Forty five-year-old Latha*, an assistant professor at the CSI (Church of South India) Institute of Technology in Kanyakumari district, Tamil Nadu, is inconsolable. Over the last three years, she has been forced to shift her children from private to government schools, liquidate assets to manage everyday expenses and deal with loan sharks and banks that have been knocking at her door for repayment. And just when she thought things couldn't get worse, her husband lost his means of income due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"For the over two years now, the CSI institute has failed to pay my full salary and is giving me no proper reason for the same. I am teaching close to 150 students every day but there has been no compensation," says the professor who has worked in the institute for 20 years. "The whole of 2018, I didn't receive a salary at all and in 2019, they gave 40% of the salary due that year. But again since January this year, I have received no payment," she laments.
Latha is amongst the 160 teaching and non-teaching staff in the institute managed by the Kanyakumari diocese, who have been denied their rightful income since September 2017. In addition to withholding income, the institute has been accused of paying employer's contribution to provident fund (PF).
The cause for this non-payment of salary, allege CSI members and staff, is mismanagement of funds in the college by the former and current Chairman and the administrators who work with them.
College authorities, on the other hand, claimed that due to dwindling admissions over the last two years, they have not been able to pay the staff the PF and salary.
Allegations of fund misappropriation
Established in 1995, the college, according to the staff, was doing reasonably well and attracted students from across the state. The fees at its highest had been upto Rs 1 lakh a year. But in just the last three years, it has come down to Rs 15,000 a year.
This, staff allege, is because the institute reduced investment in maintaining the quality of education. Following the degradation in infrastructure, services and several professors resigning over lack of payment, the institute's standards have allegedly plummeted.
According to a petition given by the 160 staff members on February 17, 2020, to the Chairman of the college, AR Chelliah, the profits earned and funds meant for the technical institute had been routed for other expenditures, thus denying salaries for the professors and technicians. Copies of this petition were also marked to the Diocese Secretary, Diocese Vice President, Diocese Treasurer, 24 Executive Committee members of Diocese, Correspondent and principal.
"The college comes under the CSI Trust Association which is registered as a company. Dioceses are units under this association and there are 24 such units across south India. The Kanyakumari diocese is one of them and they are managing the CSI Technical institute," explains Jeyakumar, a member of Pallivilai CSI church, which falls under the Kanyakumari Diocese. He has also actively been aiding staff from the technical institute who are fighting for their salary and PF.
According to Jeyakumar, the institute was started through donations from members like him and when he came to know about the staff's plight, he decided to look into the matter.
"The mismanagement started under the former Bishop and treasurer of Kanyakumari diocese and it continues under the current leadership. The money meant to fund the technical institute was diverted for other projects like a medical college," he alleges.
In December 2019, an investigation was launched by the Kanyakumari diocese into the alleged mismanagement of money by the CSI college for the construction of the medical college.
The report, which TNM has accessed, shows multiple irregularities in the construction, including: âAll expenses were on a very higher scale when compared to actual constructionâ; âBills on the purchase of cement and steel included forged and fake billsâ; and âAll payments were made by cheque, but not routed through bank account and received as cash over the counterâ, among others.
But the diocese has currently not taken any action based on the report and the staff in the institute are becoming increasingly desperate.
A head of the department from the institute, who has been an employee for over two decades, says he sold his land to manage expenses.
"We are unable to get a job easily in other institutes because we have a lot of experience," he says. "Additionally, we should be given the money that is owed to us. Our (HOD) salary is about Rs 70,000 a month. Our professors work for 20 hours a week. We cannot walk away when they still owe us PF and our salaries," he adds.
In an effort to at least ensure employees get the PF, Jeyakumar, along with the staff, has approached several government departments via email and petitions.
âUsed surplus fundâ: College
When TNM contacted the governing board of the institute, Chairman AR Chelliah, acknowledged the irregularities in payment of salaries and PF to staff.
âWe had planned to discuss this further in March, but due to the lockdown, everything has come to a halt,â says the Chairman.
When asked about the alleged transfer of funds (meant for the technical institute) for other projects, the Chairman says, âThat is a practice of the diocese. When the college was flourishing, surplus funds were taken for several projects, not just the medical college. But now our academic admission is only at 35% and so we are not able to pay PF or salary completely.â
The Chairman stated that the plan was to give staff the complete PF amount once the lockdown ends but he did not elaborate on how this will be accomplished.
âWe donât pledge lands or sell church property; that is an issue. We have to discuss further and see how this can be achieved,â he says.
*Names changed to protect identity