The money collected through multiple crowdfunding sites amounted to close to Rs 7 lakh but never reached the farmers.

Fund misappropriation Chennai Memes FB page in controversy over funds for farmers
news Controversy Tuesday, January 02, 2018 - 15:09

Over the last week, startling allegations have emerged against popular Facebook page Chennai Memes for mismanagement of funds collected for familes of farmers, who committed suicide due to debt in Tamil Nadu. Ironically, these accusations themselves are mainly in the form of memes on several parody pages, which allege that the group has misappropriated funds that they crowd sourced.

The money collected through multiple crowd funding sites amounted to around Rs 7 lakh, but has not yet reached the farmers. 

The accusations against Chennai Memes were first raised by a page called ‘Share for Farmers’, which is a campaign initiated by a Paris based not-for-profit organisation called 'My Indian Startup'. Its proprietor, Sathiya Nathan, who lives in France, accused Chennai Memes of being complicit in this irregularity through a Facebook Live on December 26. 

He stated that he had begun collecting money to pay off farmer loans through Milaap, a crowd funding website, when EduDharma, another platform with similar services, approached him. 

"I thought why not give an Indian social entrepreneurship platform an opportunity, and agreed to let them collect the money," says Sathiya. 

The co-founder of EduDharma, Balaji Narayanaswamy, is a former member of Chennai Memes. According to Sathiya, Balaji allegedly suggested that they associate this campaign with the popular page, which has one million followers, in order to increase its reach. Several posts which carried the logos of My Indian Startup, Chennai Memes and EduDharma were put out to urge people to contribute to the cause. Indiegogo was another crowdfunding platform involved in collecting money for farmers. 

"The campaign started towards the end of March. For three months, I was under the impression that money was being collected. But I was getting no response from EduDharma when I sent them queries on transferring the amount," he adds. 

A total of Rs 7 lakh was collected through the sites EduDharma (Rs 4.5 lakh) and Indiegogo (Rs 2.5 lakh). So where exactly is that money now?

Indiegogo Collection

While Chennai Memes says Rs 2.5 lakh was collected from the Indiegogo site, My Indian Startup claims the amount is Rs 2.1 lakh. What they do agree upon, however, is that both parties are unaware of where that money is now.

Sri Ganesh, a former member of the Chennai Memes group, was handling the fund transfer from Indiegogo. Sathiya agrees that he gave them permission to take over the funds, and was under the assumption that it was in their possession.

"But when I tried to transfer the money to the Chennai Memes account it didn't happen," says Ganesh. "Because Indiegogo was not able to transfer it to an Indian account, I tried to transfer it to my friend, who has an American account. The money was sent to him and he is in Ghana, we are trying to reach him. Sathiya knows about the transaction," he adds.

Sathiya however denies any knowledge of this. "I thought Chennai Memes had the money. On December 28, Indiegogo sent me a mail saying that the money was with someone who I later came to know was Ganesh's friend," he says.

Funds through EduDharma  

Even while the money was flowing in through the crowd funding site, My Indian Startup and Chennai Memes had a disagreement on how it should be spent. While Sathiya was insistent that any money they received should be directly used to pay pending loans, Chennai Memes wanted to buy cows for the identified families.

Chennai Memes says, “We were looking to identify families which have lost their breadwinner (a farmer) to suicide due to mounting debt. With the amount we got, we did not think that it was possible to pay off loans considering that several farmers owed even interest upto Rs 4 lakh. We thought that if we buy the family a cow, they can use its milk to earn money through the year.”

Sathiya however called the idea a mere attempt to create a photo opportunity, which would allow EduDharma and Chennai Memes to further their brand. He did not want EduDharma to transfer money without his permission as the end use was still not decided.

But after the usual transaction fee was deducted, a total of Rs 4.1 lakh was transferred by EduDharma to the account held by a Chennai Memes administrator, Gautham. 

“I am the initiator of the campaign and all communication with EduDharma about the money was happening through my ‘Share for Farmers’ profile,” says Sathiya. “And it makes no sense that the money was finally transferred to Chennai Memes. I have a registered non-profit which is already working for the cause,” he says. 

Chennai Memes for its part claims it was not aware that Sathiya was the founder of a registered not-for-profit. Gautham tells TNM that the entire campaign merely took place as a friendly gesture aimed at social welfare. “It was all trust based. I had not spoken to Sathiya about this issue. Balaji (co-founder of EduDharma and former Chennai Memes team member) told me they both had a word. I thought the money came to us because we fall under Mad over Memes Private limited,” he said.

Jallikattu

Chennai Memes has earlier collected money for fishermen following the Jallikattu protests. The money was handled by them and the documents to show ‘correct’ expenditure were put up on the page by the administrator for the public to see.

This time around however, they remained evasive. 

Misappropriation of funds

In May, Rs 3.7 lakh was given to an activist based out of another country for assisting an education project, claims Gautham. 

"It was given for a good cause, so I didn’t see the problem in the matter’, says Gautham. 

“Without my permission, the money -- collected for the farmers -- was given for another cause,” says Sathiya.

The money came back to Guna’s account in September. “I had transferred it initially to his account, and he had given it for the other cause,” says Gautham.

However, the activist told TNM that no such transaction took place and Guna had not transferred any money to her.

After this, Chennai Memes went ahead and decided to allocate funds to another group called ‘Vivasaya Naadu’, but Sathiya says his approval was not taken for this either.

The Chennai Memes team decided to give Rs 50,000 to ‘Vivasaya Naadu’ as a first installment.

Chennai Memes member embezzles fund?

Guna, who initially gave Rs 50,000 to Vivasaya Naadu, allegedly took back Rs 20,000 claiming he had an emergency medical expense. He did not inform Gautham about this, or that he had used the remaining money for his 'personal reasons'. 

"He kept the funds (Rs 3.7 lakhs) without my knowledge. I had no idea that this was happening," claims Gautham. "He has returned 70% of the Rs 3.7 lakh he had," he adds. At the time of writing this story, TNM was unable to speak to Guna despite attempts to contact him. 

Sathiya however remains furious about the complete lack of consultation. His anger is however directed at EduDharma, who he claims is responsible for the funds not reaching the right hands. 

EduDharma meanwhile has refuted all charges made by Sathiya. 

In a Facebook post on December 30, they said:

"The campaign was initiated by one of the Chennai Memes Admin of corresponding period and Supported by EduDharma projecting the cause - “supporting affected and needy farmers.”

"As a crowdfunding platform, EduDharma has done only the fundraising part online, with our platforms policies, procedures and regulations which is conveyed to every campaigner (in this case Chennai Memes) right before the campaign was published live in our platform.

"As per the policies of EduDharma, once a campaign ends, the raised amount will be transferred to the respective campaigner (In this case the registered campaigner is Chennai Memes) and so, from the total funds collected, Rs. 4,17,618 (After reducing Payment Gateway charges) has been transferred to Chennai Memes Account (The Campaign Creator) on 02/05/2017. The final decision taken by the whole team was to provided Cows for Suicide farmers family."

As the two groups continue to lock horns and confusion persists, the money remains unspent even after all these months.

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