Indian NGO, the Art of Living (AOL) group organized a World Cultural Festival in Delhi between 11-12 March 2016. Headed by Guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, AOL aims to help and heal the society by involving a spiritual approach and follows guidelines of peace, brotherhood, donations and relief.
An enormous stage—1200 feet long, 200 feet wide and 40 feet high was erected. The grand event was held on the floodplains of the Yamuna river and was attended by over 3.5 million participants including VIP personalities. But was the event held at the cost of devastating the fragile ecosystem around already polluted Yamuna?
A team of NGT supervised by Shashi Shekhar went to the site on 20 february 2016 to find out the level of damage done. 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.” This led to an interim fine of 5 crores on AOL.
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.
The finances of AOL bodies are filed with US, UK, Netherlands, Germany trade registers and AOL firms are operating from Switzerland.
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.
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.
As is evident from the table, 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.
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 arabianbusiness.com, 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 the AOL media team refused to submit the accounts of its Swiss firms. They said “all the relevant details of the Art of Living are available in the public domain and on our websites.” Additionally, in reply to our request for Shankara Universal GmbH, the AOL media team told , “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.”
Investigations 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.