In the past nine years, AOL’s Indian Trusts Have Received Over Rs 3310000000 As Foreign Contributions

The site of the World Cultural Festival being dismantled. Surender Solanki
06 May, 2016

As reported in an earlier story, the volunteer-based non-government organisation, the Art of Living (AOL) group’s overseas trusts are not only asset-rich but also rake in a handsome amount of revenue on an annual basis. The group has 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 finances for the rest of the countries that the group is established in were inaccessible.

Apart from receiving massive foreign contributions over the last decade, one of the Indian trusts had received cash contributions of Rs 5.54 crore for the quarter ending 31 March. This is surprising given AOL's claim to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on 10 March. Responding to the NGT's order to pay Rs 5 crore as fine for the damage caused to the Yamuna floodplains during the its World Culture Festival, AOL said it was unable to pay as they were charitable organisation, and needed time to raise the funds. The AOL did, then, pay Rs 25 lakh. However, in an NGT proceeding on 3 April, instead of submitting cash, it gave a bank guarantee of Rs 4.75 crore.

Over the last few months, I have been probing the assets of the AOL group, both overseas and Indian. The previous story highlighted the massive asset base that AOL has across the globe. Here, I examine the Rs 331.55 crore foreign contributions, mostly in cash and in kind, that have accrued to four AOL Indian trusts since the 2007 financial year.

Of the AOL’s four trusts—the Ved Vignan Maha Vidya Peeth (VVMP), the International Association for Human Values (IAHV), the Sri Sri RaviShankar trust and the Sri Sri Vidya Mandir Trust—the first two have branches operating in other countries. For instance, VVMP, a non-profit, is operational in Nashua, New Hampshire, in the United States of America. An IAHV trust set up by Ravi Shankar, the spiritual leader of AOL, in 1997, is also registered in a number of countries, including France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and many others. This trust is also registered in St Lucia, a notorious tax haven.

According to the AOL website, the Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Vidya Mandir Trust, founded in 1999, works as “the educational wing of the Art of Living, to promote holistic education in a stress free and child friendly environment.” In less than two decades after its foundation, it already boasts of around 100 educational campuses spanning the education spectrum from pre-primary to post-graduate studies in Management, Ayurveda, and even journalism. The Sri Sri Ravishankar trust, as per its Foreign Contribution Regulation Act contributions record, is based in Bangalore.

Over the course of my investigation, I discovered that one of the Indian trusts, IAHV India, which operates from Delhi, had received cash contributions amounting to Rs 5.54 crore for the quarter ending March 2016. On 11 March, another AOL trust, the Vyakti Vikas Kendra India, which has been representing the foundation before the NGT, gave an undertaking to the tribunal that it would pay the remaining balance of Rs 4.75 crore in three weeks. As I noted in the previous story, this has yet to happen—even though the World Cultural Festival was given the go-ahead on the grounds that the entire amount of Rs 5 crore would be paid up before the event was underway.

On 3 April, instead of submitting the cash, VVKI gave a bank guarantee despite the Indian branch of IAHV having received Rs 5.54 crore in cash contributions. What’s interesting is that the FCRA records of the IAHV do not distinguish between any contributions received in kind or in cash. The contributions received have been listed in rupees.

Classified under the broad label “social purpose,” these contributions include donations from large corporations such as the technology company Intel Technology India Pvt ltd (Rs 22.18 lakh), from the tyre companies Goodyear South Asia Tyres Pvt ltd and Goodyear India Pvt ltd (a total of Rs 184.49 lakh), from the global behemoth financial service provider and asset manager BNY Mellon (Rs 82.54 lakh) and also from one PricewaterhouseCoopers Service Delivery Center (Kolkata) Private Limited. In response to my queries regarding their accounts, the AOL media team said that, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, a multi-national auditing firm, is also the auditor for the International Art of Living Foundation. Both Barclays Bank PLC and Barclays Shared Services Pvt Ltd—also contributed a total of Rs 2.08 crore.

(It is important to note that the records for the cash contributions received for the quarter ending March 2016 is only for the IAHV, not for the other three trusts.)

(For FY 15, foreign contributions included balance carried forward from previous years and the interest received as that is how the regulating authority has treated the data submitted by the AOL Indian trusts.)

By the end of FY 2015, the unutilized cash from the foreign contributions received for that year alone was a whopping Rs 9.18 crore, more than enough to cover the Rs 5 crore initial fine. Furthermore, out of the overall Rs 110.4 crore received as foreign contribution by all the four trusts, Rs 7.5 crore was invested in term deposits. In addition to this amount, assets valued at Rs 8.74 crore were purchased from the Rs 110.4 crore received. Any of these assets could have been mobilised—individually or partially—to cover the Rs 5 crore fine. But for reasons unknown, they were not.

As I probed further, it emerged that the four Indian trusts were receiving their foreign contributions from affiliate AOL trusts operating overseas. As mentioned in the earlier story, earning of the foreign trusts were through two main routes—either from the fees received for courses and events or from the contributions made by institutional and individual donors. These contributions received overseas, it turned out, are remitted back to India. Foreign trusts from USA, UK, Netherlands, Switzerland, Oman, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Africa, New Zealand, Malaysia, Germany, Canada, France, Indonesia, UAE, Bahrain—and several more—come trickling into the country.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that, since FY 07, the four Indian trusts have received a monumental Rs 121.34 crore from its affiliates spread across the world. Accounting for other individual and institutional contributions takes the figure up to Rs 331.55 crore.

In none of the years for which the foreign contributions records are available has the remittance received ever slipped below the Rs 15 crore mark (barring FY 16, as records of only one trust are available and that too for just one quarter).

The AOL group is an asset-rich, cash-rich organisation that is in incredible financial health, thanks largely to its millions of followers. Their participation and contributions feed this organisation that has tapped into this endless cash-flow to branch out into business domains such as FMCG products, travel, software, ayurveda medicines, that seem far removed from spirituality. Simply put, the AOL group is far from being unable to pay Rs 5 crore.