Despite claiming not to have 5 Crore to pay the NGT, the Art of Living has over 200 crore worth of assets and 80 crore in revenue

Founder of Art of Living Foundation Ravi Shankar holds a rose as he delivers religious teachings in Kathmandu, Nepal, 30 April 2011. Binod Joshi / AP Photo
04 May, 2016

Between 11 to 13 March 2016, the volunteer-based non-government organisation, the Art of Living (AOL) group organised a World Cultural Festival. The event, held on the floodplains of the Yamuna, in Delhi, had over 3.5 million participants plodding on the fragile ecosystem. The festival, which “demonstrated the power of unity and peace,” came at a heavy cost. The entire area of the floodplain between the river and the Delhi Noida Direct highway had been levelled flat. The small water bodies in the area had been filled up; natural vegetation had been uprooted; and most of the trees had been “lopped or removed.” An enormous stage—1200 feet long, 200 feet wide and 40 feet high—had been erected, and the floodplains were littered with construction debris.

On 20 February 2016, a team led by Shashi Shekhar, Chairman of a committee appointed by the NGT visited the site near the DND flyover to observe the damage done to the site observed. They observed “In this entire area, the flood plain has been completely destroyed, and the large number of birds and other natural life that was supported by the floodplain has vanished due to this destruction.” The resulting backlash and the NGT’s acknowledgement that AOL had caused severe damage to the floodplains saw an interim fine of Rs 5 crore levied on the organisation.

Yet, despite the damning report, the NGT asked AOL to pay the fine before the event began. But the tribunal gave the event the go-ahead, noting that it would adjust the interim fine against the final compensation that AOL would subsequently have to pay for the damage to the floodplains an amount the NGT would decide later." The fine was to be paid before the event was underway. On 11 March, Tripti Dhawan, a 69-year-old member of the board of Vyakti Vikas Kendra India (VVKI), a trust under AOL, gave an undertaking to the NGT that they would pay upto Rs 25 lakh on that very day and the remaining amount of Rs 4.75 crore would be paid over the coming three weeks. These weeks were ended on 1 April, and on 3 April, the trust requested the NGT to accept a bank guarantee of Rs 4.75 crore instead of submitting cash as it had originally undertaken.

Before agreeing to cough up the Rs 25 lakh, AOL had stated that it was unable to pay a sum as large as five crores before the event, that as a charitable organisation, it needed time to raise the amount. The AOL counsel, as reported by the Indian Express on 23 April, told the tribunal that the guarantee was as good as cash. The bench shot back, “Then why don’t you pay the cash?”

Considering AOL’s statement to the tribunal, one could be misled into assuming that the organisation is truly lacking for cash and dependent on charity from its followers. Consequently, one can’t be blamed if they think AOL’s finances are on shaky ground. However, this is far from the truth.

On conducting an an exhaustive global probe into the finances of the AOL trusts operating overseas, The Caravan found that the foundation and many of its other affiliate organisations are rolling in cash. We looked up the finances of AOL bodies filed with US, UK, Netherlands, Germany trade registers. While we were able to secure basic journal entries of three AOL firms operating from Switzerland, we were refused access to the detailed financial statements.

It is important to note that these figures are exclusive of the assets and revenues of three Swiss AOL entities, namely the International Art of Living Foundation, International Association for Human Values (IAHV) and Shankara Universal Gmbh, a limited liability company. The Caravan’s request for accounts of both the foundation and the company on 18 April were not entertained by the Swiss commercial register.

Via a global network of not-for-profits under the AOL banner, Ravi Shankar, the spiritual founder of AOL, heads over Rs 234 crore worth of assets, with over Rs 81 crore in latest revenues from the United States, United Kingdom and the Netherlands alone. The AOL website lists that the foundation has branches in over 155 countries. These figures are merely the tip of the iceberg and without proper knowledge of the assets and revenues of two Swiss entities, of which he is the president, the true picture of his real wealth will never emerge. The amount of 234 crores is derived at without access to the detailed financial statements from entities, trusts or bodies in Africa, the Middle East, South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Access was denied due to technical, logistical and banking issues.

As is evident from the tables, a majority of the earnings of these trusts comes from contributions received and course fees for holding events such as The Happiness Program (listed at $395 in the United States) or the Cursus Art of Breathing (listed at €300 in The Netherlands). In the case of Art of Living Health and Education trust, the entire revenue is almost entirely dependent on contributions made to it.

For another major non-profit, the Ved Vignan Maha Vidya Peeth, its assets in 2013 came to over 17 million. The Ved Vigyan Maha Vidya Peeth operates from New Hampshire, and whose Managing Director is Nirmala Murthy, a teacher in one of the AOL centres in the USA. The Art of Living foundation, in Fairfield, Iowa is headed by Ashwani Dhall, a software professional and the chairman of the board of AOLF for the last four years. The Art of Living Health and Education trust is based in Washington DC and its secretary is Ajay Tejasvi, a nephew of Shankar’s. Lastly, the IAHV, operating from Washington DC has Madhu Kadari, a hardware engineer, as its Treasurer. The assets of the IAHV, USA notched up slightly above 1 million. Other trusts like the Art of Living Foundation, UK; Sankara Europe BV and Shankara Europe Holding BV and the Art of Living Health and Education Trust take the total assets to over $35 million, which translates to Rs 234 crore, as per the current conversion rate.

According to the IAHV US website, the trust was formed by Shankar in 1997 as a “a global platform for humanitarian initiatives that solve problems by uplifting human values.” The IAHV is registered in a number of countries, which includes France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and many others. It is also registered in St Lucia, a notorious tax haven.

Another interesting aspect is the manner in which these not-for-profits and other entities around the world have been structured. More often than not, Shankar’s name does not figure in the list of the board members of trusts. However, he does figure prominently at the top of table as the president of the International Art of Living Foundation and as the president of the Swiss IAHV. In the journal entry of IAOLF of the Swiss trade register, Shankar’s name is been listed as Venkatratnam, Ravishankar Ramanayakanpet and his sister Bhanumathi Narsimhan has been given the position of vice president. The IAOLF is also a partner in another Swiss LLP called Shankara Universal Gmbh headed by Ajay Mathradas Khimji. The Khimji family in Oman operates in a number of sectors including consumer goods, infrastructure and industrial products and, according to the website, is one among the 50 wealthiest entities in Oman.

A number of AOL organisations across the globe work under the Shankara label. In Germany, Sri Sri Ayurveda GmbH’s share capital is held by Shankara Europe Holding BV, a Netherlands company. Shankara Europe Holding BV also owns 100 percent of Shankara Europe BV. Whether all these companies are in turn held by Shankara Universal GmbH, the Swiss LLP is a question that remained unanswered as the Swiss trade journal entry that we accessed did not state the corporate interests held by it.

In reply to a comprehensive questionnaire sent on 29 March and again on 23 April, the AOL media team refused to submit the accounts of its Swiss firms. We were told that “all the relevant details of the Art of Living are available in the public domain and on our websites.” Our attempts to find the accounts of the Swiss firms was not successful. Additionally, in reply to our request for Shankara Universal GmbH, the AOL media team told us, “Shankara Universal Limited (SUL) is a recently established company associated with the International Art of Living Foundation which is not yet fully functional. We hope to have it running by the end of the year. PricewaterhouseCoopers [the multi-national accounting firm] are our auditors for the International Art of Living Foundation.”

Our investigation suggested that Rs 234 crore was in fact a minuscule amount of the foundation’s assets. Furthermore, a large amount of what these overseas trusts of the AOL receive in charity and as event and course fees are remitted back to India as foreign contributions.