ISKON’s Akshaya Patra runs into rough weather over funds irregularities

The organisation, which provides mid-day meal to school children, has been accused of misusing government funds and violating provisions of Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act

The demand is growing strong for a government inquiry into the alleged misappropriation of funds at ISKON’s Akshaya Patra Foundation that caters to schools under the government mid-day-meal (MDM) scheme.

Following the resignation of four trustees of the foundation — former CFOs of Infosys Mohandas Pai and V Balakrishnan; Raj Kondur, co-founder of Chrys Capital; and Abhay Jain, advisor to Manipal Education & Medical Group, who quit amid speculation over governance issues — civil society members wrote to the Karnataka government demanding an impartial inquiry into the alleged misuse and diversion of government funds (meant for mid-day-meal scheme) to the temple trust of ISKON.

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Besides, the civil society members demanded that the government should cancel all contracts with Akshaya Patra Foundation and stop disbursing funds under any scheme until the investigations are complete.

The Akshaya Patra Foundation did not respond to an email sent by The Federal.

Over the years, NGOs have taken an active role in distributing meals to school children under the mid-day-meal scheme. Akshaya Patra, which started as a small initiative catering to about 1,500 school children across five schools in 2000, now caters to 1.8 million school children across 16,856 schools in 12 states and two Union territories in India.

As per the Foundation, while 40-50% of its expenditure is met by contribution that comes from the states’ subsidies, for the remaining money, it depends on donations.

During FY 2019-20, the Foundation received ₹248 crore as donations and subsidies worth ₹217 crore. The cost per meal was estimated to be at ₹14.16, as per the Foundation’s annual report.

Quoting an internal audit committee’s observation, The Wire said, “Over the past two years, several whistle-blower complaints were received regarding the functioning of the units/unit presidents of the Foundation. After due investigation, in almost all cases, it has been established that there has been wrongdoings on the part of unit presidents and/or other missionaries…”

The civil society members demanded that if the charges of misuse of government funds and violation of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act are found to be true, the government should initiate criminal proceedings against the organisation.

Controversies are not new to the Foundation. In 2013, a HRD ministry report (review of MDM scheme in Karnataka) noted that despite officials requesting for records on donations received for midday meals, the Foundation had not provided the relevant information.

Also, it was found that the Foundation’s logo was more prominently displayed than that of the government’s MDM programme. Back then, the officials had ordered the Foundation to tell school teachers that the food being served in school was under the aegis of the government of India and not by Akshya Patra.

Again, the Foundation ran into a rough weather after reports emerged about the components of food distributed under the scheme. The Foundation excluded onion and garlic (reflecting a section of society’s satvik food beliefs) and refused to serve eggs to children despite several states mandating eggs be distributed as a nutritional supplement.

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