Allegations of harassment, swindling and even talk of hawala money are doing the rounds in the state.

How a crowdfund that raised Rs 12 crore for a Kerala womans surgery has become a huge controversy
news Controversy Saturday, July 18, 2020 - 19:47

It was in June that 22-year-old Varsha from Kannur in Kerala requested people to send money to save her ailing mother who urgently needed a liver transplant.

Varsha’s mother Radha, a native of Thaliparamba, was admitted to the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS) in Kochi, and Varsha had asked for Rs 20 lakh to be able to pay for the surgery.

However, her video opened up a flood gate of support and she ended up with Rs 60 lakh in her  account within 24 hours, and a little over a crore the following day. Eventually, Varsha received Rs 1 crore and 21 lakhs in response to her campaign and her story was covered by the media as an inspiring one.

However, events that have transpired since the campaign have triggered a massive row in Kerala. Allegations of harassment, swindling and even talk of hawala money are doing the rounds in the state.

Varsha had raised the money with the help of 'social workers' Sajan Kechery and Firoz Kunnamparambil.

It was Sajan who had connected with Varsha, prior to Radha’s surgery, and initiated the video campaign to raise funds for the mother- daughter duo. Sajan’s friends including social worker

Firoz Kunnamparambil had shared Varsha’s video and reportedly helped build traction for the cause.

The social workers also enjoy a huge fanbase on social media. Through the platform, they raise  funds for the needy including patients requiring medical treatment.

They claim that their modus operandi includes collecting lots of funds for certain viral campaigns and then distributing excess funds from successful campaigns for other causes. It is unclear how this diversion of money is accounted for.In this particular case, trouble started when a group of social workers alleged that Varsha had refused to hand over the excess funds from her campaign to support other needy patients who were promised help.

On Tuesday, Sajan Kechery, who is a Thrissur based social worker, took to Facebook accusing her of denying help to needy patients.

“We had an arrangement with Varsha prior to her mother’s surgery. There was another patient who urgently required a liver transplant. We were in the process of raising funds for him when Varsha’s issue came up. So before the campaign, Varsha had agreed that the excess funds from it would go to support this patient who needed a liver transplant which comes to Rs 15 lakh,” Sajan says

However, following the campaign, Sajan alleged that Varsha was not responding to calls and refused to ‘transfer the excess funds of Rs 25 lakh for other surgeries which were promised’.

After videos posted by Sajan and Firoz sparked a discussion, Varsha too posted a video on Facebook explaining her side of the story. In it, she alleged that she was harassed by the group through relentless phone calls and demands to transfer the excess fund.

She also alleged that Sajan had asked for her account to be made into a joint-account, as he would then be able to access the funds.

“I had not denied excess money to other needy patients. I had only asked them to wait for three months as my mother and I are still recovering (Varsha donated a part of her liver to Radha) and that there might be further complications in my mother’s case, which might require more funds,” Varsha added. She also said that she had funded the treatment of a young patient in Amrita Hospital with the money she had received through the campaign.

The issue has now turned into a full blown controversy with several groups supporting Varsha, who has alleged harassment from Sajan and his friends. There are others who have accused the 22-year-old of being ‘greedy’.

Most of these social workers have released videos and audio conversations with Varsha alleging that she was not ready to help others and that they wanted her to keep Rs 80 lakh and donate the rest. However, in all the conversations, Varsha categorically maintains that she was ready to donate the excess amount after a few weeks and wanted to see if her mother developed any complications. She has also questioned why Sajan insisted on a joint account.

FIR registered against Sajan, Firoz and two others for harassment

On Friday, based on Varsha’s complaint, the Cheranelloor police station registered a case against Sajan Kechery, Firoz Kunnamparambil, Shaheed K Moideen and PMA Salam. All of them were involved in Varsha’s campaign and had allegedly pressured her to transfer funds.

The FIR was based on Varsha’s allegations and reportedly upon the orders of Health Minister KK Shailaja.

Her complaint alleges that the accused social workers harassed her via phone calls and spread defamatory videos about her on Facebook. It also mentions that Sajan had demanded that he be given access to her account.

Varsha had received Rs 31 lakh through Google Pay into her account. The major sum from the campaign had gone to her mother’s bank account.

Suspicions of hawala racket involved in fundraising?

After suspicions were raised regarding the funds raised, Kochi DCP G Poonguzhali IPS ordered for a detailed investigation into the amount received through the crowdfunding campaign.

The probe was ordered as large funds were transferred in a single transaction into Varsha’s and her mother’s account. While allegations of black money and hawala racket were made in the incident, Kochi Range Inspector General Vijay Sakhare said that there was no chance that this was hawala money as all the donations were deposited in a bank account and that’s not the channel that hawala operators use.

“Hawala is an unofficial channel of transferring money. These are crowdsourced funds, which means that all of it has come via bank accounts. If it has come through banks, then it cannot involve hawala money,” he said.

According to reports, a large amount running into several lakhs was deposited into Varsha’s mother’s account in a single transaction from a charitable trust registered abroad. Another donor transferred Rs 5 lakh. These donations will now be probed by the police.

Questions that the controversy raises

Though the police will investigate whether there was any foul play or harassment, the row does raise some pertinent questions.

When people contribute to a particular cause, is the person who receives the money then under duress to pay others? Does she or he not have the rights to retain the entire amount?

Should social workers not have written agreements with people they ‘help’ with terms and conditions?

In many of their Facebook videos, Firoz and others say that they have raised lakhs and sometimes more than a crore for many campaigns and that the money has been diverted to other ‘needy people’. How are such transactions being audited?

Firoz Kunnamparambil: Past controversies

Among the four men who had helped Varsha is Firoz Kunnamparambil, a social worker according to his Facebook profile, who engages in social welfare activities and raises money through crowdfunds

A quick search on the internet reveals that Firoz Kunnamparambil has earlier too, been in the eye of controversies. In October 2019, the Kerala State Women’s Commission took a suo motu case against him for labelling a woman ‘a prostitute’ and verbally abusing her for criticising him. 

In June 2019, Firoz took to Facebook to register his protest against a Bank of India branch, which refused to transfer a sum of Rs 1 crore 17 lakhs to another bank account. The sum was raised through a crowdfunding campaign and the bank had reportedly cited technical difficulties in transferring such a huge sum. 

Following his post against Bank of India, hundreds of his followers commented, made violent threats and wrote abusive comments. Some of the comments even threatened to form a mob and vandalise the concerned branch. The issue soon sparked a controversy in the state.

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