Dhanya Rajendran and Monalisa Das | The News Minute| June 30, 2014| 7.46 pm
In 2010, a man from the temple town of Madurai was selected as one of the top 10 ‘heroes’ of the year by American news channel CNN.
Narayanan Krishnan was indeed a hero, in the real sense of the word. A chef-turned-social activist, Krishnan’s story had inspired many.
It all started when he saw an old man eating his own human waste. He went to a nearby hotel and bought food for the man. Krishnan later described the experience: “I had never seen a person eating so fast, ever. As he ate the food, his eyes were filled with tears. Those were the tears of happiness."
He had realized the cause of his life and he gave up a good job offer in Switzerland to feed the hungry, the homeless and the destitute. Krishnan founded his non-profit Akshaya Trust in 2003. In May 2013, he started the ‘Akshaya Home’ for the helpless.
Four years later, in 2014, the same person who had gained a messiah-like status, is mired in controversy, and a pretty deep one at that.
Trouble began when on June 5 this year, a female inmate from the trust’s home ran away. Twenty-one-year old Shabnam (name changed) was completely unclothed and she later told the police that she and other inmates had been physically and sexually abused in Akshaya Home.
The home run by Akshaya Trust situated on a 2.8 acre plot at Kodimangalam village in Madurai has 537 inmates, 171 women and 366 men. The inmate who escaped - Shabnam - told the police her version of what was going on behind the four walls of the home.
Shabnam who was mentally unsound, claimed many inmates were kept without their consent in over-crowded dormitories and kept repeating the names of three men who sexually assaulted her.
Following her complaint, a drastic turn of events was to ensue. The All Indian Democratic Women Association (AIDWA) filed a Public Interest Litigation against the Trust alleging several serious charges of wrongdoing by the Trust authorities.
On June 19, 2014, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court ordered a panel, including an advocate commissioner and a psychologist, to probe into the complaint.
The panel has submitted two reports to the court, the findings of one more damning than the other. The panel’s findings paint a very grim picture of the working of the Home when compared to the rosy light in which the Trust projects itself.
Crammed dormitories, sedated inmates
The report submitted by the advocate commissioner notes that the Home is hygienic and that it is largely kept clean, but the good things end there.
It talks about how some inmates confirmed physical abuse - one was beaten up with a log, another kicked with boots. The dormitories were ‘crammed’, male and female inmates were kept in the same building and they were not provided individual toiletries. The report talks about small rooms in which some inmates were locked up, who the caretakers claimed were HIV infected.
One hundred and twenty deaths in just a year
One of the most serious allegations made in the report is that 120 people had died in the home during the last one year. According to the Trust, they all died of cardiac arrest or respiratory arrest. The News Minute spoke to Narayanan Krishnan who confirmed the deaths.
“That 118 people have died in the last one year, I agree to it. But you need to understand that we bring in people who are not in their healthiest of forms. They are mostly old, and sick and suffer from various diseases. If this still reeks of malpractice, then the authorities need to investigate. As for the Trust, for every death, we inform and get death certificates from the concerned authorities.
This is just half the story; one of the people on the panel constituted by the High Court told The News Minute.
“Most of the deaths have been recorded as due to cardiac arrest or respiratory arrest. There has been no autopsy. If this a home to take care of people, how can people be dropping dead? This means you are not providing care or you are doing something drastically wrong." a member of the panel said.
The source added that not a single person who died was taken to any hospital and given treatment, nor have any records been provided on Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation.
Krishnan however alleges that none of the authorities he approached after the deaths of the inmates had ever asked him to get a post-mortem done.
The report states several other findings which are serious and disturbing in nature.
Why are inmates disappearing?
More than 60 people have gone missing from the home in the last year. “Who are these people? There are no records on where they have come from. The Trust could have picked them up from anywhere, and they have now simply vanished into thin air. No formal complaints have been lodged against these missing persons except for a note in the complaint register. What if their organs had been taken as alleged by Shabnam?” asks the source.
Narayanan Krishnan rubbished the allegation of organ trade and told us, “We bring poor people to help them, not sell their kidneys.”
Another PIL was filed in the same court recently alleging organ trade, but the court rejected it as there was already an ongoing investigation.
Who decides who destitute are?
Narayanan Krishnan maintains his life’s purpose has been in giving a home to the destitute, but this very claim is now being questioned. Many people in the home have openly told the panel that they were not homeless destitute, and that they had been kidnapped by the Trust’s people and kept in captivity. They also claim that they aren’t being allowed to go back to their families.
Our source in the panel said, “There was a person who said he was a goldsmith and that he came to Madurai to purchase gold. Unshaved and unkempt, he was simply picked up and forcibly taken to the home. He worries about his family and his clients who must think that he ran away with the gold”.
The report notes, “They stated that they were picked up by the Home and that they have abruptly left their work/occupation and have to go and complete them. They also expressed their anxiety that their family members will be worried and searching for them and that they are not in a position to convey the message to the people in charge of the Home.”
“Narayanan Krishnan says he is rescuing the destitute, but who has given him the mandate to do so? Every ugly, unkempt person on the road is not a destitute that he can simply pick up,” our source on the panel added.
Ponnu Thai, a Left leader in Madurai who has visited the home, told The News Minute that she found the home hygienic, but many inmates were begging to go back to their families. “Many of them told us they were desperate to get back home. It is important that the police investigate where these people came from and reunites them with their families.”
Narayanan Krishnan told the panel that some of the inmates had been united with the families, but he could not file reports with district authorities, instead uploaded pictures of the reunions on Facebook.
The report also notes that no procedure was followed to declare inmates as mentally ill, as mandated under the Mental Health Act and Disability Act.
“He has license to run a rehab centre for mentally ill patients and a centre for disabled. Out of the 537 inmates, there are just 91 mentally ill patients. Even for these 91 mentally ill patients, no one competent has certified them as ill. The larger question is about the rest who are not mentally ill. Why are they being kept here without consent?” the source adds.
Krishnan maintains that the reports against him in the local media and the panel’s report are incorrect. “They have held me guilty even before the court had given its verdict,” he said.
The panel will soon submit its third report to the High Court. It is likely to ask for a detailed inquiry into the funding that Akshaya Trust receives. In addition to the donations received by the Trust in India, Krishnan has set up two international chapters - Akshaya USA and Akshaya Netherlands - that organize several high profile fund raisers.
Narayanan Krishnan says any good cause always faces opposition. What is true and what is not can only be left for the police to investigate and for the courts to decide. However, a lot of fragile lives are at stake here.