IRCS at the crossroads - I

NEW DELHI, NOV. 1. The Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS) held its Annual General Meeting (AGM) after a gap of 12 years last month. Lying in a state of disarray for more than a decade, it ought to have been a matter for rejoicing. But unfortunately, the humanitarian organisation of national importance has been dragged to the courts for the first time in its history for the ``failure'' of both governance and management of its affairs.

In the last decade, the IRCS suffered serious managerial failures because it was headless. As stop-gap arrangements, Health Ministry bureaucrats were deputed as acting Secretary-Generals (SG). These included the then Director-General of Health Services, Dr. A. K. Mukherjee, from 1990-96, followed by the next DGHS, Dr. S.P. Aggarwal, during 1999-2000.

Given their dual charge, insiders allege, they hardly found time for the IRCS. Not a single AGM was convened after 1989. Nor were accounts presented or budgets approved, even as administrative and financial irregularities went on right under the nose of the Union Health Ministry, nodal Ministry.

Sources allege that the IRCS - created under a special Act of the IRCS Act XV of 1920 - becomes the Health Ministry's baby when desired by the Minister, who generally assumes charge as the society chairman. Other times, it is treated worse than an orphan. Both the situations are undeniably detrimental to the vitality and capacity of this great organisation, otherwise synonymous with bringing emergency assistance to millions of poor and the needy in general, particularly the victims of natural calamities.

Today, the IRCS has a regular SG - Dr.Vimala Ramalingam - appointed last March for three years and to whose credit perhaps goes the holding of the AGM.

But a petition has been filed in the Delhi High Court by the patron and Managing Body (MB) member, Mr.V.K.Luthra and Mr.Dilip Kumar Choudhury, also an MB member, seeking quashing of the appointment of Dr.Ramalingam, alleging that the President of India - who is also the IRCS president - was misled into approving her name for the post.

The selection procedure has come under attack because once the post is advertised, the MB screens and shortlists candidates for the President's approval. But the petitioners have alleged that no application was forwarded through the proper channel by Dr.Ramalingam, who was then a senior technical officer in Tamil Nadu AIDS Control Society.

In fact, six of the 12 elected MB members - Ms.Renuka Devi Barkataki (Guwahati), Mr.A.S.Grewal (Punjab), Mr.I.C.Das (Orissa), Mr.Dileep Salgaocar (Goa), Ms.Kamla Gidwani (Delhi) and Dr.K.L.Batra (Haryana) - in separate letters of dissent to Dr.S.P.Aggarwal, alleged interference by the Health Ministry in screening applications.

These members said that during the MB meeting held on July 28, 1999, the mandate of the MB was not considered which actually cleared the name of Mr.Shailendra Agnihotri. Instead, Dr.Aggarwal - allegedly at the behest of the then Health Minister, Mr.Dalit Ezhilmalai - mooted the name of Dr.Vimala Ramalingam, taking the MB by surprise. The successive Health Minister, Dr. A. Shanmugam, reportedly then got the Presidential approval suo motu.

The letters of dissent provoked the then Minister of State for Health, Dr.A.K.Patel, to write to the IRCS chairman on September 30,1999, seeking ``re-advertisement'' of the post. But, according to Mr.Choudhury, the society was pressured into issuing an appointment letter to Dr.Ramalingam in February 2000.

Since March 2000 when Dr.Ramalingam assumed charge - four ranks higher than her previous post - the going has been tough for her. She is accused of squandering the corpus fund to renovate her official bungalow and appointing personal staff in violation of the IRCS Act.

The petitioners have also charged Dr.Ramalingam with spending the funds raised in the name of IRCS for the Gujarat quake victims on 188 foreigners who actually rendered help at the quake site instead of IRCS volunteers under her leadership. This, again is a setback because relief operations were surrendered to foreign agencies.

Apparently, the IRCS appealed for Rs. 60 crores following the Bhuj quake. But given the magnitude of the tragedy, donations came in spontaneously to the tune of Rs. 100 crores - the highest-ever collection in the history of IRCS for a single tragedy.

While MB members say that donations have nothing to do with the SG and depends on the charitable disposition of international donors given the enormity of the situation, Dr.Ramalingam is convinced that she brought in the funds. And she sees no harm if the donor agencies send their representatives to handle the funds.

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