For almost a decade, independent trustees appointed to the Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF) weren’t even aware that the trust formed at their prodding had, on paper, reduced them to temporary trustees, while the Chairman and the Vice Chairman had turned themselves into permanent members, a source in the thick of the spiraling controversy told The Quint.
It was an iceberg so massive that it forced all four independent directors to resign, all within the same week in October. This, after they accused the trust’s Chairman of stalling audits that could reveal diversion of funds and related party transactions.
Founded on the public-private partnership model in the year 2000, Akshaya Patra Foundation has transformed from serving just 1,500 mid-day meals in Bengaluru to offering free meals to 1.8 million children across 12 states and 12 union territories.
But even as APF rose to become one of the largest private providers of mid-day meals, with its fame, came spiraling controversies.
Who are the independent trustees?
In 2000, the foundation was co-founded by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) and former Infosys Chief Executive Officer Mohandas Pai, advisor to Manipal Education and Medical Group Abhay Jain, former Infosys CFO V Balakrishnan and the co-founder of ChrysCapital, Raj Kondur and Ramdas Kamath.
Members from from ISKCON Bangalore included the religious order’s President Madhu Pandit Dasa, Vice President Chanchalapati Dasa and C.C Dasa.
According to the source, although the foundation became active in the year 2000, it was only in the following year that a trust was formed as all the four independent directors wanted things to be formalized as both operations and demand grew.
Why did the independent trustees resign?
According to sources, while Abhay Jain resigned in February 2020, the remaining three independent trustees resigned in October as all their efforts to make Akshaya Patra more transparent and completely separate it from the temple trusts fell in vain.
Alleged discrepancies in the running of the foundation and the misuse of its resources for other purposes (including benefiting temple trusts) lie at the centre of the conflict.
What were the first signs of trouble at Akshaya Patra?
The source alleges that both the ISKCON functionaries had kept the four independent trustees in the dark about the sweeping powers of the Chairman.
The independent trustees, the source says, had trusted Madhu Pandit and Chanchalapati and did not know that they had been relegated to the position of temporary members, who served at the pleasure of the Chairman.
According to the source, the trustees were shocked after the specific part of the clause deed was shown to them by a whistleblower only as late as 2010 – around nine years after the trust was formed.
What happened in the years following 2010?
Between 2013-14, one of the co-founders Ramdas Kamath had resigned, along with C.C Dasa, reducing the number of trustees to six – four independent and two from ISKCON.
The source claims that Chairman Madhu Pandit Dasa used his power to “pack the trust with his own people.” Pandit, the source maintained, had insisted since that since one person from the trust had left and since the programme had expanded, there was a need for more members.
What are the allegations against the temple trusts?
However, between 2014-15, the independent members noticed that the cost per meal incurred by the foundation had risen from Rs 6 and was hovering Rs 12-13. Such a hike, the source said, was ‘alarming’ even if inflation was to be added.
Following this and a few other discrepancies, the independent trustees pushed for a three-member audit committee in 2016. Consequently, former Wipro CFO Suresh Senapati chaired the audit committee and found discrepancies after a year of digging.
However, the discrepancies did not stop here. While the audit committee dug deeper, several whistle-blower complaints started coming in.
What did the whistle-blower complaints say?
A second source who spoke to The Quint on the condition of anonymity, said that whistle-blower reports had also pointed out how Akshaya Patra’s name and resources were being used for the work of temple trusts associated with ISKCON Bangalore.
Akshay Patra has around 52 kitchens across the country and also receives food grains from the government for its mid-day meals
In 2019, the foundation received Rs 248 crore as grants and cash subsidy, while also receiving Rs 352 crore as public donations. Both the sources said that with lines between the temple trust and Akshaya Patra getting blurred, there were complaints of money raised for the foundation being used for building temples.
One of the sources explained how not just resources, but the name and brand value of Akshaya Patra was being misused.
What is the central government saying?
A well-placed source close to the Union Ministry of Education said that the ministry, headed by Dr Ramesh Pokhriyal, is in receipt of complaints from both the parties in this case and is examining the matter.
While the Education Ministry appears to be buying time, it has been learnt that the four independent trustees have written to “all relevant people in the government” asking for greater say of independent appointees in the Akshaya Patra board.
It has also recommended the government to take over the trust, as a large chuck of children are nutritionally dependent on it.
(This author had reached out to representatives of Akshaya Patra Chairman but is yet to receive a response from them.)
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