News of the Akshaya Patra Foundation’s (APF’s) independent trustees resigning, which was in the air for over a month, thrust itself into the public domain when the Deepavali crackers were being burst. Why it took such a long time to be confirmed by both parties – the missionary and independent members – we will see a little later. But first, let us explore the nature of the controversy that had enveloped the APF until the independent trustees resigned, and why that had a moral bearing on all those involved in running the APF.
The controversy with regard to the APF, until recently, had to do with their diet, which excluded onion and garlic. The fact that they also refused to serve eggs to children had gone against the science of nutrition. It was seen as the intransigent ideological position of ISKCON-Bangalore, which reflected ‘upper’-caste food values in India.
The ISKCON-Bangalore, as an independent private entity, was free to pursue its faith, but sadly the APF, which it hosted, was portrayed as independent of ISKCON-Bangalore right from its inception around 2000. It received public and private donations with this particular appeal, and importantly, became the agency of many state governments to implement the midday meal welfare programme. Currently, 14 state governments and the Government of India’s Ministry of Human Resources Development are partnering with the APF to serve around 19,000 schools across the country.
By perusing the names on its board of trustees, advisors and donors, one can see how the APF, over two decades, became a cherished hub where missionaries met corporates and influenced bureaucrats and politicians to hand over the government’s midday meal programme. Till the ISKCON-corporate partnership happened, midday meal scheme had an autonomous community structure, and still does in many places where the APF does not reach.
It was obvious to anybody looking that in the new arrangement, faith mingled with philanthropy in a not-so-subtle way. Since this was about meals to underprivileged children, and since the APF aggressively advertised hygienic kitchens, a corruption-free milieu, a hassle-free delivery system and happy faces of kids, many were reluctant to question the intermingling of faith and philanthropy that was explicitly supported by public funds. The impression that the APF gave until recently was that it was a well-run foundation with professional expertise that came from the very cream of Indian corporates. Gradually, over the years, the reinforcement of APF’s branding was such that it became an ISCKON-Bangalore programme and not one heavily subsidised by governments. There was very little effort to correct this perception by government officials or politicians.
The legitimacy that was constructed for the APF with big names like N.R. Narayana Murthy, Gururaj ‘Desh’ Deshpande, Dr Devi Shetty, Deepak Chopra and others made it difficult for the media to question the group. Whenever they did, there would be enormous pressure to either retrace the opinion or abort follow up questions. Paradoxically, after all this image management in two decades, the independent trustees – T.V. Mohandas Pai, Raj P. Kondur, V. Balakrishnan and Abhay Jain – have now issued statements which suggest that the APF has serious governance issues and has also had to contend with wrongdoings and whistle-blower complaints.
The outgoing trustees, who did not have qualms when ISKCON-Bangalore was imposing its skewed diet plan on unsuspecting, needy children, are ironically speaking out loud now on the APF as an independent charity that has to cede greater control to independent trustees. Why is it being belatedly emphasised that the APF is a custodian of public money, and that there has to be greater transparency? It is surprising that for two decades when ISKCON-Bangalore and APF were drawing strength from each other, there was no talk of related-party transactions and quid pro quo, both literally and metaphorically speaking. The books were perhaps kept clean and separate, but there was a moral poser continuously hanging over the trustees, donors and governments on the diet. If there was a pact and a compromise between the missionaries and independents trustees on the APF board for two decades, why has it been broken now? What has caused this rupture?
