Storm in Akhshaya Patra: How much to trust philanthropy’s hybrid model? 

It is difficult to believe that no one noticed things going haywire at the Akshaya Patra Foundation for years. Why did they keep quiet?
For representational purposes (Photo | Tapas Ranjan, Express Illustrations)
For representational purposes (Photo | Tapas Ranjan, Express Illustrations)

The last fortnight has seen some very disturbing news spill out of the Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF). We need not have worried had it been a private trust, but unfortunately, it is an organisation that attracts crores of public funds and acts as a vehicle to one of our best-serving welfare schemes—the midday meal programme for school children. It provides over 18 lakh meals daily, and 14 state governments have outsourced their responsibility to the APF. The largest number of schools that the APF serves are in Karnataka, where it is headquartered, and in Gujarat. 

Corporate bigwigs like Mohandas Pai and V Balakrishnan, both former CFOs of Infosys, who were independent trustees on the foundation for nearly two decades, have resigned and accused their former colleagues on the trust, from ISKCON-Bangalore, of some pretty serious misdoings. The charges include diverting funds, inflating cost per meal, suppressing whistleblower complaints, conflict of interest and mixing up accounts, which in the parlance of an accountant would mean related-party transactions. In this case, the unrelated entities would be a few temple trusts and the APF, but all headed by two men, Madhu Pandit Dasa and his co-brother Chanchalapati Dasa (the missionaries). One of the other independent trustees who resigned, Abhay Jain, went to the extent of saying in a media interview that the missionaries have “blurred the accounts smartly”.  He also said that if someone wanted to donate to the APF, they convinced them to give 75% to the ISKCON temple and 25% to the Foundation. In other words, they used the APF as a front to raise money for the temple. 

The volumes we are discussing here are to the tune of hundreds of crores and that should get anybody to instantly sit up and take note. In the times we live in, if these charges had been made in an independent journalistic investigation or via a whistleblower expose or a public-interest litigation, it would have quickly been labelled as an activity sponsored by ‘Leftist malcontents’. Like anything that inconveniences and challenges politicians is branded as ‘fake news’ (remember Trump), for the corporate types, anything that questions their competence to manage the world would be seen as a conspiracy of the long-vanquished Left. They can keep messing up, they can keep emptying banks, but nobody should question the omnipotence of their business administration in a world where they have deftly converted everything into a business, a transaction, and a public relations trick. 

Let us keep aside the charges against the missionaries for the time being, because that would require the infrastructure of the government’s investigative agencies to handle. Instead, let us focus on the independent trustees who were fellow travellers of the missionaries. The perception is that the APF acquired fame, funds and scale due to the involvement of these independent trustees who were harnessing the power of corporate philanthropy for it.

In the first place, why did these corporate types get involved with missionaries whose temple trust was already under the scrutiny of the courts? What was the pact? Did it not cross their minds even once that creating the APF under the leadership of ISKCON-Bangalore may create doubts sooner or later that they were mingling faith, philanthropy and government welfare? Why did governments and politicians abdicate their role in running this very important welfare programme, which had been an exclusive hyperlocal community exercise until then, however imperfect? Why was there an effort to create indebtedness among children to a religious sect? Why were upper caste food values imposed on the diet? Why was a welfare programme deliberately made to look like the charity of some private individuals? Even allocation of government funds to the midday meal scheme is not welfare per se, it is an investment into the future of the nation where its youngest citizens receive nutrition to scale their brain power. If this is not a nationalist enterprise, what else is? 

It is difficult to believe that no one noticed things going haywire at the APF for years. Why did they keep quiet? The influence and network that the APF developed over the years gave the trustees access to governments, politicians and bureaucrats. Did they misuse this? In creating mutually beneficial associations, was sincerity and honesty of purpose replaced by recycled data and powerpoint presentations? Speaking of quid pro quo, there was a story on a Kannada news site that put out property tax receipts of an independent trustee who had bought four apartments from a complex built by the missionaries. This shows that the missionaries are into real estate too. A related question would be, have temples been built in land allotted for APF kitchens? 

The acts of omission and commission of all the trustees need a probe, but a similar probe may be needed into the unconscionable silence of heavyweight advisors on the APF’s board. The APF looks like a hybrid between religious and corporate philanthropy. The religious one is done quietly to better one’s individual karma, but the corporate one is done loudly to augment one’s profile. It could also be done, as a recent book on the subject (Anand Giridharadas’s ‘Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World’) says, to hide things as well as control and reshape social change to ensure that it never works against those with money and power.

Senior journalist and author 

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