One of the trustees who resigned, Mohandas Pai, told TNM that allegations of misuse of funds led to friction between independent trustees and ISKCON missionaries on the board.

Around six cooks standing around a kitchen board wearing blue hair nets and cutting cabbages to add to the midday meal served by the Akshaya Patra foundationakshayapatra.org
Delve Controversy Wednesday, November 18, 2020 - 08:12

The resignation of four independent trustees of the Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF) has raised questions over the future of a programme that distributes over 18 lakh meals every day in 12 states across the country. The four trustees – former Infosys CEO Mohandas Pai; advisor to Manipal education and medical group Abhay Jain; former Infosys CFO V Balakrishnan; and co-founder of ChrysCapital Raj Kondur – have alleged that an audit committee formed to look into allegations of misuse of funds in the foundation, was targeted by the Chairman, Madhu Pandit Dasa, and his supporters on the board in order to resist transparency.  

Mohandas Pai and Abhay Jain have served on the board for 20 years, and said that as the programme expanded to other parts of the country beyond Karnataka, they started urging for more efficient procedures to ensure checks and balances. In the last few years, the cost per meal provided by APF has gone up by at least Rs 5 compared to other NGOs, and this had to be investigated. 

APF was started in the year 2000 as a public-private partnership by International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) to provide mid-day meals to schools within a 10-km radius of ISKCON temples across the country. The foundation has some trustees who are ISKCON missionaries, and others who are independent – it was expanded to include several independent trustees with corporate experience in the year 2000. It receives donations from individuals as well as CSR (corporate social responsibility) wings of private companies. The board is currently headed by Madhu Pandit Dasa who is the President of ISKCON Bangalore, with Chanchalapathi Dasa who is a Senior Vice President of ISKCON Bangalore as the vice-chairman. Both of them are missionaries of ISKCON.

Speaking to TNM, Mohandas Pai said, “The volunteers who were involved in raising funds and donations were not employees, so this used to not bring them under the disciplinary proceedings of the CEO and CFO. The same set of people would collect funds for APF and other activities. There were a few complaints by whistleblowers that funds from APF were used for another trust. We insisted on improved governance, and they have been resisting. This created friction between independent trustees and the chairman, vice chairman.” 

The issues between the independent and missionary trustees 

Sources privy to what transpired before the slew of resignations told TNM that the strife started after an independent audit committee member was brought in by the missionaries of ISKCON. For the first one year, nobody had an issue with him; but when the independent trustees raised issues over the escalating cost of meals and the audit committee started investigating this in detail, the missionary members of the board started questioning the credibility of the audit committee. They used the said member’s past association with a company – whose parent company, way after his resignation, had run into financial trouble – as the reason to halt the audit committee’s investigation. The idea, the source added, was to conceal information that was uncomfortable to some of the missionary members of the board.

Whistleblowers and insiders also alleged that there is a possibility of a leakage by way of grains, construction costs and diversion of donations in the APF program. Funds were allegedly gathered for temples and other activities by using APF’s name and credibility. 

Initially, there were five independent trustees and three missionaries attached with ISKCON board. Gradually this ratio changed to four independents and six missionaries on the board of trustees, skewing the balance. The independent trustees say they repeatedly called for a reconstitution of the board, because with the missionaries in majority now, there was an issue of the board being insider-heavy which the independents felt would hamper accountability. But their demands were not met. 

Meanwhile, the independent trustees alleged, several efforts were made to thwart the audit committee.

Abhay Jain, who resigned earlier this year, corroborated issues flagged by Mohandas Pai and told TNM that he, too, was anguished about the lack of transparency in the functioning. “I resigned in February due to governance issues. I hoped that some pressure might be put on them and that the core issues will be rectified. All our concerns and red flags were put on record before we resigned. We urge even now that the new board should be independent-heavy and the new trustees should go through all our emails before joining.” The Board currently constitutes four missionaries and three independents.  

Meanwhile, activists and concerned citizens are expressing apprehension over the fate of the mid-day meal programme that has reportedly served over 3.3 billion meals over the last 20 years. Students from over 19,000 schools across the country receive food from APF that is considered to be of hygienic quality, and the programme is one of the largest in the world. The programme has been controversial too, as it serves vegetarian satvik food (without onions and garlic) and has been questioned by many for its nutritional value and the attempt at pushing a particular diet.

TNM reached out to APF for a comment on the allegations made and has received no response at the time this story was published. 

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