An over 3,500-word letter that a member of APF’s internal audit committee wrote to the trustees a few weeks ago (his name is being withheld on the request of The Wire‘s source) has the following paragraphs that raise issues that are alarming. Here is a verbatim reproduction of some passages from the letter:
- “While it was my belief as an outsider that highest governance standard prevailed in the Foundation [APF], after I took over the responsibility in the AC [Audit Committee], I noticed various gaps/shortcomings, which in my view were and are serious enough to dent the image of the Foundation…”
- “It is a matter of record that Temple Trusts such as Hare Krishna Foundation, ISKCON, Bangalore, Touchstone Foundation are related parties of the Foundation since the Chairman and Vice Chairman [Madhu Pandit Das and Chanchalapathi Dasa respectively] exercise control by virtue of their position as executive members in such Trust or through their religious missionaries. On the other hand, missionaries of the Temple Trusts also serve as Unit Presidents of the Akshaya Patra and many other Missionaries (FTM) of the Temple Trusts hold important portfolios in the Akshaya Patra. Given this intertwined relationship, it is important that the activities inter se Akshaya Patra and the Temple Trusts are above board, well documented and carried out at arm’s length…”
- “The Missionaries are mostly found to be in full control without corresponding accountability on efficiency, compliance, systems and controls to the formal organization of Akshaya Patra. They have very loose to no formal reporting to the professional CEO/CFO/corporate functions of the Foundation. This is a very precarious scenario which only allows full control to the religious leadership and muting accountability to the Board of trustees or AC of the Foundation…”
- “The line of demarcation between the Foundation and Temple Trusts in committing and incurring expenses for running of the specific unit, collection of donations, vehicle expenses, associated costs for fund raising, sharing of rented premises, fund raising, etc. has been blurred. There are no proper written contracts nor clarity and, in many cases, even there is no clear audit trail justifying arm’s length consideration so as to demonstrate transparency and proper accounting of the resources of the Foundation and eliminate any conflict of interest. Many instances of improper recording and reporting were noticed as gaps of serious nature…”
- “Over the past two years, several whistle-blower complaints were received regarding the functioning of the Units/Unit Presidents of the Foundation. After due investigation, in almost all cases, it has been established that there has been wrongdoings on the part of Unit Presidents and/or other missionaries…”
- “It is also a fact that the Missionaries instead of furnishing timely details/their own books of account to enable proper data capture and fair assessment/investigation have only demonstrated lack of co-operation and have engaged in negotiation with the special auditors with a view to influence their views, which are all alien to any good governance. Special audit by Ernst and Young was to be completed early October 2020, however since cooperation and data flow has not been forthcoming nor access to related party books being provided,(despite specific directive by the Trustees) the audit has not progressed with its targeted timeline. It is even doubtful if the audit can conclude in an objective manner given this stance of the related party leadership who appear to be fully protected by the conflicted leadership at the helm…”
- “Cost per meal for Akshaya Patra has always been a concern. Costs are far higher than any other similar organization for a similar meal. Any amount of questioning/review didn’t yield any result because the individual kitchens are run by missionary unit presidents who never demonstrated their accountability to the AP organization…”
At the end, the internal audit committee member concludes that a comprehensive forensic investigation may be necessary. The Wire has not independently verified the veracity of the charges made in the letter. After the committee offered its opinion on the lines illustrated above, it is alleged that the missionaries sought an opinion from a retired judge of the Supreme Court on the other board affiliations of Suresh Senapaty, one of the audit committee members. These enquiries were unrelated to the APF. This was apparently used as moral leverage to get him to quit the committee. This was one of the triggers for the independent trustees to get behind their corporate colleague.
After the missionary trustees ‘reconstituted’ the APF on November 14, 2020, a prominent outgoing trustee wrote an angry, hard-hitting, yet a revealing mail [his name is again being withheld on request from the source] to the missionary trustees. Here are a few verbatim extracts from the letter:
- “As a Cofounder of Akshaya Patra along with Abhay, I am deeply disappointed and hurt by what you and Swami MPD [Madhu Pandit Dasa] have done! Trying to cover up the acts of commission and omission done by your group which were brought out by the Audit committee!…”
- “Swami MPD has been accused of many worse acts by Mumbai ISKCON bordering on the criminal which has been upheld by the High Court and stayed by the SC! The SC has set up a committee under Justice Ravindran to monitor the working of the Bengaluru temple and its funds not trusting you people to remain fully in control! Can there be any more worse thing than this? We knew about this but never asked either you or MPD to recuse from any meeting or from APF! Yet MPD started a witch hunt on very frivolous grounds…”
