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Govt steps in to monitor Sai Baba assets, projects
Andhra Pradesh chief minister Kiran Kumar Reddy (centre) and governor ESL Narsimhan (right) pay their last respects to Sai Baba at Puttaparthi on Sunday. Picture by G Vijayalakshmi

April 24: Sai Baba’s death has raised the question who will now manage his umbrella trust that oversaw his philanthropic operations worldwide and is said to have assets between Rs 40,000 crore and Rs 1.5 lakh crore.

The Andhra Pradesh government has formed a five-member committee headed by finance secretary L.V. Subramaniam to scrutinise the Sathya Sai Central Trust’s affairs, ensure smooth running of its projects and prevent a succession battle.

But as of this evening, many Puttaparthi ashram workers and shopkeepers were expressing the fear that the flow of devotees would dry up and the trust would no longer look after them, forcing them to look for livelihood elsewhere.

Government sources said chief minister Kiran Reddy had ruled out a government takeover of the trust saying he didn’t want “headaches”, but asserted he would not let it “become a playground of vested interests, either”.

Three names have emerged as possible heads of the trust, since Sai Baba did not name a successor. The monk had prophesied that he would live till 93, after which his successor would be born in Karnataka’s Mandya district in 2030.

The trust has said in a statement that “there will be no vacuum” and is expected to name a chairperson. The front-runner seems to be K. Chakravarthi, former IAS officer and the son of C. Rajagopalachari. He has been trust secretary since 1994 but has been accused by some devotees of keeping Sai Baba away from the masses and his family.

Villagers in and around Puttaparthi claim that Sai Baba’s late brother Jankiram — who was also Anantpur district Congress president — used to meet them, solve their problems and often took them to the guru. But after his death, Chakravarthi became too powerful.

A second candidate is Jankiram’s son R.J. Ratnakar Raju, an MBA and the only family member of Sai Baba in the trust, but he does not seem to enjoy the confidence of most trust members. The third contender is Sathyajit, 33, Sai Baba’s personal attendant since 2002.

The trust, established in September 1972, oversees projects across 165 countries. From the vast ashrams in Puttaparthi and Whitefield (near Bangalore), it runs 25,000 temples, 75 to 100 hospitals and clinics, and nearly 3,150 educational institutions including two universities. Its funds have been built through donations from an estimated 30 million devotees, but the details of its income (entirely tax-free) and expenditures are shrouded in secrecy.

Since 1980, it has been under the direct purview of the Union home ministry (under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) and is exempted from filing annual reports to the state government.

“The trust is not answerable to the state government, so we have no documents relating to it,” principal secretary, endowments, K.V. Ramanachary said.

The trust recently denied media reports of funds diversion and allegations that two truckloads of ashram documents, cash and gold were moved out of Puttaparthi.

“Nobody dared raise these issues when Sai Baba was in good health but now everybody wants to know if something is missing,” rued Parama Shiva, a veteran ashram worker.

Most of Sai Baba’s institutions function like corporate offices with high-speed broadband, computers and hotlines, and are run by professional chartered accountants and skilled managers.

Till now, Sai Baba chaired the trust, whose members include Chakravarti (secretary), Ratnakar Raju (Sai Baba’s nephew), former Chief Justice of India P.N. Bhagwati, Mumbai chartered accountant Indulal Shah, former chief vigilance commissioner S.V. Giri, former CII national president V. Srinivasan of the TVS group, Bangalore advocate S.S. Naganand, former Canara Bank chairperson J.V. Shetty, and former Indian Overseas Bank chairperson T.K. Bhagwat.

Hometown fears

Kitchen fires stayed unlit in most homes as Puttaparthi pondered life without its Baba.

“I don’t know where to go; nobody will come to Puttaparthi and buy from us,” feared Purushottam, who sells Sai Baba mementos on Puttaparthi’s main road.

Even the army of 275 volunteers who depend on the ashram’s charity and carry out chores are panicky. “We don’t know what the trust will do now. Without Sai Baba, visitors may stop coming and the coffers may dry up,” said Shivlal, 78.

K.A.N. Murthy, a hotel owner and a weaving community leader, said: “Without Sai Baba, I do not see any charm in living in Puttaparthi. I would rather leave in search of peace and livelihood.”

Vegetable seller Mangamma, 46, wondered what would happen if the trust stopped offering free education and health care.

A district official said Puttaparthi used to be a hamlet of 45 households in the 1970s but thanks to Sai Baba, had grown into a thriving town of 50,000 with all the amenities of a municipal corporation.

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