of Liberal MPs Alan Tudge and Michael Sukkar, he approached Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The result: Five million dollars was announced to that effect. “Currently a contract is being drawn,” he smiles, adding, “The City of Knox is a preferable site.  We are hoping to achieve this before August 15.”

In his 30 plus years in Australia, Srinivasan has had many firsts. He was the first Indian to be a part of the Multicultural Council and is currently serving his second term. He is the first Indian to serve the International Education Board and Police Reference Board, Victoria. He currently serves as vice-chairman of the Mental Health Foundation. The lists are many.

“But there is a tall poppy syndrome in every community,” he rues, adding, “I go through lots of criticism but fortunately my positive attitude makes me overlook them. As a community leader I would like to achieve something for the community. Some people need to sacrifice to achieve that and I am happy to be one of them,” he surmises, adding, “I always felt God has given me this strength and ability to give something back to the community.  If I can make a difference in your life, I am happy to spend some time with you.”

Clearly, Srinivasan is a community man through and through.

By Indira Laisram