- “We joined a Trust which was an equal trust but MPD changed this 10 years ago to be the solve [sic] person in control and agreed to this as we trusted you fully, and now you have betrayed this trust to create a voting like this and overrule independent trustees!…”
- “This is a fraud against the Trust as the Trust deed envisages a Trust with independent trustees and a balance of voting not a Trust packed with insiders! Pl read it again!…”
- “Both of you control AP under a very pliant CEO and CFO who confess they have no real control! You have not compensated AP for use of their assets and when the Audit committee has found this out and moved to appoint an independent agency to investigate to get to the truth, you have tried to obstruct the work of the audit committee by going on a witch hunt against a member of the AC who has spent enormous time and energy in setting matters right! Both of you are complicit in the misuse of the property and assets of AP and you are trying to preach morality to others. You should be ashamed of your hypocrisy and devious manipulative ways!…”
- “The whistle blower complaints against your devotee presidents in Jaipur. Mathura have shown how they emasculated the staff of AP, the CEO and CFO, did not follow any rules, diverted the funds, misused the assets. None of the Trustees would have known about this but for the whistle blowers who were disgruntled employees! A person from the CM’s office in Jaipur had written and pointed out the misuse of AP, its receipts books which were known to all of you and which was hidden from us!…”
- “You have misused NRN [NR Naryana Murthy] and Desh [Gururaj ‘Desh’ Deshpande] name to communicate to the trustees in the US, the auditors to assure them that they have blessed your cover up while not giving them the full facts of what has happened…”
- “For 20 years we trusted you both, stood by you in times of dire need, protected your interest with govt and others when you had your inter unit fights, intervened on your behalf, spoke out for you before the public when there was concern about your actions, and in return when we demanded transparency, and disclosure you deviously stabbed us in the back, to manipulate matters!…”
- “Let us say that Shri Krishna knows the Truth and he will ensure Justice against those who are manipulative and trying to cover up! Dharma shall prevail and both of you are not on the side of Dharma in this matter!…”
The Wire has not been able to independently verify the allegations made in this letter either. Another outgoing trustee agreed with the internal audit panel report, cited a November 9, 2020 letter written by yet another independent trustee, and wrote: “I do hope and pray that you get your full comeuppance soon. And more importantly, I hope these issues get investigated by credible parties to reveal the full extent of the rot over which you have presided, and the work of Akshaya Patra saved from your greedy clutches.”
Among the independent trustees, Abhay Jain resigned in February 2020 citing governance issues, but interestingly none of his colleagues stood up for him at that point, although they had journeyed together for two decades. The matter heated up only subsequently, and according to one source the independent trustees never intended to resign, but it could be a case of their brinkmanship having gone terribly bad. In fact, when the controversy began, the chairman of the APF, Madhu Pandit Dasa, made a ‘fervent appeal’ to one of the independent trustees on October 18, 2020. Here are verbatim extracts from Dasa’s letter:
- “Hare Krishna. I am sad to receive your resignation letter. You have been a pillar of Akshaya Patra for so many years and it is going to be painful to lose your services. Losing spirited trustees like you all is a big loss to the cause of the children of this country…”
- “We have worked together for two decades harmoniously. Difference of opinion on one issue should not separate all of us. I don’t think it is difference of opinion alone. A high trust deficit had developed between us centered around this whistleblower issue amidst lot of speculations. Ultimately Krishna knows the truth. Speculation only mislead [sic] one. I would call it destiny. We have not done anything to lose that trust except differing on one issue…”
- “I have personally requested Mohan [TV Mohandas Pai], yesterday. Bala [V Balakrishnan] is firm inspite of several requests that he wants to resign following our stand on the whistleblower issue. I am hoping that Mohan will reconsider. I request you also to please reconsider your resignation and also prevail upon Mohan to stay on…”
- “Still if you think you cannot any longer work with us, at least do justice to the cause by exiting after putting a new board in place and completing the unfinished matters that are before Audit committee. Are you not duty bound as a trustee to do that much? Please be kind enough to give us a notice period of resignation from the board. After two decades of holding the responsibility as a trustee, you have to at least enable us to handle the sudden resignation of all of you…”
Given the nature of the allegations, and the fact that public funds are involved, perhaps only a multi-agency probe may offer clarity and truth. The invocation of the divine to deliver justice, as we have seen in the letters of both missionaries and independents, can wait until the probe is completed. Or, it could happen simultaneously as one has no control over it.
Sugata Srinivasaraju is a senior journalist, author and columnist.