/ 26 April 2011

Devotees fear for Indian guru’s charity empire

Deep grief in India over the death of guru Sathya Sai Baba is compounded by one practical concern among followers: who will run his hugely wealthy trust and its myriad of charitable schemes.

The spiritual leader, whose millions of followers across the globe believe had supernatural powers, used donations to build up a sprawling empire of free hospitals, schools, clinics, prayer centres and other properties and assets.

His trust, which has often been criticised for lack of transparency, is estimated to be worth up to $9-billion. But its future is in doubt after Sai Baba died aged 85 on Sunday without leaving a will or a named successor.

Devotees, who often credit Sai Baba for magically healing them of illnesses or providing free life-saving medical operations, say they worry that any battle for succession may taint the guru’s shining legacy.

“We want the trust to continue Baba’s work. There are many who are eyeing the top position for the money. This is not acceptable,” said Narayanan Ravi, a follower in Sai Baba’s hometown of Puttaparthi in India’s south-east.

The Andhra Pradesh state government has tried to curb speculation about the future.

“Baba still lives with us and all the matters of the trust are in order,” state chief minister N Kiran Kumar Reddy said within hours of his death. “There’ll be no change. The trust will continue to function the way it did.”

The announcement did little to dampen rumours that the organisation had grown so large that the state government was considering taking it over.

Sai Baba established ashrams in 126 countries as well as hospitals in Puttaparthi and Bangalore, according to his website. The trust also runs a university, museum and aid projects providing drinking water.

Founded in 1972, the trust has always been unclear about its hierarchy but most observers say the key influences are now long-time secretary K Chakravarthi and RJ Ratnakar, son of Sai Baba’s younger brother.

Other trustees include a retired vice-chancellor of the university, a former Supreme Court judge and the trust’s accountant.

For the guru’s followers, the uncertainty added to distress over his death as they prepared for his burial on Wednesday.

“People would donate money, gold, silver to the trust to express their love and devotion,” said Radha Gopalchari, a member of the Sai Baba branch in New Delhi who says he gave a plot of land in 1999.

“I hope the trust will remember to make good use of gifts, which people gave after their prayers were answered by Sai Baba.”

Also bound up with the trust’s fate is the town of Puttaparthi itself.

It grew from a small village into a hectic pilgrimage site due to Sai Baba’s presence and now boasts an airport, numerous hotels and hundreds of other related businesses ranging from travel agents to trinket stalls.

Whether devotees will still pour in without Sai Baba’s public meetings and regular appearances is unclear — and a fall in donations could mean tough times ahead for the trust.

“It’s quite natural that the flow of funds is bound to slow down drastically after the Baba,” KAN Moorthy, a businessman from Puttaparthi, told the Hindu newspaper.

“The future of his good work in the education and healthcare space depends largely on how the existing funds are managed.” – AFP