In his article (Open Page, May 15, 2011) P. M. Bhargava sought to evaluate ‘objectively and unemotionally,' the life and legacy of Sathya Sai Baba. Like the writer, I too come from a scientific background with, however, one important difference, namely that I have spent the last 18 years in Baba's ashram, following my retirement in 1992. Thus my response is based on personal knowledge.
Mr. Bhargava ascribes five reasons for Baba's ‘rise to fame,' as he puts it. Three of these are connected with religion and the issue of miracles, subjects on which people tend to have sharply divided opinions, to which of course they are perfectly entitled; I shall therefore not discuss them. The last two concern first, the succour and peace that people who came to Baba sought and, secondly, his charitable works “like opening hospitals and providing potable water to villagers.” These are what I wish to comment on.
Let me start with the last mentioned, which is summarily dismissed by Mr. Bhargava in exactly 36 words with the condescending remark that “there are innumerable people in the country who engage in such acts to avoid undue attention focussed on their ill-gotten wealth. Accounting of his enormous wealth has never been transparent.”
This is a sweeping comment made without offering a single piece of evidence concerning (a) ‘ill-gotten wealth' (b) ‘enormous wealth' and (c) the charge of lack of transparency. Frankly, I am stunned.
Going further into these unsubstantiated allegations — for they are nothing more than that — let us start with the issue of transparency. Baba executed all his projects via Trusts set up according to due process. Every single paisa spent on every single project came out of donations received by these Trusts via cheques and drafts from people all over the world. Some directly paid their contribution to the branch of the SBI located in the ashram; at no time was any cash received by the Trust. All accounts have always been and continue to be regularly audited and statements concerning these are furnished to all authorities concerned as required by law, including the Income-Tax Commissioner. Where foreign donations are concerned, explicit permission of the Home Ministry has been obtained to receive them and every year, full particulars are furnished in the prescribed format. It is worth adding that lately, the Home Ministry has tightened regulations across the board in view of concerns about terrorism.
Turning now to hospitals, the writer seems to be unaware that Baba's Trust has set up two Super Speciality Hospitals that provide tertiary healthcare where, among other things, cardiac and neuro-surgery are routinely performed, absolutely free — this includes everything from the initial consultation, all diagnostic tests including MRI and CT scans, surgical procedure, stay in ICU and general ward, all medicines, physiotherapy (where required), food, etc. Almost invariably, the beneficiaries are poor people who come from all over India and Nepal and occasionally from elsewhere too. During the last (financial) year, over 25,000 people were treated as inpatients, the market value of the free service rendered being close to about Rs. 250 crores. Being a Trust activity, all accounts are audited as mandated and appropriate statements submitted to public authorities concerned. There is absolutely no question whatsoever of laundering of ‘ill-gotten wealth' as alleged; in fact, there is no such wealth and there never was any, period.
Passing mention must also be made of the drinking water project executed for the tribals of the East Godavari region for the simple reason that tribals of this country have a long history of being neglected. Many years ago, Baba travelled extensively in the East Godavari region, and when it became possible, he had the water project executed even though no one asked him to. That was just one of the many ways in which he offered succour to the poor, often without their having to come to him. He did the same following the massive floods in Orissa in September 2008, when thousands of poor villagers lost their homes. The moment he heard about their loss he had seven hundred houses built in three affected districts, swiftly, quietly and, as always, without fanfare.
(A physicist by training and profession, the writer served in BARC, Mumbai, IGCAR, Kalpakkam and the DRDO. After retirement, he took up teaching in the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning (Deemed University) which he also served for one term as the Vice-Chancellor).